Resurgence of al Qaeda in Iraq: Effect on Security and Political Stability
March 4, 2014
Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), now operating under the moniker Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has recently grabbed headlines following its capture of the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi on January 1, 2014. Just a few years ago, military efforts by Iraqi and coalition forces severely weakened ISIL, and many experts believed it was permanently crippled. However, this recent siege of Iraqi cities and surge in bombings depicts a reinvigorated and fully operational group.
This reinvigoration comes at a time when some have raised questions and concerns about the state of al Qaeda and its affiliated groups. Senator John McCain recently placed a hold on the nomination of Christine Wormuth for under secretary of defense for policy because Wormuth refused to answer definitively whether al Qaeda is “receding or growing,” choosing rather to state that “elements” of the al Qaeda threat are growing. The fact that al Qaeda’s general command announced on February 3 that it no longer has any “connection” or “organizational relationship” with ISIL has further muddled the picture.
Suicide attacks in Iraq have increased from 5 to 10 per month in 2012 to 30 to 40 in 2013, and civilian casualties are at their highest level since the beginning of 2008. These facts led the House Foreign Affairs Committee to hold a hearing on “al-Qaeda’s Resurgence in Iraq” on February 5 and ask the deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq and Iran, Brett McGurk, to testify on the ongoing situation. With this recent surge in violence and swirling questions over the threat of al Qaeda–linked organizations, it is worth taking a look at the history of AQI and the drivers behind its resurgence.
History of al Qaeda in Iraq
A transnational terrorist group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi became the foundation for AQI after fighting alongside core al Qaeda in Afghanistan in 2001. AQI represented a formidable part of the Iraqi insurgency after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and played a major role in attacks on Shiite Muslims and Kurds, the destruction of civil infrastructure, and the temporary seizure of Fallujah. However, in 2007, with the help of Sunni tribesmen in Anbar province and a surge of U.S. troops, coalition forces greatly debilitated AQI’s manpower and operational capabilities. That victory led to a decrease of nearly 50 percent in the number of terrorist attacks in Iraq from 2007 to 2008. AQI struggled to sustain support from the local communities in Iraq and attract foreign fighters because of its reputation for harsh tactics and instigation of sectarian violence. It attempted to rebrand itself after Zarqawi’s death in 2006 with new leadership and a new name, the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). However, those efforts failed to revitalize the insurgency, and the number of terrorist attacks continued to drop through 2012.
Facilitators for Resurgence
The relationship between Sunni and Shiite populations remained contentious after the abatement of AQI’s influence. In the March 2010 parliamentary elections, the Iraqiyya party, which includes a cross-section of Sunni and Shiite representatives, won a slight majority of the seats in parliament, presenting the potential for better cooperation between the two factions. However, the judiciary reinterpreted the constitution to allow the Shiite parties to unite, gain a majority of the seats, and organize the new government under the incumbent Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Thus, the Sunni population, or roughly 35 percent of the Iraqi population, felt wrongfully excluded from the development of the new government. Although Maliki promised to appoint Sunnis and Kurds to prominent ministerial positions, he failed to follow through on many appointments and pushed out others once they assumed office.
Many argue that Maliki has also attempted to isolate the Sunnis by preventing their participation in the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). This exclusion from the ISF has led to increased tension between the Sunni tribesman, especially in Anbar province, and the government of Iraq (GOI). When the United States utilized the Sunni tribal militias, or Sahwa or “Sons of Iraq,” against the insurgency, the United States paid those Sons of Iraq a monthly stipend in addition to arming them. However, when the United States withdrew its remaining troops from Iraq in December 2011 and the ISF assumed complete control over security, the GOI failed to integrate, as promised, many of the tribesmen into the ISF. Thus, the militias lost access to resources and the ability to maintain capabilities and developed greater animosity toward the GOI. The weakened militias and marginalized Sunni population presented an opportunity for terrorist groups to regain influence by exploiting Sunni-Shiite tensions and occupying areas with a decreased security presence.
Syrian Civil War
In November 2011, after months of indiscriminate killings of civilian protesters in Syria by the Bashar al-Assad regime, armed opposition groups began attacking military targets. The violence has escalated since that time, leaving Syria in a constant state of civil war and opening its borders to an influx of foreign fighters. ISI took advantage of this opportunity, began recruiting fighters to join the jihad in Syria, and changed its name to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant to illustrate its new goal of establishing an Islamic caliphate that stretches across both countries.
In the February 5 House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on al Qaeda’s resurgence in Iraq, Deputy Assistant Secretary McGurk testified that ISIL gained significant “resources, recruits, weapons, and training” while fighting in Syria and began transferring those resources back to Iraq in 2013. Thus, the security vacuum in Syria has provided ISIL a means to regenerate itself for another insurgent effort in Iraq. Additionally, the security breakdown has allowed ISIL to take control of parts of the border region, which has enabled the easy transfer of resources between Iraq and Syria.
