Al Qaeda in Iraq: Last stand, or sign of resilience?

View Iraq – May 10, 2010 terrorist attacks in a larger map

In the wake of a deadly wave of coordinated bombings and shootings in Iraq on Monday, which marked the bloodiest day in the country so far this year, Iraqi and American authorities have scrambled to reassure the public that the Iraqi security forces remain firmly in control of the security situation in Iraq, and that American forces will continue to withdraw from the country as planned.

Both Iraqi and American security officials have blamed the attacks, which killed 119 people and injured more than 350, on al Qaeda in Iraq. The officials reiterated their belief that the terrorist organization has been seriously damaged in recent months, as Iraqi and American forces have succeeded in killing or capturing a number of key al Qaeda commanders.

A resilient al Qaeda, or sign of desperation?

Although many Western press reports have depicted the attacks as an attempt by al Qaeda in Iraq to prove their continued resilience and capabilities despite significant losses during the past few months, US officials have characterized Monday’s attacks as a “last, desperate attempt” to disrupt the formation of a new Iraqi government. In remarks echoed by many of his counterparts, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs downplayed the impact of the violence, saying that “we have always known that…[al Qaeda] would make one last charge at trying to foment violence and chaos.” Iraqi Ministry of Defense spokesman Mohammad al Askari said that the attacks were a “natural” reaction by al Qaeda “as a result of blows the organization has suffered recently.”

The sheer number of coordinated attacks in one day — around 24 — and their wide geographic distribution across the country — Mosul, Fallujah, Baghdad, Hilla, and Basra — is unprecedented in Iraq during the past two years. [view map]

On the one hand, al Qaeda in Iraq has proven that the near-total decapitation of their leadership since January has not eliminated their ability to organize and execute complex attacks, at least in the short term. In Monday’s attacks, al Qaeda gunmen were also reported to have used silenced weapons in their assaults on security checkpoints throughout Baghdad in order to gain the element of surprise, a tactic that has increasingly been used this past year.

Al Qaeda used a diverse range of tactics in Monday’s attacks, including:

• Suicide car bombs (7)

• Suicide vests (2)

• Small arms/automatic weapons (7)

• Remotely-detonated bombs (11)

Monday’s attacks mark a decided shift in Al Qaeda in Iraq’s targeting strategy, however. Al Qaeda’s attacks in Iraq in 2009 were characterized by massive VBIED attacks against high-profile targets, including key government buildings in Baghdad as well as Shia religious sites. Beginning with the June 20, 2009, truck bombing of the Shia Al Rasul mosque near Kirkuk, al Qaeda in Iraq executed a series of high-profile bombing attacks:

June 24, 2009 – A bomb kills 72 people at a busy market in eastern Baghdad’s Sadr City. At least 127 people are wounded.

August 19, 2009 – At least six blasts strike near government ministries and other targets in Baghdad, killing 95 people and wounding 536.

October 25, 2009 – Twin car bombs target the Justice Ministry and the Baghdad provincial government building, killing at least 155 people and wounding more than 500 in central Baghdad.

December 8, 2009 – At least four car bombs explode in Iraq’s capital, near a courthouse, a judges’ training center, a Finance Ministry building and a police checkpoint in a district of southern Baghdad. At least 112 people are killed and hundreds wounded.

Since January 2010, however, the organization’s tactics seem to have shifted to coordinating more numerous, smaller-scale attacks on softer targets. The April 23, 2010, attacks in particular — 13 blasts which hit different areas of Baghdad, mostly near Shiite mosques and marketplaces, killing at least 56 people — are indicative of al Qaeda’s new tactical approach.

The scope of Monday’s assault — a combination of attacks on both military and civilian targets — highlights this shift. Al Qaeda struck not only security checkpoints, but also numerous civilian targets, chosen seemingly at random — a textile factory, a market, residential neighborhoods, food and alcohol shops, a mosque, and a petrol station. The most high-profile attack was an attempt to assassinate Baghdad’s mayor, Muhammad Jassem al Mashhadani, in an attack on his motorcade north of the city.

The loss of so many key al Qaeda leaders in Iraq over the past few months may explain this shift — smaller but more numerous attacks on lower-profile targets are easier to plan and execute than the spectacular, massive vehicle-borne suicide attacks on heavily guarded government facilities that al Qaeda has preferred in the past.

Al Qaeda in Iraq leadership damaged this year

Iraqi and American forces killed the top two al Qaeda in Iraq leaders — Abu Ayyub al Masri, leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, and Abu Omar al Baghdadi, head of the Islamic State of Iraq — in a raid near Tikrit last month.

This blow to al Qaeda in Iraq’s leadership came after a string of similar successes as Iraqi and American security forces have attempted to systematically dismantle the organization:

In March, Iraqi security forces captured Manaf Abdulrehim al Rawi, al Qaeda’s operational commander in Baghdad. Al Rawi’s capture may have provided intelligence that led to the killing of al Masri and al Baghdadi weeks later, according to US intelligence officials.

The successful raid that killed al Masri and al Baghdadi provided Iraqi security forces with intelligence that led to the killing of Ahmad Ali Abbas Dahir al Ubayd, al Qaeda’s top military operational commander for northern Iraq, on April 20.

On April 6, Iraqi forces captured two senior leaders of al Qaeda in Mosul, including al Qaeda’s recently-appointed “emir” for northern Iraq, who had held the position for only two weeks. His predecessor, Bashar Khalaf Husyan Ali al Jaburi, was killed by Iraqi security forces on March 24.

