Al Qaeda establishes “a haven in Diyala”

Al Qaeda in Iraq safe havens before the surge up until November 2007. Map from The Institute for the Study of War. Click to view.

With al Qaeda in Iraq’s bases of operations dismantled in the central Baghdad regions, Diyala province has emerged as the primary battleground between Iraqi and Coalition forces and the terror group. As the concurrent combat operations against al Qaeda in Baghdad and the Belts regions peaked during the summer and fall, al Qaeda in Iraq attempted to re-establish its bases in the northern provinces of Salahadin, Ninewa, Tamin, and Diyala. In the region northeast of Miqdadiyah, al Qaeda in Iraq has gains some traction.

Al Qaeda’s attempts to reform in Ninewa have largely been blunted as the group is short of funds and its leadership fractured, Major General Mark Hertling, the commander of Multinational Division North said in a recent interview with Voices of Iraq. “Al Qaeda suffered fund shortage and posed no big danger in Ninewa after [the] killing and arresting a number of its financiers [by US and Iraqi forces],” Hertling said. “The armed groups activating in the provinces worked without funds, after their field financiers escaped with money, causing a splinter in the organization.”

US and Iraqi security forces launched Operation Iron Reaper in the north on Dec. 3 in an effort to keep al Qaeda in Iraq from reestablishing its command and control and bases of operation in the region. The rapid expansion of Concerned Local Citizen groups in Ninewa, Salahadin, and Tamin provinces has also helped keep al Qaeda in Iraq from fully regrouping in the North.

But Diyala province has emerged as one of the most dangerous regions in Iraq, Rear Admiral Gregory Smith, the director of communications for Multinational Forces Iraq said today in a press briefing in Baghdad. Al Qaeda in Iraq has “found a haven in Diyala,” Smith noted. The Concerned Local Citizen and Awakening movements, the tribal groups and former insurgents that have banded together to fight al Qaeda in Iraq, will be a primary force against al Qaeda in Iraq in Diyala province.

Miqdadiyah is center of the storm

The Miqdadiyah and Khanaqin districts in the eastern portion of Diyala province have emerged as al Qaeda in Iraq’s main staging point, according to attack data, Iraqi and Coalition operations, as well as a map released by Multinational Forces Iraq in November. The Miqdadiyah district includes Baqubah, the provincial capital.

The map released by Multinational Forces Iraq in November, which shows how al Qaeda-controlled territory in central Iraq declined during the course of the surge, clearly shows that al Qaeda has only expanded its territory in one region: Diyala province. Al Qaeda in Iraq has expanded its influence around the lake in Khanaqin district, just northeast of Miqdadiyah and Baqubah. From these regions, Al Qaeda also controls some small pockets in rural areas southeast and northwest of the lake.

Al Qaeda in Iraq has staged suicide car bomb attacks, established false checkpoints, and attacked Concerned Local Citizen groups and Diyala’s Awakening movement from these bases. Three high-profile attacks have occurred in Miqdadiyah during December. Terrorists posing as Iraqi soldiers kidnapped 14 civilians at a fake checkpoint near the city on Dec. 24.

On Dec. 7, a female suicide bomber killed 16 and wounded 27 when she detonated her vest “amidst a gathering of civilians in central Miqdadiyah district” in Diyala province. “A female suicide bomber attacked the popular committees [Concerned Local Citizens] headquarters in al-Mualimeen neighborhood,” Voices of Iraq reported. That same day, a suicide car bomber “detonated a car crammed with explosives this afternoon targeting a joint checkpoint of the Iraqi army and the Miqdadiyah popular committees.” Seven Iraqi soldiers and three police volunteers were killed in the attack; eight were wounded.

Iraqi and Coalition forces conducted numerous operations and raids in the region northeast of Miqdadiyah, indicating the region is a hotspot. The largest such operation resulted in 24 al Qaeda fighters killed and 37 detained. Nine weapons caches, along with al Qaeda medical facilities and a torture house were discovered during the operations. Three days later, in a follow-up operation, Coalition forces conducted a sweeping operation in the same region. Twelve al Qaeda fighters were killed and 37 captured between Dec. 22 and 25.

Coalition forces also conducted a raid inside Miqdadiyah on Dec. 23. A Coalition special forces team targeted an al Qaeda operative in charge of “terrorist media and propaganda operations and a direct associate of senior leadership in the network.” Five suspects were detained and the terror complex was destroyed. Another special forces raid north of Miqdadiyah resulted in four al Qaeda fighters killed and the discovery of an al Qaeda facility. Multinational Forces Iraq lost a MQ-1 Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle during an operation in the region on Dec. 17.

