Al Qaeda suicide attacks: cause and effect in Tal Afar

Suicide bombings may have caused a police backlash, however the reporting is still in question

Yesterday’s dual suicide strikes in Shia markets in Tal Afar appears to have been a major success for al Qaeda. The largely Shia city, which has been a model of governance and security in Iraq, had at least 63 of its citizens murdered. Al Qaeda, which has claimed responsibility for the attack, has struck at Shia civilians in the past in order to stir up sectarian violence. Yesterday’s attack may have worked. While the news reports on this incident are still being sorted out, the initial reports indicated off duty Shia policemen went on a killing spree in Sunni neighborhoods. Upward of 60 Sunnis are said to have been murdered.

Again, this has yet to be confirmed. The Associated Press changed the initial headline from “Enraged Policemen Go on Revenge Killing Spree in Northern Iraqi Town” to the more careful headline of “Shiite cops reportedly rampage vs. Sunnis” [emphasis mine]. During today’s press briefing with Rear Admiral Fox, the press did not follow up his denouncement of the bombings or the reported incident, which is interesting. Later reporting indicates a militia may have carried out the murders. Reuters headline is “Gunmen kill 50 in Iraqi town” and states a militia conducted the attack, which may have had members from the police force.

The Tal Afar police have been confined to their stations, and the Iraqi Army and Mosul police are said to be heading to Tal Afar to provide security. The Maliki government is investigating the incident.

The events in Tal Afar is a very serious issue which will reverberate throughout the Sunni community, particularly at a time when the government is seeking to reconcile with Sunni insurgent groups.

Obviously, if the allegations as initially reported are true, al Qaeda was very successful in causing the security forces backlash and the resultant negative effects. If the report is inaccurate – if this was a small element of the police, or perhaps from police assigned from outside Tal Afar, or the actions of a local militia – al Qaeda still received an incredible propaganda victory.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of The Long War Journal.



  • Andrew R. says:

    As far as I know, Dawa, SCIRI, and the Mahdi Army tend not to operate that far north and west, which would seem to make this strictly a police problem.

  • ECH says:

    From a military prospective the chemical attacks and suicide attacks don’t do much.
    It is their psychological power at demoralizing and sparking sectarian violence that are the problem.
    Civil War proofing Iraq will be hard, but certainly not impossible. It will mean when al-Qaeda launches a major suicide chemcial attack on Shia that the Iraqi police and militias don’t go on killing sprees.

  • crosspatch says:

    “As far as I know, Dawa, SCIRI, and the Mahdi Army tend not to operate that far north and west”
    Yeah, that’s kind of where I was going with my comments in the other thread. And I also smelled something fishy in the report. It sounded like it could have been fabricated as it seems to fit Al Qaida’s propaganda effort too neatly … Shiite police in Tal Afar slaughtering Sunnis … the other thing to keep in mind is that the population of Tal Afar isn’t Arab, it is Turkman. I found an article from September of 2005 that describes the population as 70 percent Sunni Turkman and 30 percent Shiite Turkman. The Shiites in Tal Afar tend to be aligned more with the Kurdish Peshmerga than with the Sadrists and the Sunnis with the Baathist Arab tribes further South. So yeah, it makes sense, according to my reading, that we could see some tribal militia friction going on.

  • Constantine says:

    wikipedia has the population as about evenly split between Shia and Sunni.

  • ECH says:

    Perhaps, the idea of joint security stations should be brought to Western Iraqi cities like Tal Afar.
    The Iraqi Army I have some confidence in to keep the police in line.
    al-Qaeda can’t win by bombing Sunnis, it can’t win by killing Americans. But, sparking sectarian violence is the destabilizing factor that by far has the most potental to unite Sunnis against Shia and vice versa.

  • Drazen Gemic says:

    For the success in Iraq it is important that people have some confidence that the government will protect them from violence. If not, they will have to organize themselves. When police commits terrorist act, that’s a catastrophe.
    As far as I can understand most people of Tal Afar are Turkoman. Although they are split by religion, they are supposed to feel some solidarity, being a minority in Arab environment. Yet, it does not seem to exist. Is it religion so powerfull ?
    On the other hand, in Iraq – Iran war Shiite Arabs fought Shiite Iranians (mostly Persian and Azeri – non Arabs). Something has changed drastically in only 15 – 20 years…..religion has grown more important than nation ? How is it possible ?

  • Mike E says:

    I doubt that many fist headlines in the press are accurate regarding events in Iraq. There are too few western journalists in the country and too much reliance on stringers of questionable quality. That is compounded by editors who add hysterical, over the top headlines to sell newspapers.
    There are many possibilities e.g.
    Relatives of bombing victims (including off duty police) went on a rampage.
    Relatives of bombing victims (including off duty police) went on an intelligence driven mission to capture or kill people known to be attached to the bombing.
    On duty police went on an intelligence driven mission to capture or kill people known to be attached to the bombing.
    The same terror cell that did the bombing got in a shoot out with ISF
    etc etc etc.