On January 22, Iraqi and US forces killed Abu Khalaf, al Qaeda in Iraq’s most senior facilitator of foreign fighters. Iraqi and American forces have also captured or killed numerous other al Qaeda leaders in northern Iraq during the past few months, including al Qaeda’s emir for economic affairs, the administrative emir, a top adviser to the sharia emir, and the detainee affairs emir.

Are you a dedicated reader of FDD's Long War Journal? Has our research benefitted you or your team over the years? Support our independent reporting and analysis today by considering a one-time or monthly donation. Thanks for reading! You can make a tax-deductible donation here.



  • madashell59 says:

    The sad part is that these types of attacks will continue to happen because of the porous borders and the limited intelligence coming from the people (Although alot more than there has been in the past). To the Iraqis it is hard for so many to understand your fear but you can have law and order, you can be safe, you can prosper and provide a wonderful live for your families. You just have to release your fear and help your government squash these murderers.

  • Render says:

    But from this distance and perspective it looks like there may have been something of a change in tactics or even overall strategy. Did they lose a key bomb maker or two at some point recently?
    One might think that the announcement that US forces are still leaving on schedule could be perceived as something of a benefit to al-Q.
    The message is, “We’re still here and you are leaving. We will still be here when you are gone.”

  • Vincent Chiu says:

    I’m just wondering, is it possible this change in strategy could have been planned before Al qaeda’s leadership was killed/captured? Would this have been planned as a fallback option should, as Render said, they lost a bombmaker?

  • James says:

    It should be quite obvious to anyone that the main gateway for Al Queda into Iraq is none other than Syria.
    I hope one of these days that Iraq will pounce all over Syria for this.
    In addition, as far as I know, Hussein’s intelligence chief (I believe his name is Ibrahim) is still at large and obviously hiding his hide in Syria. This might be the major source of the problems the Iraqis are having now.
    Hopefully, with the right intel, the Iraqis will locate this scum and promptly eliminate him.
    May I suggest that the Iraqis need to take some kind of a detailed census of its people and the dwelling structures in Iraq to the best extent possible.
    They might then color code each individual and/or dwelling place; green for good, yellow for caution, and red for a definite threat.

  • Zeissa says:

    In the long term AQI will be less and less of a threat. The long-term interlopers come from the East.

  • Lorenz Gude says:

    This post is a good example of why I read LWJ. The opening question – is it resilience or desperation? – might well be asked by an MSM article. What would be missing would be the analysis of the change in strategy over time that a military specialist like Bill has shown over and over he is capable of producing. A typical reporter would have little idea of the military significance of the change in strategy and would take refuge in one knowledgeable sounding meme or another. I remember Bill’s first flash presentation of the US Military’s search and destroy operations in Anbar about 2004 that showed the pattern of the attacks. THE MSM made no attempt to understand the underlying stratigic pattern – instead, they memed it Whack-a-Mole.

  • Andrew R. says:

    I suspect that one issue that’s going to come to the fore as U.S. forces gradually leave is that ISF are not very good at forensics. Their preferred method tends to be beating confessions out of people, which is not terribly effective against an entity as well organized as AQI. It’s going to be in actual detective work that, I suspect, the absence of U.S. forces will be felt most keenly.

  • Bungo says:

    Obviously no one knows the correct answer to this question. You could ask the same question about AQ in general. I, personally, think they are fighting a losing battle but it will take several more years for them to dissintegrate since they have separated into so many loosely allied cells in so many different countries and locations. The bottom line is that they will never be able to acheive any of their goals besides “general terror” because of their deeply flawed stategy and lack of support by the general populations of their targeted countries.

  • Cordell says:

    The recent attacks suggest a few trends:
    First, only a third of the attacks involved suicide bombers. This change may reflect the reduced flow of new recruits through Syria, the main transit route for suicide bombers, as well as the diminished standing of AQ among muslims. Arab media now consistently portrays AQ as murders of innocent muslim civilians rather than heroic defenders of Islam. In addition, AQI’s ranks may now be so depleted that they cannot spare additional losses.
    Second, the increasing use of silenced weapons as opposed to bombs and the use of smaller bombs may indicate a degraded bomb-making capability and expertise. AQI appears unable to smuggle, procure or make sufficient quantities of explosives for larger attacks, a situation likely reflecting scarce funding, reduced material flow through Syrian/Iranian supply lines, and limited manpower/expertise to synthesize explosives from raw ingredients.
    Third, as Alex Mayer already stated, AQI is now resorting to attacks against softer targets that require less planning and organization. AQI’s new leaders undoubtedly wish to demonstrate among Iraqis that they are still a threat despite the recent capture and killing of its former leaders. They may also, however, feel the need to prove their leadership abilities with their rank and file while curbing declining morale. Moreover, the recent attack against a textile factory suggests AQI’s frustration with Iraq’s booming economy that saps the organization’s ability to attract new members.
    Northern Ireland’s booming economy during the late 1980’s and 1990’s ultimately killed the IRA’s campaign of terrorism and paved the way for peace. Job opportunities and prosperity sapped Catholic grievances and attacks against innocent civilians undermined the legitimacy of the insurgency. Most likely, as this precedent and the above trends suggest, AQI’s attacks will continue for years to come but on an increasingly smaller scale until the organization simply fades away — so long as Iraq continues to develop politically and economically. Iraq’s oil production will more than triple in the next five years under the newly signed production contracts, underpinning robust economic growth. All that remains is for Iraq’s politicians to come together and produce a stable, effective government that can deliver basic services to its people.


Islamic state



Al shabaab

Boko Haram