Map of Diyala province [PDF]. Click to view.

Baqubah in the crosshairs

Al Qaeda in Iraq has used its bases in the Miqdadiyah and Khanaqin districts to strike at targets not only in Baqubah but also in the surrounding areas. The main focus of al Qaeda’s attacks has been the Sunni and Shia groups fighting against al Qaeda and the Iraqi security forces. The city is under Iraqi and US control, but al Qaeda is seeking to undermine the local security forces that have been established to fight the terror group.

On Dec. 26, al Qaeda killed three members of the 1920s Revolution Brigades in a suicide bomb attack on a headquarters in Baqubah. The 1920s Revolution Brigades fought against al Qaeda under the guise of the Baqubah Guardians and have integrated into the Diyala Awakening Council. Two members of the Awakening were killed while conducting a joint patrol on Dec. 21, while a suicide bomber killed 10 and wounded 18 in an attack on an Awakening recruitment center on Dec. 20. An officer of the Awakening in Baqubah was killed and four soldiers wounded in an attack on a patrol in the city on Dec. 15.

Al Qaeda has also attempted to intimidate the local population by conducting attacks in markets and cafes. There were three mass-casualty bombings in the city since Nov. 27. An al Qaeda suicide bombing at a cafe in Baqubah killed 12 and wounded 20 on Dec. 19. Five civilians were killed and 12 others wounded in a car bomb blast that ripped through central Baqubah on Dec. 5. Six people, including three policemen, were killed and seven others wounded when a suicide bomber wearing an explosive belt packed with ball bearings attacked the Diyala police headquarters in central Baqubah on Nov. 27.

Outside Baqubah

The Khalis region, which is northwest of Baqubah and due east of Miqdadiyah, has been hardest hit by al Qaeda violence outside of the provincial capital. Al Qaeda is said to control the town of Safit and is battling the neighboring town of Dojama. Iraqi tribesmen, backed by police, killed five al Qaeda fighters in Safit on Dec. 23. A week earlier, a major battle between al Qaeda and the tribes was reported; 22 al Qaeda and 17 tribesmen were said to have been killed. Iraqi soldiers and police captured 25 al Qaeda fighters in Khalis on Dec. 6, while 14 Iraqis were kidnapped at a fake checkpoint on Dec. 24.

The Balad Ruz region east of Baqubah has also seen an uptick in fighting. Al Qaeda operatives kidnapped 22 Iraqis at a fake checkpoint between Kanaan and Balad Ruz on Dec. 27. Four civilians were killed and 24 wounded in an IED attack at a market in Balad Ruz on Dec. 17, while a senior al Qaeda commander in Diyala province was captured in the city on Dec. 25. Further east in Mandali, police captured 10 al Qaeda operatives. Al Qaeda in Iraq carried out brutal attacks against the villages in the Mandali region in the spring of 2007.

Fighting al Qaeda in Diyala province

The surge in Iraqi security forces and the rise of the Concerned Local Citizens and Awakening movements are considered to be the backbone of the fight against al Qaeda in Iraq in Diyala province. “AQI [al Qaeda in Iraq] remains a threat throughout Iraq,” said Smith. “Future operations will continue to hunt down their cells and stop their abilities to hurt civilians. CLCs [Concerned Local Citizen] will be involved with securing the Diyala area.”

With a drawdown of US forces imminent this spring, national and local Iraqi security forces will be forced to shoulder a larger burden of the fight against al Qaeda in Iraq in Diyala province. US forces will be forced at some point, due to resources, to reduce the number of brigades in Iraq. The surge added five extra brigades to Iraq, to increase the number to 20 in country, while an additional combat brigade was deployed to Afghanistan. The US military does not have the ability to support these high deployment numbers indefinitely. Meanwhile, with the upcoming presidential primaries and then election, political pressure to drawn down US forces will increase.

Al Qaeda in Iraq is targeting the Awakening movements and the Concerned Local Citizens in an attempt to break these organizations before they can grow strong roots in their local areas. Osama bin Laden, in his latest tape, stated Sunnis must reject these movements. These Sunnis “have betrayed the nation and brought disgrace and shame to their people,” bin Laden stated. “They will suffer in life and in the afterlife.”

