Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 5

Half-heartedly trumpeted as a potential breakthrough against the insurgency, the Iraqi elections – in the short-term at least – seem to have made the security difficulties even more intractable. Indeed, any wishful thinking by American military and political planners in Iraq and their local allies was summarily dismissed by Air Force General Richard Meyers, who recently predicted that the insurgency could last for more than 10 years.

Tracking the evolution of the Iraqi insurgency from its opening shots in May 2003 to the present yields some interesting generalizations. The most important development revolves around the identity and ultimate objectives of the insurgents. Indeed, what started as a low-key campaign by remnants of the former regime and outraged Iraqi nationalists, in due course evolved into a serious conflict largely dominated by Islamic and jihadist organizations. This is not to ignore or understate the continuing role of Ba’ath remnants and secular Arab/Iraqi nationalists in the insurgency, but to emphasize that the overall character and theme of the resistance is now Islamic.

Moreover, insofar as the Ba’ath/nationalist and Islamic/jihadist dichotomy is concerned, a clear division in operational tactics is evident. While the dominant Islamic insurgent organizations have opted for mass-casualty bombings and the whole-sale slaughter of members of the new Iraqi military and security forces, the Ba’ath network has largely confined its attacks to coalition armies and leaders of prominent Shi’a Islamic organizations. The Ba’ath network also allegedly planned for the post-occupation insurgency, with sabotage of key installations and penetration of the new power structures constituting key priorities. [1]

While there is a proliferation of small insurgent organizations, four groups have emerged as the largest and most active. They all profess to be Islamic and all but one of them can easily be categorized as salafi/jihadi. While all of them share certain core objectives – the most important being the ejection of foreign armies from Iraq – there are important differences amongst them.

Army of Ansar al-Sunna

Jaish Ansar al-Sunna (Army of the Protectors of the Traditions) has emerged as arguably the most active and lethal of the insurgent organizations. It specializes in suicide bombings, spectacular attacks against coalition armies and Iraqi security forces and the seizing and beheading of Iraqi government agents and foreigners.

Ansar al-Sunna officially declared its formation in an internet statement on September 20, 2003. Western analysts have often assumed that Ansar al-Sunna is a splinter group from the largely Kurdish Ansar al-Islam, with Sunni Arabs and foreign al-Qaeda linked militants at its core. Despite the plausibility of these assumptions, there is no real evidence to validate them. The group’s activities in the Arab regions of northern Iraq (particularly around Mosul) have been seized upon to hypothesize a link with Ansar al-Islam. But the fact is that Ansar is active throughout the entire Sunni heartland of Iraq – from the lawless areas immediately to the south of Baghdad to the epicenter of the insurgency in the Anbar province.

Ansar al-Sunna has carried out dozens of major suicide bombings, one of the most spectacular being the suicide bombing at a U.S. army base near Mosul on December 21, 2004 that killed 22 people, including 14 U.S. military personnel. In August 2004 the group seized and killed 12 Nepalese hostages. It posted the video of the massacre on its website with the group’s emir, Abu Abdullah al-Hassan bin Mahmoud (wrongly identified as a Jordanian) claiming the Nepalese were slaughtered for “fighting the Muslims and serving the Jews and the Christians” and “believing in Buddha as their God.”

The group has released dozens of gruesome videos showing the last moments of hostages, with graphic pictures of beheadings and shootings. For instance in early November 2004 Ansar al-Sunna released a video showing the beheading of Iraqi major Hussein Shunun in Mosul, claiming that he had been slaughtered “after confessing to collaborating with the enemy.”

The Islamic Army in Iraq

Al-Jaish al-Islami fi Iraq differs from the other jihadist insurgent organizations insofar as it does not belong to the salafist tendency. Broadly speaking, it is an inclusive Islamic organization with Iraqi nationalist tendencies. Despite being overwhelmingly Sunni in composition and ideology there are believed to be some Shi’as in its ranks. The precise circumstances around its emergence are unclear, but it is assumed that the group was established in the summer of 2003.

In terms of operational tactics, the Islamic Army avoids bombings (suicidal or otherwise) and instead specializes in targeted assassinations of Iraqi government agents and low profile attacks on coalition forces. Its operations are predominantly centered on the lawless regions immediately to the south of Baghdad and in the capital itself. The Islamic Army also seizes hostages, but unlike other Islamist organizations it seems to specialize in intensively interrogating its captives. For instance, the group seized an Iranian diplomat in August 2004 on the road from Baghdad to Karbala. It released the diplomat the following month after ascertaining his “piety” and “that the Iranian government did not intend to interfere in Iraqi matters.” Previously the group had demanded the Iranian government release 500 Iraqi POW’s from the Iran-Iraq war. Also in July 2004, an Egyptian embassy official was seized and held for 3 days by a group calling itself the Lions of Allah Brigade – likely a unit affiliated to the Islamic Army. Like the Iranian diplomat, the Egyptian embassy official was subjected to intensive interrogations – an indicator, perhaps, that the Islamic Army has former Iraqi security agents in its ranks. In late December 2004, the Islamic Army released two French hostages which it had seized in August.

Nonetheless the Islamic Army can be as ruthless as the other insurgent organization when it comes to the ultimate fate of hostages. In late August 2004 the group executed Enzo Baldoni, an Italian journalist and a volunteer for the Red Cross in Iraq, after the Italian government refused to withdraw its forces from Iraq. Moreover on April 15, 2004, the Islamic Army in Iraq assassinated Khalil Naimi, first secretary to the Iranian embassy in Baghdad. Naimi was accused of being a senior Iranian intelligence officer in charge of collecting information on the Iraqi “resistance”.

