Al Qaeda in Iraq: Last stand, or sign of resilience?
View Iraq - May 10, 2010 terrorist attacks in a larger map
In the wake of a deadly wave of coordinated bombings and shootings in Iraq on Monday, which marked the bloodiest day in the country so far this year, Iraqi and American authorities have scrambled to reassure the public that the Iraqi security forces remain firmly in control of the security situation in Iraq, and that American forces will continue to withdraw from the country as planned.
Both Iraqi and American security officials have blamed the attacks, which killed 119 people and injured more than 350, on al Qaeda in Iraq. The officials reiterated their belief that the terrorist organization has been seriously damaged in recent months, as Iraqi and American forces have succeeded in killing or capturing a number of key al Qaeda commanders.
A resilient al Qaeda, or sign of desperation?
Although many Western press reports have depicted the attacks as an attempt by al Qaeda in Iraq to prove their continued resilience and capabilities despite significant losses during the past few months, US officials have characterized Monday's attacks as a "last, desperate attempt" to disrupt the formation of a new Iraqi government. In remarks echoed by many of his counterparts, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs downplayed the impact of the violence, saying that "we have always known that...[al Qaeda] would make one last charge at trying to foment violence and chaos." Iraqi Ministry of Defense spokesman Mohammad al Askari said that the attacks were a "natural" reaction by al Qaeda "as a result of blows the organization has suffered recently."
The sheer number of coordinated attacks in one day -- around 24 -- and their wide geographic distribution across the country -- Mosul, Fallujah, Baghdad, Hilla, and Basra -- is unprecedented in Iraq during the past two years. [view map]
On the one hand, al Qaeda in Iraq has proven that the near-total decapitation of their leadership since January has not eliminated their ability to organize and execute complex attacks, at least in the short term. In Monday's attacks, al Qaeda gunmen were also reported to have used silenced weapons in their assaults on security checkpoints throughout Baghdad in order to gain the element of surprise, a tactic that has increasingly been used this past year.
Al Qaeda used a diverse range of tactics in Monday's attacks, including:
• Suicide car bombs (7)
• Suicide vests (2)
• Small arms/automatic weapons (7)
• Remotely-detonated bombs (11)
Monday's attacks mark a decided shift in Al Qaeda in Iraq's targeting strategy, however. Al Qaeda's attacks in Iraq in 2009 were characterized by massive VBIED attacks against high-profile targets, including key government buildings in Baghdad as well as Shia religious sites. Beginning with the June 20, 2009, truck bombing of the Shia Al Rasul mosque near Kirkuk, al Qaeda in Iraq executed a series of high-profile bombing attacks:
June 24, 2009 - A bomb kills 72 people at a busy market in eastern Baghdad's Sadr City. At least 127 people are wounded.
August 19, 2009 - At least six blasts strike near government ministries and other targets in Baghdad, killing 95 people and wounding 536.
October 25, 2009 - Twin car bombs target the Justice Ministry and the Baghdad provincial government building, killing at least 155 people and wounding more than 500 in central Baghdad.
December 8, 2009 - At least four car bombs explode in Iraq's capital, near a courthouse, a judges' training center, a Finance Ministry building and a police checkpoint in a district of southern Baghdad. At least 112 people are killed and hundreds wounded.
Since January 2010, however, the organization's tactics seem to have shifted to coordinating more numerous, smaller-scale attacks on softer targets. The April 23, 2010, attacks in particular -- 13 blasts which hit different areas of Baghdad, mostly near Shiite mosques and marketplaces, killing at least 56 people -- are indicative of al Qaeda's new tactical approach.
The scope of Monday's assault -- a combination of attacks on both military and civilian targets -- highlights this shift. Al Qaeda struck not only security checkpoints, but also numerous civilian targets, chosen seemingly at random -- a textile factory, a market, residential neighborhoods, food and alcohol shops, a mosque, and a petrol station. The most high-profile attack was an attempt to assassinate Baghdad's mayor, Muhammad Jassem al Mashhadani, in an attack on his motorcade north of the city.
The loss of so many key al Qaeda leaders in Iraq over the past few months may explain this shift -- smaller but more numerous attacks on lower-profile targets are easier to plan and execute than the spectacular, massive vehicle-borne suicide attacks on heavily guarded government facilities that al Qaeda has preferred in the past.
Al Qaeda in Iraq leadership damaged this year
Iraqi and American forces killed the top two al Qaeda in Iraq leaders -- Abu Ayyub al Masri, leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, and Abu Omar al Baghdadi, head of the Islamic State of Iraq -- in a raid near Tikrit last month.
This blow to al Qaeda in Iraq's leadership came after a string of similar successes as Iraqi and American security forces have attempted to systematically dismantle the organization:
In March, Iraqi security forces captured Manaf Abdulrehim al Rawi, al Qaeda's operational commander in Baghdad. Al Rawi's capture may have provided intelligence that led to the killing of al Masri and al Baghdadi weeks later, according to US intelligence officials.
The successful raid that killed al Masri and al Baghdadi provided Iraqi security forces with intelligence that led to the killing of Ahmad Ali Abbas Dahir al Ubayd, al Qaeda's top military operational commander for northern Iraq, on April 20.
On April 6, Iraqi forces captured two senior leaders of al Qaeda in Mosul, including al Qaeda's recently-appointed "emir" for northern Iraq, who had held the position for only two weeks. His predecessor, Bashar Khalaf Husyan Ali al Jaburi, was killed by Iraqi security forces on March 24.
On January 22, Iraqi and US forces killed Abu Khalaf, al Qaeda in Iraq's most senior facilitator of foreign fighters. Iraqi and American forces have also captured or killed numerous other al Qaeda leaders in northern Iraq during the past few months, including al Qaeda's emir for economic affairs, the administrative emir, a top adviser to the sharia emir, and the detainee affairs emir.