Al Qaeda in Iraq under pressure in Balad, Anbar
Al Qaeda in Iraq's area of operations as of December 2007. Dark red indicates operating areas, light red is transit routes. Mosul remains a hot spot, with the only ratline to Syria in operation. Click to view.
A document seized by US forces in Balad and a communiqué from al Qaeda in Iraq's leader intercepted by US intelligence paint a bleak picture of the terror group's ability to conduct operations in former strongholds. Al Qaeda in Iraq is threatened by the rise of the Awakening movements spreading throughout Iraq and is forced to change its tactics.
Al Qaeda takes a hit in Balad
US forces captured a diary of a regional al Qaeda in Iraq commander during a raid on a safe house in Balad in early November. The diary was written by Abu Tariq, the emir, or leader, of the Al Layin and Al Mashahdah Sector, a region near the city of Balad in northern Salahadin province. Tariq's diary meticulously documents the terror group's decline, the desertion of its fighters, and logistical problems incurred in the wake of the surge. The diary is also an intelligence coup for US forces, as Tariq names current members of the groups and the companies and individuals used in al Qaeda's support network in the region.
"There were almost 600 fighters in our sector before the Tribes changed course 360 degrees under the influence of the so-called Islamic Army (Deserter of Jihad) and other known believer groups," Tariq opened his diary. "Many of our known fighters quit and some of them joined the deserters ... and as a result of that the number of fighters dropped down to 20 or less."
Tariq organized his nearly 600 troops into five "battalions." The first and second battalions, the two largest formations with 200 and 300 fighters respectively, were dissolved after leaders and members deserted to join the Awakening. The third battalion, comprised of 60 fighters, are considered loyal, but their "activities have been frozen due to their present conditions plus their families' conditions."
The fourth battalion, called the Battalion of al Ahwal, was comprised of "scoundrels, Sectarians, non-believers" whose leader fled to Syria, only to return and join "the traitors." The rest of the Ahwal battalion broke up. The fifth battalion also dissolved after its leaders defected and some members fled to Diyala province.
Tariq refers to the Awakening movement as "the cancer that grew on the body of the al Jihad Movement." He explicitly credits the rise of the Sahawa, or Awakening movement, with the demise of his organization. He notes the Awakening movement in northern Salahadin severely restricted al Qaeda in Iraq's ability to operate and depleted the organization's ranks. The tribes and insurgent groups such as the Islamic Army of Iraq, which were rolled into al Qaeda's Islamic State of Iraq, defected en masse.
The diary notes that while al Qaeda in Iraq's operations have been limited, the group will continue to target the Awakening movements. "We must not have mercy on those traitors until they come back to the right side - The Islamic State of Iraq side - or get eliminated," Tariq said.
Al Qaeda in Iraq forced to change tactics
The information Tariq's diary nearly mirrors the information contained in al Qaeda documents and a communiqué from al Qaeda in Iraq's leader, Abu Ayyub al Masri. Al Qaeda's brutality and attempt to impose a Taliban-like regime in Anbar and throughout Iraq has backfired. This has forced al Qaeda to stop reprisal attacks against Sunni tribal leaders and civilians. Instead, al Masri is refocusing al Qaeda cells, telling them to target Iraqi infrastructure, as well as US, Iraqi security forces, and the Awakening movements.
"Dedicate yourself to fighting the true enemy only, in order to avoid opening up new fronts against the Sunni Arabs," al Masri said in Jan. 13 communiqué, The Washington Post reported. "Do not close the door of repentance in the face of those Sunnis who turned against us. ... Strike hard at the enemies and intensify your operations against the occupiers. ... Cut off their communications by blowing up the towers and the land telephone exchanges and destroy the bridges and the important highways which they use. Do not interfere in social issues such as head covering, the satellite and other social affairs which are against our religion until further notice. ... Do take care not to kill Sunni civilians that did not sympathize with the apostates such as tribesmen."
The Washington Post interviewed two al Qaeda leaders in Anbar province, both of whom confirmed al Qaeda's problems in Anbar and beyond. "We do not deny the difficulties we are facing right now," Riyadh al Ogaidi, an emir in Karmah, a city between Baghdad and Fallujah, told The Washington Post. "The Americans have not defeated us, but the turnaround of the Sunnis against us had made us lose a lot and suffer very painfully. We made many mistakes over the past year."
The Karmah emir claimed al Qaeda in Iraq has suffered nearly a 75 percent reduction in forces over the past year. "Ogaidi said the total number of al-Qaeda in Iraq members across the country has plummeted from about 12,000 in June 2007 to about 3,500 today," The Washington Post reported. The US military said it killed more than 2,400 al Qaeda leaders and fighters and captured more than 8,800 during 2007. In late 2006, al Masri claimed al Qaeda had 12,000 fighters under arms and another 10,000 in training.
Al Qaeda in Iraq "is now reaching out to disaffected Sunni tribal leaders in a bid to win back their support, even as it attacks Sunnis working closely with the Americans," The Washington Post reported, based on an interview with Abdullah Hussein Lehebi, an emir from the Amiriyah, south of Fallujah. "In exchange, we would not target them again and would respect the authority of the tribal leaders," he said.
Al Qaeda hits infrastructure in Mosul
As al Qaeda in Iraq has encountered setbacks from ongoing offensives in Baghdad, Anbar, and Diyala provinces, it has attempted to regroup in Ninewa province as well as in southeastern Kirkuk and northern Salahadin. Al Qaeda maintains one of its last logistical supply lines from the Syrian border to Mosul in this region. The Iraqi government and Multinational Forces Iraq are moving additional forces to the region in an effort to block al Qaeda's efforts to re-establish a haven in the northern regions.
Last week, evidence of al Qaeda's strategy to target infrastructure was seen in Mosul. Al Qaeda in Iraq targeted eight cell phone towers in Mosul, Voices of Iraq reported on Feb. 7. At least 12 communications towers were hit, according to a US military officer serving in Mosul who wishes to remain anonymous.
"Over the course of two days they attacked six (towers), and then six more, setting the generators on fire to disable the towers," the officer told The Long War Journal. "Interesting since they rely on the cell towers as much as the IA [Iraqi Army] does for C2 [command and control]."
Today, al Qaeda detonated a bomb planted in a fuel truck near the Mosul power plant, KUNA reported. The attack knocked the 400-megawatt Mosul power plant offline, shutting down electricity to much of northern Iraq The bomb also killed four Iraqi soldiers.
Down, but not out
While the seized documents and al Masri's order to change tactics show al Qaeda is facing a difficult tactical and strategic situation, the organization is by no means defeated. US forces are still actively fighting al Qaeda in southern Baghdad province in the Arab Jabour region, in northern Diyala province, and in the Ninewa-Salahadin-Kirkuk region. Al Qaeda's attacks in Iraq have decreased drastically, but the terror group possesses enough capacity to conduct at least one mass-casualty suicide attack per month. January ended with twin bombings targeting two popular markets in Baghdad. The attacks were carried out by two mentally disabled women.
The leadership of Al Qaeda in Iraq and its puppet Islamic State remain on the loose, and more than 3,500 of its fighters remain unaccounted for. Ongoing offensives in Arab Jabour, Diyala, and Ninewa seek to further erode al Qaeda's capabilities, and force the group to shift from an insurgency that holds ground to a grouping of disparate terror cells. US, Iraqi, and Coalition forces seek to counter this threat by continuing the daily, relentless raids targeting al Qaeda's leadership and its network of IED, media, finance, weapons, and training cells.