Triggers for Recent Violence
The political instability that arose from the marginalization of the Sunni population heightened after accusations against then–Vice President Tariq al Hashimi and the detention of then–Minister of Finance Rafa al-Issawa’s bodyguards in 2012; these accusations led to the exile and resignation, respectively, of the top two Sunni politicians. The Sunni population viewed their departures from the GOI as political maneuvers by Maliki to further isolate Sunnis from the political process. This criticism of Maliki only added to the laundry list of grievances held by the Sunni community since the fall of Saddam Hussein and the start of the de-Ba’athification process in 2003. Angered by the lack of reform, protests against the GOI steadily grew more violent throughout 2012. In April 2013, at least 45 people died after ISF forces attempted to clear a protest square north of Baghdad. A rejuvenated ISIL took advantage of these mounting tensions and revived its old strategy of bombing Shiite targets to further deepen the rift between the two populations.
The major catalyst for the current security crisis came in December 2013 when the ISF suppressed a protest camp in Ramadi, a city in Anbar province, and then withdrew to avoid further clashes. On January 1, 2014, ISIL fully exploited the lack of security, much as it had done in Syria, when it rolled into Ramadi and Fallujah with trucks armed with machine and antiaircraft guns and took control of the cities. Local tribes, with indirect assistance from the GOI, have wrested control of Ramadi, but central areas of Fallujah remain in the hands of ISIL. Additionally, ISIL has launched offensives in other towns across western and northern Iraq, including briefly holding control of Sulaiman Pek, a small town in the north, in an effort to march toward and overtake Baghdad.
Iraqi Government Response
According to Deputy Assistant Secretary McGurk, the GOI has allocated $38.4 million for rebuilding projects, direct humanitarian assistance, and direct payment to tribal fighters in Ramadi and Fallujah. He also notes that the GOI has already passed legislation to integrate the Sahwa into the ISF and provide the fighters with the necessary wages, pensions, and other benefits. These measures illustrate Maliki’s efforts to reverse the marginalization policies of the past, at least in regard to the ISF, and gain the trust of the local population. In the coming months, the number of tribal groups who choose to support the GOI’s counterinsurgency campaign over acquiescing to ISIL’s dominance will demonstrate the effectiveness of this olive branch strategy.
Since over 300,000 Iraqis have been displaced due to the fighting in Anbar province, continued violence will likely impose considerable strain on the Iraqi national elections in April. McGurk stated that the GOI has already guaranteed that all votes by displaced citizens will count for their respective provinces. However, given the controversy of the government structure created after the last elections and the heightened Sunni-Shiite tensions, the execution of fair elections represents an incredibly difficult undertaking. The successful completion of elections and subsequent formation of a new, balanced government is paramount to easing tensions and carrying out a strategy to defeat ISIL.
U.S. Interests and the Fate of ISIL
Although the United States and Iraq were unable to sign a Status of Forces Agreement in 2011, the United States does operate multiple security assistance programs with Iraq. In the February 5 hearing, Deputy Assistant Secretary McGurk revealed that although ISIL does not present a direct threat to U.S. personnel, the United States has vital interests in reducing al Qaeda’s operational capabilities, protecting Iraq’s vast oil reserves, and preventing Iranian influence. The training of Iraqi counterterrorism units, delivery of hellfire missiles, and the promise of unmanned aerial vehicles illustrate U.S. commitment to these interests. Additionally, diplomats, military officers, and President Obama have all advised their respective counterparts on the best strategy moving forward. However, even if U.S. assistance helps weaken ISIL, only the GOI and the Iraqi people have the power to develop a long-term solution that will prevent its resurgence.
According to McGurk, the disavowal of ISIL by core al Qaeda will have little immediate effect on ISIL since it obtains the vast majority of its financing and resources independently of al Qaeda. However, the blacklisting of ISIL may affect its ability to recruit foreign fighters in the future and gain the sympathies of local populations. Its use of harsh tactics and indiscriminate violence against all Muslims opposed to its rule has alienated its approximately 2,000 fighters from not only local populations but also other terrorist and insurgent groups in Iraq and Syria. Furthermore, it may overextend itself by engaging in conflicts across such a wide expanse of territory.
Ultimately, ISIL’s resurgence in Iraq is a symptom, not a cause, of the current chaos in Iraq. ISIL’s successful exploitation of tensions between Sunnis and Shiites exemplifies the deeper cultural divide that has led to violence in Iraq and across the Middle East for centuries. The GOI must continue its efforts to address the grievances of the Sunni population and strengthen its security partnership with tribal militias in order not only to regain control of Fallujah but also establish a more stable security and political environment for the future.
Stephanie Sanok Kostro is acting director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Garrett Riba is a research intern with the CSIS Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program.
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