Consequences of the complete withdrawal of US forces from Iraq continue. Joby Warrick reports on the resurgence of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) after its 2007-2008 decimation by Awakening forces and the US military, and highlights the organization’s recent role in planning a major terrorist attack in Jordan:
In the midst of the chaos that would ensue, the attackers would turn their attention to the U.S. Embassy, the primary target and a long-sought prize for the organization that investigators say provided critical support for the scheme: al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq. Using the terrorist group’s expertise and weapons from Syria’s civil war, the plotters planned to rain mortar shells on the American compound and homes nearby.
“They wanted to kill as many as possible — Muslim and Christians,” said a Jordanian government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing probe into the most serious terrorist plot uncovered here in nearly a decade.
Jordanian authorities foiled the plot last month, arresting 11 men said to be the ringleaders. Although the suspects are Jordanians, the investigation has affirmed the key role played by al-Qaeda’s Iraqi branch, commonly known as AQI, which analysts say is rebounding after being all but destroyed by U.S. troops in the past decade.
In light of the recent overthrow of a number of dictatorial though stabilizing Middle Eastern regimes, the reanimation of AQI poses significant challenges for the region:
“What we’re now seeing is al-Qaeda in Iraq’s revival, not only as a movement in that country but as a regional movement,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA counterterrorism expert who is with the Brookings Institution. From its base in the Sunni provinces west of Baghdad, AQI appears to be attempting to rebuild old networks into Syria and Jordan “at an alarming rate,” Riedel said.
The failed Obama administration goal of retaining a presence in Iraq wasn’t just about stabilizing the country’s nascent democracy or checking Iran’s influence. A residual American military force would also have maintained counterterrorism momentum against the al Qaeda organization in Iraq, both stopping its resurgence in that country and preventing the use of western Iraq as a staging ground for jihadist incursions into neighboring countries weakened by turmoil.
America’s total disengagement from Iraq has given al Qaeda a reprieve from the strategic setback it suffered during the war. The brutality and greed of AQI from 2004-2008 had turned what should have been one of the organization’s most amenable ideological markets — a relatively conservative Sunni Anbar province — into an area filled with sworn enemies of al Qaeda. The organization’s name had become synonymous with the word ‘terrorist’ (irhabi) in major swaths of Iraq, reflecting a hatred transcending ethnosectarian lines. This branding problem, in addition to al Qaeda’s weakness after Awakening forces and the US military drove it from operation in most population centers, presented an opportunity to press this advantage against regional jihadi-Salafism via Iraq’s grassroots rejection of the group.
But there are signs that the organization has adapted to this failure. From a recruiting standpoint, al Qaeda’s branding problem stemming from its Iraq War depravity is a mixed bag; while many everyday Iraqis despise the organization, and it will thus likely never enjoy the dominance it once maintained in Anbar province, many others fear it, and this latter trait continues to draw sufficient recruits from both criminal and radicalized youth populations.
Al Qaeda’s rebranding interest as regional revolutionaries court Western intervention is more clear-cut, however, as exemplified by the rebellions in Syria and Libya. In both cases, regime forces have attempted to stave off outside interference by painting the broader resistance as driven primarily by al Qaeda, while secular elements have alternately downplayed their associations with al Qaeda or explicitly threatened to join with extremists in the absence of Western help. Al Qaeda leadership is likely canny to these issues, which play a role in the organization’s lower explicit profile, and the fact that its front groups, such as the al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, have thus far avoided swearing fealty to or declaring explicit association with al Qaeda Emir Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Some Western commentators lend credence to this facade while engaging in intellectual puffery, by making nearly pointless academic distinctions about Salafi jihadists who have each other on speed dial and share al Qaeda affiliations or ideology. A number of Western politicians are happy to go along with the rebranding ruse as well, because it supports their narrative that we’re beating “al Qaeda,” despite the organization’s rebirth in a hydra of new, renamed affiliates. Bruce Riedel mentions these adaptations in his Daily Beast article “Al Qaeda 3.0: Terrorism’s Emergent New Power Bases“:
The Syrian al Qaeda franchise has sought to learn from the mistakes of its predecessors. It avoids open association with the brand name and seeks to work with other Sunni groups. It is well armed, uses bases in Iraq for support and supply, and benefits from the arms supplied by Qatar and Saudi Arabia to the opposition. Its leader uses the nom de guerre of Abu Mohammad al Golani, a reference to the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights and a signal that the top leader is a Syrian, not a foreign fighter.
The longer the civil war in Syria goes on, the more al Qaeda will benefit from the chaos and the sectarian polarization. It will also benefit from the spill over of violence from Syria into Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan that is now inevitable.
At this point, American intelligence, military, and political leaders should be energetically exploiting alliances with Sunni sheikhs that were forged in blood and mutual interest in Iraq’s Anbar province to check the rampant growth of Salafi jihadist cells infecting the uprisings throughout the Middle East. To wit, note the potential of this proposal to export the methodology of Iraq’s Awakening Movement to combat al Qaeda in Mauritania:
The Iraqi Sahwa Council recently announced it plans to send a delegation, pending government approval, to assist the Mauritanian government in its bid to fight al-Qaeda and other armed groups.
Sheikh Raad al-Sabah, military commander of the Iraqi Sahwa forces, told Mawtani the Sahwa experiment “succeeded to a large extent because of its popular base, which was the springboard for triumph over al-Qaeda”.
“The Sahwa, as a revolutionary experiment by the Arab and Islamic people, could succeed and achieve victory over al-Qaeda because it represents moderate, middle-of-the-road Islam, and shows another aspect of tribalism that calls for peace and order, and rejects violence and terrorism,” he said.
“Al-Qaeda knows that the best weapon against it is the force of the Arab-Islamic street,” he said. “We in Iraq have gained strength from tribal and religious leaders and the sons of cities and villages.”
And yet, despite clear US interest in supporting such efforts, America has inexplicably disengaged …
Abu-Risha, the president of what is now known as the Iraqi Awakening Council, told The Daily Beast in a phone interview that he has not had any meetings with U.S. officials since American forces withdrew from Iraq in December. “President Obama said he would not forget all the sacrifices that were made,” he said. “Now we look back at that meeting and we think it was political propaganda. What he said, we don’t see it happening.”
The failure to maintain basic rapport with these former allies jettisons cooperation with a potentially regional anti-al Qaeda movement, and deprives the US of access to the natural intelligence networks spread throughout the Middle Eastern tribal confederations. It also significantly diminishes the impact of the security turnaround in Iraq, achieved at great American and Iraqi sacrifice. And it undermines America in the eyes of its allies, by showing potential partners a fickle superpower that offers ethereal alliances before abdicating responsibility. Regardless of what US citizens believe about the utility or realism of supporting Iraqi democracy, the wisdom of the initial invasion of that country, or other considerations, complete withdrawal from Iraq was a failure for American foreign policy. Further, backing off from America’s natural allies in that country is a puzzling, irresponsible posture.
The American electorate’s loss of interest in fighting a war in the Middle East does not mean that the problems caused by al Qaeda and the broader Salafi jihadist movement will go away. As the scenes of unrest in Libya, Syria, and other rebellions attest, the reality is quite the opposite.