The Islamic Army is also active on the propaganda front. For instance on January 2, 2005 it issued a message to the American people, in which it underlines its principles and credentials thus: “The whole world sees that clearly in the crimes committed by your army, every time they have imprisoned our sons with no right when compared to the actions of our army, which questions anyone it seizes before they are even charged.”

The Zarqawi Network

The terror group led by the notorious Jordanian, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has received most of the attention of the western media. Openly loyal to Bin Laden and operating under the name Al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers, the Zarqawi network is most likely behind the recent spate of bombings against Shia mosques and other sectarian targets. Another distinctive feature of this organization is that it is the only insurgent group with substantial numbers of non-Iraqi Arabs at its core.

While the Zarqawi network has stepped up its terrorist campaign in the weeks after the elections – probably in the hope of exacerbating the current political stalemate – there are also signs that it could be in serious trouble. The Iraqi Hezbollah Movement has recently reported that Syrian security officials have handed over useful information on the senior operatives and safe houses of the Zarqawi network to Iraqi and American security agents. [2] While the Iraqi media (particularly those run by Shia Islamic parties) generally exaggerate the Syrian connection, it is nonetheless interesting that these allegations coincide with the recent handover of Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hassan by the Syrian government to Iraqi and U.S. officials. It is also worth noting that the Zarqawi network has lost a string of senior operatives in recent months, the latest being the capture of Taleb al-Dulaymi in late February. Whether the Zarqawi network is eclipsed in the near future – in terms of lethality and visibility – by the other insurgent organizations, remains to be seen.

Ansar al-Islam

Ansar al-Islam is the oldest of the Islamic insurgent groups in Iraq (see TM Vol. 2 Iss. 11). The rise of the Army of Ansar al-Sunna was generally viewed as signaling the demise of Ansar al-Islam. Surely enough, little has been heard of the activities of the group since late 2003. Most recent open-source materials on Ansar al-Islam concentrate on its alleged European networks and its trafficking of would-be mujahideen from countries like Italy to Iraq.

However any predictions of the demise of this complex organization are likely to prove premature. While most of its senior and quality members have been killed, detained or dispersed, Kurdish security officials have consistently maintained that the battle against this organization is likely to prove a long-term one. Indeed in the event of deteriorating relations between regional Kurdish parties and the emerging new central authority in Baghdad, Ansar could stage a full revival and might even be manipulated by forces anxious to suppress Kurdish nationalism.


The Iraqi insurgency deteriorated sharply after the handover of limited power to Iyad Alawi and his government in late June 2004. The catalyst for this was the blunting of the “de-Ba’athification” process and the appointment of former Ba’athists to key positions. The most controversial of these is Alawi’s defense minister, Hazem Shaalan whose chief mission over the past 8 months has been to make statements and allegations that are largely irrelevant to the situation on the ground. Shaalan has routinely blamed Syria and Iran for the insurgency; in addition to implicating Shi’a parties in the violence (an odd allegation given that these organizations have borne the brunt of the relentless terrorist campaign). Shaalan has also repeatedly predicted the capture of Zarqawi, most recently in late February. [3]

The new Iraqi government that will likely form in the next few weeks has one very important advantage over the Alawi government. It is an elected government and can capitalize on all the benefits that this brings. However, whether it can undermine the insurgency and improve the security situation rests on its ability to develop a committed and loyal security and intelligence system. Alawi is widely accused of bringing back former Ba’ath intelligence officers who were not only incompetent as intelligence operatives but whose loyalty to the new Iraq was not beyond dispute.

The largely Shi’a coalition that will likely dominate the next government has promised to re-institute the rigorous “de-Ba’athification” system put in place by Former U.S. Administrator in Iraq, Pual Bremer. But to have a meaningful impact on the insurgency it will have to confront the emerging political representatives of the insurgents. In this respect two organizations are of particular interest. The Association of Muslim Scholars, a grouping that brings together Sunni clergy, has links to several Islamic insurgent groups and has often used its influence to free foreign hostages. However its widespread links with the insurgents is clearly problematic and needs to be addressed accordingly. The Iraqi National Congress recently published an editorial demanding the Association clarify its position on the terrorist campaign. [4] The other organization is the Iraqi Islamic Party led by Muhsin Abdul Hamid. While this Sunni Islamic party’s links with the insurgents has not been established beyond doubt, it nonetheless has an ambiguous stance on the insurgents. While it condemns the more outrageous terrorist incidents, it refuses to denounce attacks on coalition forces.

Given the proliferation of insurgent organizations and the substantial support these groups enjoy in the Arab Sunni heartlands of Iraq, the most that can be expected of the new government and its western backers is the partial containment of the violence. However there is ample scope for the insurgency to become much worse in the decisive months ahead, especially if the insurgent organizations continue to develop their connections with sympathetic political and religious organizations.

Mahan Abedin is the editor of Jamestown’s Terrorism Monitor.


1. Al-Mu’tamar, 11/10/04. (Baghdad daily belonging to the Iraqi National Congress).

2. Al-Bayyinah (Baghdad), 03/05/05.

3. Al-Sharqiyah TV (Baghdad), 02/27/05.

4. Al-Mu’tamar, 02/16/05.