The resurgence of al Qaeda in Iraq … in Iraq, and Syria, and Jordan, and Libya and …


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.

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  • Nic says:

    “And some 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. 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.”
    Lara Logan’s Address to BGA Annual Luncheon debunks myths about the situation in Afghanistan and supports what is stated above.
    (She is also easy on the eyes)

  • mike merlo says:

    while the Obama Administration unquestionably failed in its prosecution & securing of territories once liberated by US Military Forces. Our flaky Muslim allies in the region should taken a much more public, proactive & supportive role in favor of the US. Now look what they’ve got. Who cares & tough luck our flaky Muslim Allies had their chance & now they’re fighting for their very survival. Maybe its best ‘they’ learn the hard way.

  • Stephanie says:

    I am personally quite concerned about the US supporting the anti-government resistance in Syria (and Libya, etc.) AQ has infiltrated … and how many videos has Ayman al Zawahiri come out with urging Muslims to go join the resistance and fight against the regime? The administration needs to be VERY careful about who they fight along side of.

  • Chris Ferrell says:

    “Consequences of the complete withdrawal of US forces from Iraq continue.”
    May I suggest a change in your initial sentence, and the entire article. Try this introduction sentence:
    “Consequences of the US invasion of Iraq and Libya continue.”
    We can’t stop al Qaeda by playing whack-a-mole. For each one we kill we get three more. We need a new policy for the Middle East and the rest of the Muslim world. All we are doing is fueling the counter-productive American anti-terrorist industry that this blog thrives on. The current approach is not working and can’t work. We have managed to radicalize Libya and Iraq and Syria. Lebanon and Jordan will spiral into the same mess. That is the end result of the “War on Terror”

  • m3fd2002 says:

    The elephant in the room is Egypt. The “muslim brotherhood” is a rebranding of AlQaeda. Remember who killed Sadat and wounded Mubarek. The American/European public has their heads in the ground. There will be serious repercussions from the “Arab Spring”. Treating AlQaeda with a police mentality (tactical) versus a military (strategic) will not work. The survivoring AQI members are much more capable since they had to fight and survive the american military industrial complex, they will create havoc among the Arab armies in the region. Should get very interesting in the next few years.

  • Setrak says:

    I’m really hoping the Long War Journal is following the situation in Syria at the Sheikh Suleiman base. AP reports that Islamist forces have cornered the government fighters in the scientific research center on the base which may very likely contain chemical weapons.

  • blert says:

    Let’s keep known history straight.
    1) MB was founded when Egypt was ruled by Britain, between the war years.
    2) Its original orientation was anti-liberal — a male-supremacist creed that despaired at the new fangled rights of a modern woman, per British law and edicts.
    3) It received almost no following. Membership was trivial… less than a 500 souls as late as the 30s.
    4) Then the MB began to receive big money from Nazi Germany, via cutouts, and the creed was altered towards anti-colonialism/ nee anti-Britishism. Imagine that!
    5) During WWII the British put an absolute lid on the MB. German forces in Africa ( Rommel ) hoped to hook up with the MB as a fifth column to defeat the British. There are spy novels based upon those intrigues.
    6) Qytb took over the MB’s official political screed in the early 1950s — after he was repulsed by the antics of USAF girlfriends and fiancées in Colorado. ( They were going out on dates without chaperones! )
    7) He immediately shifted MB sentiments towards anti-Americanism, not anti-colonialism, as the primary ambit of the MB. That focus has never wavered from then till now. He was executed by Nasser as a traitor.
    8) The MB was repressed from almost the beginning by Nasser and his successors right through to Murbarak. Anwar Sadat was assassinated by MB affiliated operatives.
    9) While always Salafist in orientation, the MB was not considered fanatical enough by Zawahiri.
    10) He left their ranks entirely to join with OBL in the late 90s. This is when al Qeada, as is now known, congealed. That is, it represents a merger of OBL’s wing and Zawahiri’s wing. Each had their own crews.
    11) OBL’s crew started out as noobs in Afghanistan. However, he did bring independent financing and was a charismatic figurehead. The Afghans cross-trained OBL’s boys — with professional help from the Pakistani Army. That latter point is always dropped off the edge of the table when the histories are sketched.
    12) Once OBL and Z hooked up their sights turned on attacking America — right from the outset. So, back in the 90s AQ attacked our African embassies. (The ones under the purview of Ms. Rice, as it happens.)
    13) Leaving out some details… the crew debouched off to Afghanistan after Sudan got too hot.
    So… Your assertion that the MB came from AQ is entirely upside down.
    No-one can carry on like AQ without the hidden hands of state sponsorship. At various times Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Sudan and Libya have been pinpointed as supporting AQ one way or another.
    OBL’s first born son has lived in Iran for a solid decade.
    Pakistan knowingly harbored OBL till the end. Abbottabad is a restricted city. Unlike your town, one has to get official permission to live there. Yet, there he was in a towering three story home/ bare-bones castle; within sniper shot of their version of West Point Military Academy. (!)
    Afghanistan provided a rest home for AQ — when Pakistan called the shots.
    Sudan provided a rest home for AQ — until it became too hot for that despot.
    Both Libya and Iraq kicked funding towards any Salafist fanatics aiming to overthrow the Saudis. OBL would be at the top of that list. ( Both were caught trying to assassinate the monarch and other royals. It scarcely made the news in the West. )
    It’s an evil brew over there.

  • blert says:

    Chris Ferrell
    Your premise is off base.
    They are self-radicalizing.
    It doesn’t matter what we do or not.
    The islamists are at war with the entire infidel world — right now.
    Their rationale comes from their creed.
    With this in mind, do note who is suffering from Salafist fanatics:
    The West, India, Christian Africa, Red China, Russia, Christians in the Balkans — PLUS all of the muslims not considered correctly fanatical. This last group bleeds more than all the rest.
    Across all of those groups there is every manner of policy and tactic. Yet, islamists are making feral war against all.
    So, your plaint is in vain.

  • Bobbyd8997 says:

    You beat me to it. The “we kill one, and three more appear” is a dated phrase that led to the Obama administration’s current foreign policy. Somehow, Muslim people are still dying at the hands of Al Qaeda in Iraq without US presence.
    Its always funny that they say “current strategy” is not working, yet come up with no other alternative.


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