The Islamic State of Iraq, al Qaeda’s front organization, claimed credit for last night’s massacre at a Baghdad church that killed 52 Iraqis. Al Qaeda stated that the attack at the church was launched to avenge the treatment of Muslim women in Egypt.
Al Qaeda fighters armed with suicide vests, assault rifles, and hand grenades, and wearing uniforms of a local security company, attacked the nearby stock exchange, wounding two security guards. The attack on the exchange appeared to be a feint designed to lure security forces to the area while a squad estimated at between five to eight terrorists stormed the Our Lady of Deliverance church and took 120 Christians hostage, according to the Associated Press.
Two hours later, after cordoning off the church, Iraqi security forces stormed the church, sparking a gunbattle that resulted in 52 Iraqis killed and 67 wounded. Two priests,10 Iraqi policemen, and the entire suicide squad were killed during the battle, according to reports. At least 30 of the people were killed when one of the al Qaeda terrorists either detonated his vest or lobbed hand grenades at the Christian hostages being held in the basement.
Five terrorists, including one with “an Arab nationality,” or a non-Iraqi, were captured, the spokesman of the Baghdad Operational Command told Voice of Iraq.
Investigators later found “three Yemeni and two Egyptian passports thought to have belonged to the suicide bombers” at the church, an Iraqi official told The Washington Post.
Al Qaeda released a statement on the Internet claiming the attack.
“Upon guidance issued by the Ministry of War in the Islamic State of Iraq in support for our downtrodden Muslim sisters that are held captive in the Muslim land of Egypt and after accurate planning and selection, an angry group of righteous jihadists attacked a filthy den of polytheism,” according to the statement, which was obtained by The Long War Journal. “This den has been frequently used by the Christians of Iraq to fight Islam and support those who are fighting it. With the grace of God, the group was able to hold captive all those in the den and take over all its entrances.”
Based on the statement, it appears that al Qaeda in Iraq had hoped to hold the Christians in Baghdad hostage for at least two days, as a deadline for “the release” of Egyptian women supposedly being held in Coptic churches in Egypt was issued.
“The mujahidin in the Islamic State of Iraq give Egypt’s Christian and belligerent Church as well as its chief of infidelity a 48-hour ultimatum to disclose the status of our sisters in religion, who are held captive in Egypt’s monasteries of infidelity and churches of polytheism,” al Qaeda demanded. “The mujahidin further demand the release of all of them together with an announcement of the release via a media outlet that the mujahidin can access within the deadline.”
Al Qaeda said that if the demands were not met, “the lions of monotheism [al Qaeda’s fighters], who wore their explosive belts, will not hesitate to kill the militant Iraqi Christian captives.”
Al Qaeda in Iraq also threatened to carry out attacks against Christian churches across the globe.
“Afterwards, various attacks will be launched against them inside and outside this country, in which their lands will be destroyed, their strength will be undermined, and they will be afflicted by the humiliation that God ordained for them,” al Qaeda said.
The attack in Baghdad took place just three days after an al Qaeda in Iraq suicide bomber killed 21 people and wounded 65 more in an attack on a cafe in the town of Balad Ruz in Diyala province. Shia Kurds were the target of the attack, which was the first major attack in Iraq more than a month.
Background on the state of al Qaeda in Iraq
In early June, the US military claimed that al Qaeda in Iraq’s leadership had been dealt a near-fatal blow during a series of raids since the beginning of the year that had culminated in the deaths of the terror group’s top two leaders.
“Over the last 90 days or so, we’ve either picked up or killed 34 out of the top 42 al Qaeda in Iraq leaders,” General Ray Odierno, the commander of US Forces – Iraq, told reporters during a Pentagon press briefing in early June. “They’re clearly now attempting to reorganize themselves …. They’re struggling a little bit. They’ve broken — they’ve lost connection with AQSL [al Qaeda Senior Leadership] in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
But al Qaeda in Iraq, while unable to hold territory and directly threaten the Iraqi state, has been able to reorganize and launch high-profile terror attacks against the Iraqi security forces and government institutions. The attacks are far less frequent, however, and have failed to threaten the Iraqi state.
The recent attacks are being directed by Nasser al Din Allah Abu Suleiman, al Qaeda’s new ‘war minister’ for Iraq. Suleiman was appointed in May after his predecessor, Abu Ayyub al Masri, was killed in a US raid along with Abu Omar al Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq. Also in May, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi al Hussieni al Qurshi was named the new emir of the Islamic State of Iraq, and Abu Abdullah al Hussieni al Qurshi, was named the deputy emir.
Al Qaeda in Iraq is supported primarily through its networks in eastern Syria. Last year, al Qaeda’s central leadership based in Pakistan reportedly sent a senior ideologue to Syria to partner with a dangerous operative who ran the network that funnels foreign fighters, cash, and weapons into western Iraq. Sheikh Issa al Masri is thought to have left Pakistan’s tribal agency of North Waziristan and entered Syria in June 2009, where he paired up with Abu Khalaf, a senior al Qaeda operative who had been instrumental in reviving al Qaeda in Iraq’s network in eastern Syria and directing terror operations in Iraq, a US intelligence official told The Long War Journal.
Although the US killed Abu Khalaf during a Jan. 22 raid in the northern city of Mosul, Sheikh Issa is alive and is believed to be based in Damascus and is protected by the Mukhabarat, Syria’s secret intelligence service.