Baghdad bombings, al Qaeda and the insurgency

The National Intelligence Estimate gets it wrong

A map of the Sunni Islamic State from an al Qaeda video. Image from MEMRI.

A pair of bombs ripped through a predominately Shia market in eastern Baghdad, killing at least 80 and wounding hundreds. While no group has claimed responsibility for the attack, the likely culprit is al Qaeda in Iraq. In an effort to dissociate itself as a force promoting civil war and sectarian violence, al Qaeda has ceased to claim credit for brutal attacks against Shia. But it hasn’t ceased the attacks.

Today’s bombings in Baghdad bear the hallmarks of an al Qaeda strike. The timing, target and mode of attack carry the signature of an al Qaeda operation. The bombing also helps expose a fallacy of the recent National Intelligence Estimate, which claims al_Qaeda plays only a minor role in the insurgency.

Timing: As the Associated Press notes, the attacks were coordinated on the very day of the anniversary of the Samarra bombing, where al Qaeda destroyed the Golden Dome of the al-Askaria mosque, the most revered site in Shia Islam. The bombing kicked off a wave of sectarian violence which has threatened to plunge Iraq into civil war.

But not only was the attack in Baghdad on the very day of the Samarra bombing, it was timed to occur “shortly after the government called for a 15-minute period of commemoration for the Feb. 22 Samarra bombing.”

Targets: Today’s bombings, like several others over the past month, have occurred in predominantly Shia areas, ensuring Shia are killed, thus further discrediting the government’s ability to protect them. In order for al Qaeda to establish its rump Islamic State, it needs the Iraqi Security Forces to fail, Baghdad to remain a sectarian battlefield and the U.S. to draw down or withdraw from Iraq. Mass attacks on Shia civilians radicalizes the Shia, forces them to choose between the government and militias, and places greater political pressure on the U.S. to withdraw lest it be mired in a ‘civil war.’

Mode of Attack: The attackers used car bombs, planned the attack to inflict massive casualties, and coordinated the attacks to occur nearly simultaneously. “The bombs struck within a minute of each other, targeting two buildings about 200 yards apart,” notes the Associated Press. “One of the cars was parked near the entrance to a parking garage under one of the buildings.” The Interior Minster later stated three suspects were arrested in the attack: two foreigners and one Iraqi.

The National Intelligence Estimate

At the beginning of February, the intelligence community released the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which claimed “sectarian bloodshed has surpassed the threat from al Qaeda,” and continued to promote the idea al Qaeda is only a small element of the insurgency. The NIE was hotly disputed by four intelligence agencies, and “four of America’s 16 intelligence agencies have obliged the Directorate of National Intelligence to provide a formal dissent to the 90-page classified Iraq assessment.” The disagreement was over al Qaeda’s role in the insurgency (as well as issues related to Pakistan). Eli Lake of the New York Sun reports:

According to two sources familiar with the addendum, the dissenters argue that the Baathist wing of the umbrella Sunni terrorist group has ceded authority to Abu Ayoub al-Masri, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq who replaced Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The majority view, endorsed by the CIA, the National Security Agency, the State Department, and others, holds that a majority of the Sunni insurgency is still comprised of Baathists and Sunni nationalists…

At issue in the bureaucratic fight is the methodology for counting Al Qaeda fighters. “They employed a methodology by looking at the fighter’s background,” an intelligence analyst familiar with the debate told The New York Sun. “The CIA looked at whether the fighters were recruited through religious means, or did they go to a training camp.”