Al Qaeda in Iraq, via its front group the Islamic State of Iraq, pressed for a campaign against the Sunnis working with US forces and the Iraqi government. Al Qaeda has conducted several high-profile attacks against the Awakening but has been unable to shatter the movement. A similar campaign by al Qaeda against the Anbar Awakening failed after al Qaeda launched a brutal campaign in the province.

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



  • Bill,
    Thanks for the great piece here. But I’m confused as to why the U.S. and Iraqi Operation in Diyala, what was it last Fall?, didn’t succeed? I thought that the results had pushed al Qaeda even further north and perhaps east. Was this a case where they moved back in after we left?
    Also, is there a case in Diyala where al Qaeda has more civilian support than other areas? I thought we heard of horrific stories of abuse in Baquaba done by al Qaeda and curious how they can find any place they can hide without tips coming in.
    One final question. Is this not an area that air support could flush them out? I’m not sure of the population density in Diyala but was wondering if some air strikes couldn’t at least create some “movement.”

  • Turner says:

    I guess it’s hard to drive out folks masquerading as normal people. I would also guess AQI will try to regroup in declining waves over time. Places they have nested before, places near the Iran border have certain advantages.
    Lake Buhayrat Hamrin, where the diagram shows the biggest infestation, is an area of small agricultural plots clinging to the edge of the lake, surrounded by desert. It would appear that one of the advantages MNF and Iraqi forces would have in this area is the sparse population and single/double story building type. Much harder to hide in than Baghdad, once you have an ID. It’s a pretty contained landscape with few places to run. To the extent the locals have the courage and ability to spy and reidentify the terrorists, it’s a pretty small bottle for the terrorists to hide in.
    -Thanks Bill

  • Bill Roggio says:

    The operation – Iron Reaper – is still ongoing. The Miqdadiyah region is pretty remote and abuts the Hamrin mountain chain. The operations are ongoing. Rememebr that the Kagan-Keane plan called for 60,000 US troops. General Petraeus got half, so the ops couldn’t press hard everywhere at once. This all isn’t bad news, if this is the only region al Qaeda could successfully rebase, we can deal with it. The purpose o me writing this is to identify where al Qaeda is operating from and the reason why violence in Diyala is high.

  • anand says:

    Bill is right. AQI has regenerated in a particular part of Diyala. AQI continues to have difficulty operating from most of Diyala.
    Unfortunately, this is no surprise. Diyala, in my opinion, remains the most difficult province in Iraq-and probably the last to go PIC, even though Diyala is still slated second last before Baghdad.
    MoI (and probably the SIIC provincial government, although I haven’t seen recent public source confirmation of this) continues to drag its feet on hiring more provincial IP. A lot more are needed . . . and the additional needed hires have been identified and vetted since April, 2007.
    My best estimate is that 5th IAD, based in Diyala, is the worst of the first 10 IADs. I have yet to see public source data suggesting significant improvement in 1-5 and 3-5 IA. 2-5 IA, by contrast remains promising. 4-5 IA is likely to start training next month. (it might have a lightly armored cavalry or wheeled mechanized battalion in it . . . and might be upgraded to lightly armored wheeled cavalry brigade soon after.) How 4-5 IA performs will be very important for Diyala.
    Note that portions of 4th and 2nd IAD were used in Diyala last summer. These forces are needed back north. Ninevah goes PIC in weeks, and as Gen Petraeus recently repeated, AQI remains a powerful adversary in Mosul.
    4th IAD needs all its battalions back as it splits and upgrades from 1 motorized infantry division to 2 mechanized tracked divisions (4th and 12th IADS). Substantial resources were diverted from 4th/12th IAD to the forming 14th mech IAD in view of British withdrawal, Basrah PIC, and the now reversed spike in violence in Basrah earlier this year.
    4th/12th IAD needs to prepare for At Tamin and Salahadin PIC scheduled for 6 months from now. At Tamin needs back-up for their referendum. Anti-Kurdish Sunni Arab militias remain potent there and may try to disrupt ethnic harmony in the province.
    I don’t think Diyala will go PIC before the US presidential election. It certainly shouldn’t in my opinion. I think 3.19.09 (6th year anniversary) might be a good date for the next President to formally hand PIC for all of Iraq to the GoI.
    One problem going forward is that more resources will be needed to deal with Pakistan (and its collateral damage in Afghanistan.) MNF-I will need to be drawn down substantially in 2009 to facilitate this.
    ISF development in Diyala province is running up against a fast moving Washington clock.