  • Mike E says:

    From Bills report.
    [[The Tal Afar police have been confined to their stations, and the Iraqi Army and Mosul police are said to be heading to Tal Afar to provide security. The Maliki government is investigating the incident.]]
    This seems good, indicating a functional chain of command able to respond quickly to failings at the street level. In 04 a similar event could have started reprisals that raged out control for weeks.

  • ECH says:

    Mike E,
    It is certainly better and faster then the Iraqis have done in the past, last year in certain places they let sectarian conflicts like this simmer for days before the US put then out. My guess is they will continue to be faster and better at dealing which such flare ups this year and much better next year as all of Western Iraq recieves more US and Iraqi troops.

  • Neo-andertal says:

    Tal Afar was AQ’s primary staging point for Nineveh province and is strategically situated. I wouldn’t be too worried about it sparking a civil war but I would be worried about what degree AQ tries to reestablish itself.
    The ethnic and religious mix in Tal Afar is rather unique. I’m having a hard time getting good numbers for the region. In the town itself there is a sizeable Turkmen population. The area around Tal Afar was once dominated by Kurds. The Turkmen population is divided between a large Shiite Turkmen population and a Sunni Turkmen population that has a sizable Sufi sub-population if I remember right. The Kurdish population around Tal Afar is a bit of an oddity too, I believe they are Arab speaking Kurds and have a separate tribal ancestry from other areas. There is a sizable Sunni Arabic population of that was resettled into the area under Hussein’s Arabization campaigns. These are the troublemakers in the area.
    There’s a lot of unique antagonisms in the area. The population in the area formed around an Ottoman military outpost and is somewhat unique. The Sunni population that was moved in by Hussein had a large population of unskilled Bedouin who feel privileged by their so call pure ancestry going back to Mohammad but form a low tear of society and are thought of as outsiders. The ongoing antagonism had already turned many within the Arab Sunni population toward Wahhabism even before the current war.
    The Wahhabi’s amongst the Arab Sunni’s consider the whole lot as heretics, Shiite, Kurds, Sufi’s, you name it, and see the population of Tal Afar as an alien abomination within their land.
    I guess the main point I am trying to get across is that Tal Afar is greatly affected by the current war, but I would be a little careful making generalized comments about Iraq based on what is going on in Tal Afar. It is a bit of unique universe of it’s own.

  • ECH says:

    Tal Afar was doing very well Neo-andertal until this attack.
    It shows that suicide attacks or suicide chemical attacks in mixed areas like Dyiala, Tal Afar, and Baghdad have the potental of sparking sectarian violence.

  • Neo-andertal says:

    “Tal Afar was doing very well Neo-andertal until this attack.”

  • DJ Elliott says:

    First JSS I ever heard of was the JSS at Tal Afar Fort.
    HQ for the local IP and the IA Bde.
    Also has 911 phone switchboard.
    Was settling down to more domestic calls than anything for a time.
    I think AQ was trying its hand in an Iraqi area that has had a drawdown of IA and MAY (repeat MAY) have got better results than expected.
    That is more likely to be a tribal fight.
    Note: Numbers in Tal Afar demographics are all suspect. No current census exists…

  • bubba says:

    …good call Mr. Roggio.
    As soon as I saw the initial versions of this event, my first thought was whether this report might be as inaccurate, and suspect, as Abu Jamil’s (?) version of burning Sunni mosques and beheaded Sunni’s a few months back.
    It might well be accurate but smells of another AQ/IAF attempt to rally the Sunni base with tales of Shi’a nefariousness.

  • Neo-andertal says:

    “Note: Numbers in Tal Afar demographics are all suspect. No current census exists…”

  • ECH says:

    At least 18 off-duty police officers. The other gunmen were said to be members of Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi militia, known to be active among Tal Afar’s large Shia Turkomen community. Major-General Khorshid Saleem, of the Iraqi army, said: “Militias conducted these acts and, if it had not been for the army interference, the people killed in the carnage would be in the thousands.”,,2045140,00.html
    Shia Turkomen?

  • Bill Roggio says:

    There is absolutely nothing new in the Guardian report that wasn’t available this morning. Something certainly happened in Tal Afar, of that I have no doubt. But we don’t know yet whether police were or were not involved. Again, these are “unconfirmed reports.” We do know the Army came in and restored order, however they will get no credit for that.

  • ECH says:

    Actually, my point in posting it was I did not know there were lots of Shia Turkomen, nor did I know the Medhi Army reached that far in Western Iraq.
    That is why I wrote
    “Shia Turkomen?”

  • crosspatch says:

    Another thing that is sorta bugging me … Tal Afar is pretty far out in the boonies. According to most of what I have read from other imbeds, there aren’t a lot of reporters out and about in the hinterlands. How did we get such a detailed report of incidents there in such a short time? I would think it might take a day or two for any kind of accurate reports to filter through channels. This sounds like it might have come from locals using the telephone and in a lot of cases, that involves people reporting what they heard happened, and not what they saw happen.