What the supporters of the NIE fail to recognize is al Qaeda, despite what its composition and number of foreign fighters, is a major driving force behind the sectarian violence by conducting mass casualty attacks designed to divide the Iraqi government and her people. The January attacks in Baghdad clearly demonstrate al Qaeda is a driving force behind both the insurgency and the sectarian violence.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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20 Comments

  • crosspatch says:

    It doesn’t take a large number of people to cause mass casualties. It took around 20 to kill thousands of Americans on 9/11. Today’s bombing could have been pulled off by less than 5 people. I think the NIE and many other people somehow equate numbers of members in a group to the amount of destruction they can cause. They mistakenly assume that since there are relatively few AQI, then they are not a significant threat. The fact is that the smallest group can be the biggest threat to security if they are ruthless and bloodthirsty enough to commit horrible acts of murder.
    It takes no great skill, courage, coordination, or training to slaughter hundreds of civilians as if they were a flock of sheep. All it takes is a mentality of brutal murder. The root cause is a systemic religious indoctrination that teaches children from the time they are old enough to understand speech that people who don’t share their values are subhuman and fair game for slaughter. The foundation is the salafist religious teachings. Until that is reformed or eliminated, this isn’t going to stop.

  • Nick says:

    ‘What the supporters of the NIE fail to recognize is al-Qaeda, despite what its composition and number of foreign fighters, is a major driving force behind the sectarian violence by conducting mass casualty attacks designed to divide the Iraqi government and her people. The January attacks in Baghdad clearly demonstrate al-Qaeda is a driving force behind both the insurgency and the sectarian violence.’
    Good point Bill – puts the Iran-inspired attacks into context. Perhaps it’s time to recognise that the Coalition and the majority Iraqi Shi’ites both have something in common – a loathing of Al-Qaida, Sunnites, and Baathists.

  • TS Alfabet says:

    Will someone PLEASE explain to me how the security forces allow vehicles of any kind to get ANYWHERE NEAR any kind of crowded marketplace??!!!
    Is it so difficult to simply barricade off several blocks around popular marketplaces and deny access by any vehicles except: 1) Coalition vehicles; 2) local govt vehicles, and; 3) delivery vehicles ??? And of course, #2 and #3 could only enter the area after being thoroughly inspected. Otherwise, civilian vehicles would not be admitted. Period. Even fat, lazy Americans have grown used to walking around malls and markets closed to vehicular traffic.
    Obviously this doesn’t take care of the suicide bombers — although a barricade system with good security checks for anyone entering or exiting the area on foot would go a long way to solving this, too– but the main, devastating damage is done by this stupid VBIEDS. SO LET’S JUST DENY THEM ACCESS!!!
    How is it that we see this happen time after time and don’t seem to learn anything from it?

  • RJ says:

    When Abdul and his brethren gather the night before to assemble the truck bomb…they do this where? Are they alone, outside of some neighborhood, in a field over the horizon? I doubt this; most likely they are down the steet, up the alley, around the corner, in a building where Habib often gets hungry for some take out, sending the young lad down the way to buy some food while others load the bomb. So, when the local neighborhood tires of this bloodshed, won’t they “out” these guys to others? Urban warfare knowledge is not new, nor those games we can play to win. Just a matter of making it happen! Maybe we spend too much time wondering about Anna Nicole. Oh well, “24” is on tonight, might as well see what’s in store for us down the road. Yea, I’ve lost the bright side of my outlook…I suspect many others have too!

  • ECH says:

    TS Alfabet,
    The US hasn’t thought of its duty to protect Iraqi civilians from suicide bomb attacks. Protect our own forces yes, but not Iraqi civilians.
    Thus, we really haven’t made procedures like you stated to make life any safer for them. As for the Iraqi government, it is made up of Shia most of who have no experence at governing and have no idea what they are doing.

  • Andrew R. says:

    IIRC, during the Mosul crackdown that mostly cleaned the place out in 2005, one of the things that U.S. and Iraqi forces did was to not allow large vehicles in the city unless their cargo was uncovered. Bill, you followed that closely, am I remembering this correctly?

    If so, they should be doing something like that in every Baghdad market.

