The South Asia Channel

AfPak Behind the Lines: al-Qaeda in Iraq

This week’s AfPak Behind the Lines assesses the state of al-Qaeda in Iraq with analyst Brian Fishman. 1. What is the current status of al-Qaeda in Iraq, following the deaths of its leaders Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi in a U.S. airstrike in Tikrit earlier this year? How has the group adapted to ...

SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images
SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images

This week’s AfPak Behind the Lines assesses the state of al-Qaeda in Iraq with analyst Brian Fishman.

1. What is the current status of al-Qaeda in Iraq, following the deaths of its leaders Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi in a U.S. airstrike in Tikrit earlier this year? How has the group adapted to these losses, organizationally and ideologically?

Since the deaths of al-Masri and al-Baghdadi, AQI (operating as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI)) has demonstrated that it can still cause death and destruction in Iraq. Nonetheless, since its dramatic decline in 2007, the ISI’s operational profile has changed significantly, from attempting to control and dominate territory unilaterally toward more intermittent large-scale attacks. No doubt this shift was a concession to the reality of decreased influence and authority in Iraq, but by 2009 ISI was finding ways to use major attacks in Baghdad and elsewhere to discredit and undermine the Iraqi state. This trend has continued since the deaths of al-Masri and al-Baghdadi, though one might argue that the group has focused more on attacking Awakening Councils rather than the formal Iraqi state. It is too early to draw that conclusion, in my opinion, but it is interesting because it raises questions about ISI’s sense of self and purpose. Little is known about the new Emir of the ISI, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Husayni al-Qurashi and his deputy Abu Abdullah al-Husayni al-Qurashi. They have given little indication of their strategic focus or background.

2. What is the relationship between AQI and al-Qaeda’s central leadership, based on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border? How has that relationship changed in the last several years?
 

This is a critical question. Especially after the death of Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, Al-Masri was the primary link between AQI/ISI and the al-Qaeda leadership in South Asia. It is not clear that al-Qaeda’s communication systems were redundant, raising the possibility that al-Masri’s death will be quite disruptive. AQI has always been torn between its obligations to distinct constituencies: an Iraqi constituency, the al-Qaeda leadership, and the global community of jihadi supporters (including financial backers). In the past, AQI leaders have generally deferred to the doctrinaire demands of supporters outside of Iraq rather than work on the practical demands of Iraqis. It is tempting to speculate that in the absence of a firm connection to AQ central, the new leaders of the ISI may take a new, "more Iraqi" approach — nationalist rhetoric, ideological moderation, maybe even provide some social services — but to date there is no hard evidence that is the case. It is more likely that communication with AQ leaders in South Asia will just be difficult practically, which may lead to miscommunication and discord. Emphasizing nationalism and reducing confrontation with Sunnis in Iraq might seem a rational choice for AQI, but there is no shortage of examples where jihadis have made self-destructive strategic decisions for ideological reasons. I won’t hold my breath waiting for a softer, fuzzier al-Qaeda in Iraq.

3. Many of AQI’s foreign fighters at one point came from Saudi Arabia and Libya. How has that changed since 2007, if at all?

The Sinjar Records revealed the extent of foreign participation in the ISI’s operations. Ironically, those foreign interlocutors eventually became a drain on the ISI system because the foreigners were security liabilities up until the point that they blew themselves up or got killed some other way. Non-Iraqis have noticeable accents and don’t know Iraq’s physical or social geography, which made them hazardous to have around for Iraqi members of the ISI. Not surprisingly, the ISI deliberately limited the influx of foreigners as its organizational infrastructure was destroyed. In practice, acquiring unskilled labor is rarely a problem for al-Qaeda. The harder part is attracting money, folks willing to commit suicide attacks and those with special technical skills. Training and bomb-making can also be tricky. Most reports suggest that the rate of foreign fighter entry into Iraq has fallen from 100+/month in 2007 to between 10 and 20 now. Without hard data like the Sinjar Records we don’t know exactly where they are from, but Saudi Arabia has been the most consistent contributor of fighters to Iraq in the past.

Brian Fishman is a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation.

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