State Department confirms al Qaeda in Iraq leader has relocated to Syria

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.

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

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.

Tags: , , , , ,


  • Celtiberian says:

    Each day we see growing evidence that Syrian rebels are, for the most part, islamist fanatics, and that Syria is becoming the major and safer heaven for a reinvigorated AlQaeda.
    It’s very incohernet for US to maintain its support for the rebels. Actually, looking at how the US behave in other parts of the world the most coherent stance would be to start using drones against AQ in Syria or even to start some kinfd of collaboration with the Assad regime to fight the major adn common enemy: AQ.
    May be one reason for the lack of US action against AQ in Syria is the stance of “allies” Qatar and Saudi Arabia? These US-protected states are playing their chess game in MidEast and have their favourite pawns in these AQ-linked groups fighting in Syria. They are right now funnelling large quantities of weapons and money to them. They may be protecting these rebels also at the political level, pressing on US government to block action against these thugs so precious for them?

  • Will Fenwick says:

    At this point, the only groups that should be recieving funding and weapons from the American government should be the Kurds (and any CIA controlled proxy militias if they exist). No other group is aligned with American interests.

  • sundoesntrise says:

    Assad, despite the very minor gains he may have made in the past 2 months in central Syria, has once again continued to take a beating, lose territory and had his clan hometown threatened. The U.S. knows that even if it takes decades, Assad’s regime will eventually be defeated and overthrown. Assad is a sinking ship and the Obama administration would never side with one of the worst modern abusers of human dignity in the world just to take out “Al Qaeda”. Some pro-mil chest thumpers have suggested we do that but thankfully the decision makers are still smarter than that.
    The coastal offensive pits two rival extremists against each other. Yes, the Islamists on one side are a nasty bunch but the pro-regime militiamen on the other side have ravaged Syria and robbed millions of people to life and dignity all so a spoiled little brat that inherited power from his father can continue to exploit his own people. Sic semper tyrannis!

  • Celtiberian says:

    Regime overthrow in decades? Do you know what suffering for Syrian people do imply decades or even a few more years of civil war? Also, think about how would AQ take advantage of a continuation of chaos, fragmentation and mayhem in Syria for years. They do control and market oil wells, large swathes of land, lucrative border crossings and smuggling routes. Lots of experienced fighters, money and advanced weapons. They are without doubt the driven force of the rebel movement right now (they are the ones advancing in Latakia, the ones who overrun Minegh airbase, and just yesterday they expelled at gunpoint the FSA battalions from the city of Raqqa). They rule rebelstan. As US officials are starting to acknowledge, this is becoming the main terror hub in the world (and it is nearer to the West than ever!) and it can only grow if no action is implemented.
    At the same time I don’t see Assad worse than other dictators in MidEast. There has been a lot of propaganda (naivly eaten by western media) magnifiying regime crimes and diminishing rebel crimes. Assad government is a bastard regime, not a bastion of democracy or humanrights but right now is the only hope for christians and other minorities in Syria who are being slaughtered in islamist controlled areas. Actually this is not a new environment for US policy-makers. Long history of supporting dictators for pragmatic reasons, even against truly democracy-seeker movements. Now it would be against a large bunch of beheaders, ethnic cleansers and terrorists whose ultimate goal is to subjugate their own people and to destroy western civilization.
    Anyhow, I’m not saying US should send weapons or money to Assad (it shouldn’t do that to Saudis neither), but I think some kind of indirect deal with the regime would be benefitial for western interests and for the syrian people, with te goal of 1) crushing AQ in Syria and 2)promoting a national and democratic reconciliation between the regime-side and what remains of the initial secular rebles. I bet the regime, heavily assaulted as it is now, would abide (with some encouragement) to make major democratic reforms if in turn the West support this national reconciliation and cut the influx of Gulf and Turkey support to terrorists. In other words if the new Syrian government is allowed to crush AQ without foreign interference.


Islamic state



Al shabaab

Boko Haram