  • Baghdad bombings, al-Qaeda and the insurgency

    Courtesy of The Fourth Rail:
    The National Intelligence Estimate gets it wrong
    A pair of bombs ripped through a predominately Shia market in eastern Baghdad, killing at least 80 and wounding hundreds. While no group has claimed responsibility for the…

  • BobK says:

    TS Alfabet,
    “The US hasn’t thought of its duty to protect Iraqi civilians from suicide bomb attacks. Protect our own forces yes, but not Iraqi civilians.”
    Posted by ECH | February 12, 2007 3:45 PM
    First to the question of traffic in town by TSA. That is one of those things that SOUNDS so easy. But the reality is SO VERY different. This is a city of 6.5 million plus people. They MUST travel, eat, buy and work. YOU NEED vehicled to do this.
    This is a PART of what the “surge ” is about , more guys on streets to help reduce this.
    ECH
    Any 3 couple guys could place and set a bomb anywhere(even OK and NY). Some will ALLWAYS succeed even if you had ECH working security at every corner. 6.5 million population will have how many cars, trucks, busses running in day. Maybe 200,000 or so. 1 or 2 blow up and WE THE US dont CARE you say. I disagree

  • ECH says:

    BobK,
    For all the debate, time, and tens of billions the US has spent on trying to better armor humvees and find new ways of beating IEDs we haven’t done many very basic things to deal with the problem of VBIEDs mass murdering Iraqis.

  • Neo-andertal says:

    Will someone PLEASE explain to me how the security forces allow vehicles of any kind to get ANYWHERE NEAR any kind of crowded marketplace??!!!
    I’m no expert but I can name a few factors.
    1. Baghdad is one of the most sprawled out cities in the world. The closest US equivalent I can think of is San Antonio, though Baghdad is much larger. It’s a horizontal city were everything is one story with roads going all over the place. Unlike San Antonio the privacy walls are brick and concrete instead of wooden fences and they go around the front of buildings instead of the back making neighborhoods like hostile mini fortresses.
    2. The markets are patterned after old bazaars, whole streets go on and on with shops for miles right out in the middle of the street. This seems to be gradually disappearing as a way to shop. The market hit today sounded more like a modern shopping center. I’m afraid the old way of shopping on the sidewalks and streets will be a thing of the past.
    3. It’s so easy to bribe someone to let you through. Both the army, police and militias are loaded with posers, moles, the corrupt, the stupid, and the desperate.
    4. The current plan for Baghdad is only in it’s initial stages. (and already declared a total failure)
    5. The current state of hostilities on the streets would make standard policing procedure difficult even given a uniformly competent police force.

  • Neo says:

    That first sentence should be in quotes

  • Neo says:

    “IIRC, during the Mosul crackdown that mostly cleaned the place out in 2005, one of the things that U.S. and Iraqi forces did was to not allow large vehicles in the city unless their cargo was uncovered.”

  • Neo says:

    I was wrong, it wasn’t a modern market.
    If the article is right it was the Shorja market, Baghdad’s oldest. The initail reports said something about the entrance to a parking lot getting hit. Of course I assumed parking garage, but that’s probably wrong.

  • Is Al Qaeda Behind the Mass Murdering Truck Bombs?

    Bill Roggio looks at the debate over whether al-Qaeda now runs the Baathist insurgency and what mass killers hope to gain from murdering innocent Iraqi civilians….

  • Ajam says:

    Now this article should really give us pause. Bill facts appear to support a very active role for Al Qaeda in the latest round of massive car bombings. Not Iraqi Sunni nationalists, but Al Qaeda — shadowy extremists from somewhere else. So, we’re talking “provocation”.
    Who would want to provoke civil war between Sunni’s and Shiite’s? The old 9/11 Al Qaeda (originally the CIA’s proxy against the Russians) wanted US military out of Saudi Arabia (Osama was a Saudi). How does it benefit the new Al Qaeda to divide Iraqi’s against each other? Seems like they’d do much better getting everybody together to oust the common US enemy. I wonder if we could persuade Bill Riggio to follow the money and guess who has the most to gain from the new, improved Al Qaeda boogey-men.

  • ECH says:

    Ajam,
    Zarqawi may be dead, but his organization still follows his playbook.
    Read his 2003 letter to Bin Laden sometime.

