On Saturday, Aug. 10, a series of car bombings in and around Baghdad left more than 60 people dead and over 200 wounded. The bombings came just as Iraqis were celebrating the end of Ramadan, and targeted mainly Shiite neighborhoods.
That same day, the State Department fingered al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), as the culprit in a statement released to the press. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki also confirmed that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi (a.k.a. Abu Dua), who heads the ISIL, “is now based in Syria.”
Al Baghdadi’s relocation was first reported earlier this year, and underscores the degree to which al Qaeda has expanded its operations. Despite leadership disagreements, al Qaeda has redoubled its efforts in Iraq since American forces left in late 2011, while also expanding its operations into neighboring Syria.
On Aug. 11, the day after the attacks, the ISIL claimed credit for the bombings.
In a statement released on jihadist forums, the ISIL said the the attacks were retaliation against the Iraqi government for its “revenge of the martyrs campaign.” After the ISIL coordinated a massive jailbreak in July, the Iraqi government has been struggling to re-arrest freed al Qaeda operatives.
“The Islamic State deployed some of its security efforts in Baghdad and the southern province and other places, to deliver a quick message,” the ISIL said in the statement, according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group.
The ISIL’s statement continued: “They will pay a high price for what they did, and they will not be secure day or night … so they should watch their footsteps and stop the detention campaigns and cease harming the Sunni clans, and to expect more of what will harm them and what will bring them to their senses, Allah permitting.”
The bombings are just the latest example of al Qaeda’s resurgence inside Iraq.
Citing Pentagon data, the Associated Press reported last fall that al Qaeda’s attacks in Iraq had increased from 75 per week in early 2012 to “an average of 140 attacks each week across Iraq” by October 2012. The violence has only intensified since then.
Citing the United Nations, Reuters reported yesterday that there were more than 1,000 fatalities in July, making it the bloodiest month in Iraq since 2008.
The State Department noted in its Aug. 10 statement that al Baghdadi “has taken personal credit for a series of terrorist attacks in Iraq since 2011, and most recently claimed credit for the operations against the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, the suicide bombing assault on the Ministry of Justice, among other attacks against Iraqi Security Forces and Iraqi citizens going about their daily lives.”
Al Qaeda leadership dispute
While increasing al Qaeda’s operational capacity in Iraq, al Baghdadi’s group also helped spawn the Al Nusrah Front in Syria. The Al Nusrah Front quickly became one of the most lethal insurgency groups fighting Bashar al Assad’s crumbling regime and its allies.
Al Baghdadi and the Al Nusrah Front’s leader, Abu Muhammad al Julani, publicly quarreled over al Qaeda’s chain-of-command in early April. Al Julani rejected al Baghdadi’s attempt to assert authority over the Al Nusrah Front and reaffirmed his oath of loyalty directly to Zawahiri.
The dispute forced al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri to intervene. Zawahiri sided with al Julani in the dispute, ruling that the two al Qaeda branches should remain under their own commands until the dispute is resolved for good. Zawahiri also chastised both commanders for airing their differences for the whole world to see. Al Baghdadi then openly defied Zawahiri’s order.
However, the two wings of al Qaeda continue to fight alongside one another in Syria against their common enemies.
In early August, al Baghdadi’s ISIL also released a statement on social media sites disavowing Facebook and Twitter users who had accused Zawahiri of betraying the ISIL. The ISIL denounced 17 Facebook pages for spreading “slander” and “lie(s)” about Zawahiri.
Al Baghdadi’s Islamic State continues to launch high-profile attacks inside Syria. On Aug. 11, the same day the ISIL claimed credit for the bombing spree in Iraq, the ISIL also released a statement saying its forces are fighting alongside other jihadist groups to expel Assad’s forces from the Latakia governorate on Syria’s coast.
The ISIL claimed that the “mujahideen took control of” 12 Shiite villages “one after the other” and then launched rockets on al Qardaha, the birthplace of Bashar al Assad.
The attacks were part of what the ISIL calls the “Cleansing of the Coast” campaign in the Latakia governorate, according to the SITE Intelligence Group’s translation of the statement.