  • JB says:

    I was in Muqdidiyah in 06 with the 101st Airborne. The area has always been an al qadea hub. Especially with very senior leadership. Zarqawi used to hang out there. He was killed not far from muqdidiyah.
    The terrain is very tough and for some reason the higher ups keep assigning smaller cav units to the AO and not Infantry battalions. I don’t know if its some kind of joke or what. Maybe its because the conditions on FOB Normandy suck so bad only the bastard battalions are sent there. Maybe we know the terrain does not favor the attcker so we are afraid to go into the highly vegetated areas? The casualties are sure to be higher than the big offensive in Baqubah.
    GEN P needs to get serious about Muqdidiyah. AQI has pretty much had that area secured as a training base as the coaltion has Kuwait.

  • Barry says:

    I was just recently in the Dyala Province near the city of Balad. I was a Corpral in Bravo Company 2nd BN 9th Marines. Formally Bravo Company Anti-Terrorism BN, we transitioned over into 2/9 halfway through the deployment. I was deployed there for 7 months through the summer up until the middle of November. In my opinion the biggest problem we faced with the growing insergency with Al Qaeda coming up from Baqubah and establishing a foothold in the Area was the lack of action of the army command in the area. We were under the command of an amry reservest MP company.We were labeled as trouble makers and we were told by the base commander numerous times that our mission in the area was to guard the base not to fight the insergency. I m not sure why we are over in Iraq but isnt it to fight Al Qaeda and its supporters? There were numerous times we would see shady people posing as Iraqi police and Iraqi army but they wouldnt have IDs or even complete uniforms and they would say there were from an area near Baqubah or Kalis and were not allowed in our area. In one instance we pulled up on 15 iraqis who were supposedly iraqi police. They had setup an illegal checkpoint in our area of operation. We received intel stating that there were iraqi police robbing and kiddnapping people on the highway to the south near Kalis. We caught them by suprise they could not go anywhere. One man was in an iraqi police uniform. the rest were wearing iraqi army desert uniforms and the kurdish troop uniforms from the north. Only 2 individuals wearing the army uniforms had military boots on. the rest had dress shoes. Only 2 out of the 15 had IDs on them. We sat on the radio argueing with the army command for 2 hours. Their response was, I heard it myself on the radio, “They are iraqi police let them go.” Reluctently we had no choice in the matter. We let them go and traveled south to the edge of our AO.Those “iraqi police” followed us and left our AO. We stopped in a village and talked to the people for about 30 minutes. We left to return to the base. We traveled down a side road to look for IEDs and then turned around and came back to base. When we pulled up there was an iraqi man laying on the ground in a pool of blood appearently his brother told us that when we left that village that the iraqi police that we stopped came back and tried to kidnap him. he resisted and tried to run and they shot him in the buttocks and it came out the front and severly damaged his private area. After we gave him first aid it took 30 minutes to get a medivac to Balad air base. Balad is less that 10 minute flight to my area. The army medics werent really up to the task of working on the guy or even most of the iraqis that come in that are hurt from gun shots or IED explosions. I honestly felt like that day i was trying to fight with both of my hands tied behind my back. This is just one example of the incompetency of the amry command in charge of us there. Out of the 600+ army personnel on the base my Marine company of 202 was the only unit doing security patrols in the area. Most of them never left the base their entire 15 months there except to go home for a month halfway through their deployment for R&R.This is, in my opinion why it is taking so long to fight this war in iraq.

  • anand says:

    Thanks for your service to this country Barry. And thanks for your information.

  • anand says:

    Barry, are you allowed to discuss anything regarding the ISF you worked with? If so, can you share something regarding your impressions of them?

  • JB says:

    Barry, it is uncalled for for you to disrespect the entire Army leadership in Iraq. My battalion is at FOB Paliwoda outside LSA Anaconda and are conducting combat operations in the Balad area as you read this.
    Most soldiers at Anaconda are support soldiers hence the LSA designation, their job isnt to go outside the wire.
    Army medics at Balad saved my life, the lives of 6 of my men and one of my Iraqi Interpreters. Maybe you didn’t see much combat during your short tour, but our soldiers are doing a great job saving lives and keeping us combat soldiers beaned, bulleted, and fueled. 15 months of combat is a lot different that 7, Marine. Welcome home.


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