  • Fred Beloit says:

    I continue to wonder about whether there is a vehicle registration system in Iraq. If there were one it would certainly make it possible to find the origins of the vehicles so often used by the bombers and to substantiate the Al Qaeda connection. If there is no system now, one should be initiated immediately.

  • David Weitzel says:

    I spent 5 months in the Iraqi Reconstruction living with civilians, teaching Local Officials about organization. From May 2003, to mid August 2003, it was a safe environment. Then a flood of strangers, Iraqis asked who the “outsiders” were. They were from Iran and Syria. They began the killing, the bombing of the UN, the Iraqis and of course CPA Soldiers.
    In short, the war in Iraq ended in May 2003. The new theatre of Al-Qaeda for against Iraqis and the Coalition began in Mid August with the Bombing of the Mosque and the UN in Baghdad. The total inability of the Administration, the Press, the Liberal Politicians to understand the war is now against the terrorists who are killing Iraqi Civilians and destroying the reconstruction of Iraq, may prove to be the most tragic mistake of the 21st Century. Some do understand, but the blind obsession of American Liberalism with ignoring the basics of the war on terror, may kill us all.

  • David M says:

    Trackbacked by The Thunder Run – Web Reconnaissance for 02/13/2007
    A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention.

  • TS Alfabet says:

    Thanks to ECH and Neo-andertal for your posts.
    Some further reflection:
    1). With all due respect, with the exception of the problem of bribed security personnel, I still maintain that it is not too difficult to secure the most attractive targets, even in a large city like Baghdad.
    This is not to say that ALL attacks can ALWAYS be prevented EVERYWHERE, but the most attractive targets to AQ and Co. are the spots where large numbers of people are densely congregated in a small area, like a market. If that means having to re-configure the market to make it more defensible and thereby safer, I do not see any Iraqi complaining about that.
    2) Assuming for the sake of argument that the US/Coalition has not, up to this point, considered it a priority to safeguard these type of targets, that will have to change. We cannot ignore the primary fact of this war that IT IS A BATTLE OF PUBLIC PERCEPTION and little else. As a result, if the muj can’t create huge casualities to grab the attention of American media– and that number seems to be going up all the time if you notice how rarely the media will now report any bombing that doesn’t kill at least 20 or 30 people– then they are losing. In order to sap the will of Americans, they have to keep the killing constantly on the front pages which means the need to continually be looking for bigger and better operations with lots of bodies everywhere. As such, markets and such are targets that we cannot afford to let them have.
    Perhaps someone who is familiar with Baghdad can give a perspective, but in my experience with several American cities, there are often areas closed to all vehicular traffic, where shoppers must walk (or ride small security golf carts for the disabled/elderly). I am only speculating, but the culture of Iraq seems to be based around local neighborhoods, so, for example, someone who lives in the Mansour section of Baghdad would most likely do their food shopping at a local market place rather than driving across Baghdad to the Safeway like we do because it has a big discount on bratwurst this week. If so, then it should not be too much of a strain to make sure that each neighborhood has a “secure” market area for the locals, hopefully policed/guarded by the locals who know their neighbors and would be less likely to take a bribe if it meant that cousin Jamal is going to get blown to bits.
    3) As mentioned above, the surge is only beginning so I suppose this will be one way to measure its success in coming months: to the degree that AQ is denied high-impact kills, the public perception (which is all that matters now, sad to say) will be progress.
    4)As to Ajam’s comment about the motive for AQ in killing Shia, it’s quite apparent: AQ is a Sunni terrorist group that considers the Shia as a kind of vermin. And AQ can only garner support from Sunnis in Iraq so long as the Sunnis feel threatened by the Shia, so AQ has to continually stir the hatreds up. Ultimately, i suppose, AQ figures that they can set up their own little republic in Anbar with assistance from the Sunni countries around them like Saudi Arabia and have themselves their own base of operations in the heart of the Middle East.

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