  • Soldier's Dad says:

    Long ago, I worked in an office in Saudi Arabia.
    Hindus, Buddists, Sunni, Shiite, Christians all got along. Saudis, Phillipinos, Pakistanis, Indians, Lebanese and Americans.
    Lunch tended to be Chicken..since everyone could eat Chicken. Once in a while Lamb.
    Politcos like to emphasize tribe,religion etc.
    In reality, the biggest challenge in any mans life will be keeping the Mrs. content. Getting along with a woman is a far more challenging task than getting along with someone who has a different religion.(Of course this is because men are just so something or other…I’ll have to ask…I kind of zone out when I am being accused of being something or other)

  • dickmatern says:

    If I were al Qaeda, I would have planned for a second group of AQs to come in and carry out such a raid, making it two jobs for alQaeda and blaming them both on “bad blood” between the Shias and Sunnis. I.e., until more is known for sure, anything at all is possible. What could be more certain than that to get the pot boiling again?

  • RJH says:

    Maybe the AP got their information from Capt. Hussein again….

  • Tony says:

    There is another issue coming into play when violence is committed against Turkmen of any sort, be they Shia or Sunni.
    I personally cannot rule out that al-Qaeda is also seeking to provoke a Turkish military intervention here (and capitalizing on the subsequent backlash) in support of their Turkmen brothers.
    I’m not saying this is a likely rationale, but I’m not ruling it out either. Turkey is making some serious noises and more about intervening in Iraq and much of the Turkish press is positively rabid on the subject and becoming more so by the week.
    In my view, Turkish armed forays into northern Iraq are more likely than not to occur by the end of 2008. I know that is a minority view, but I have my reasons.

  • crosspatch says:

    And the traditional sectarian divisions are going to get tougher to decipher going forward as they are rapidly “evolving” in some areas in the region. Read today where Iran is paying 10,000 per family to Syrian families who convert to Shiism and the Syrian regime is allowing it. So that is going to further confuse things in the region.

  • DJ Elliott says:

    This is the original authors name:
    “By SINAN SALAHEDDIN, Associated Press”
    Salahdin is a traditional sunni arab name…
    AFP, Reuters, WaPo are all avoiding this claim.
    Official statements only say “under investigation”.
    It looks like something happened or the IA would not have moved in but,
    if all of those quoted officials stories were valid,
    then why haven’t the other news services been able to confirm the AP story???
    AP gave claimed source names but, the other services are not confirming it…
    None of the reporters at the brief even asked about it despite the original press release being read verbatim at the begining of the brief by RAdm Fox…
    Only AP is going with it and they do not have a good track record on confirmations…
    This reads like a propaganda plant. Something happened but…

  • ECH says:

    An Iraqi Army spokesman said the final toll from the retaliatory violence was 70 people killed, 40 kidnapped and 30 wounded. “They were all Sunnis,”

  • DJ Elliott says:

    AFP is saying 13 IPs. And 5 others. IPs that lost family to the bombs.
    Looks like a squad went rouge and IA locked down the entire IP Dept in Tal Afar while they sorted it out.
    AP gave the impression the entire Dept went rouge.
    Not good. Not as bad as AP made it out to be but, not good…

  • DJ Elliott says:

    “Maj. Gen. Khorsheed Doski, the spokesman for the Third Brigade of the Iraqi Army.”
    The press are demoting the General:

  • crosspatch says:

    “It looks like something happened or the IA would not have moved in but, if all of those quoted officials stories were valid, then why haven’t the other news services been able to confirm the AP story???”
    They probably dont have any reporters there and are getting conflicting telephone reports from residents. Tal Afar is *way* out there. Think upper left corner of Iraq.

  • David M says:

    Trackbacked by The Thunder Run – Web Reconnaissance for 03/29/2007
    A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention.

  • madconductor says:

    Solfiers Dad,
    I had to laugh at your comment:
    “(Of course this is because men are just so something or other…I’ll have to ask…I kind of zone out when I am being accused of being something or other)”
    I have also felt that way.:)

  • dougf says:

    I have to ask —- as atrocious as this reprisal attack seems to have been, is it really possible to ‘understand’ these events without knowing who exactly was involved or why ?
    Why was this particular neighbourhood attacked ? Do the inhabitants there support the Al-Queda factions in Iraq ? Have there been past situations ? Was it a ‘family’ related thing ?
    All violence is NOT created equal and until we can grasp the ‘contexts’, we can hardly expect to forestall or even predict such things in the future. I am not defending the men who conducted this reprisal, simply noting that just lamenting the violence per se, is not likely to be an effective strategy going forward. An attack by a group that just hates Sunnis is vastly different than an attack by a group that for, perhaps understandable reasons, hates a particular group of people who happen to be Sunni. It remains different even if the ‘results’ appear to be to exactly the same. Iraq is a ‘revenge culture’, and will be long after we are gone. Did this fall into the category of seeking revenge against ‘known’ and proven enemies, or was it just a matter of killing somebody convenient ?
    Will we ever find out what really happened here ? I surely hope so as in Iraq ‘some’ information tends to be almost worse than ‘no’ information at all.


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