The violence of recent events that have struck Iraq over the course of recent weeks poses questions not only about Iraq’s continuing transition but also about al-Qaeda’s ascendancy in the country.
The violence of events that have struck Iraq over the course of recent weeks – from the dismantling of a camp of protestors in the Sunni stronghold of Ramadi to the dispatch of army and security forces by Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – poses questions not only about Iraq’s continuing transition since the American invasion of 2003 but also about al-Qaeda’s ascendancy in the country. In early January, the city of Fallujah, onetime sanctuary for the armed resistance against the American occupation, effectively fell into the hands of Salafi jihadists. In the hours that followed, hundreds of armed men brandishing a black flag inscribed with the name of Allah moved freely around the neighbourhoods and streets in the city.
In the news for many years, due to its continuing campaigns of attacks, the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda remains paradoxically little understood, whether it concerns the organisation’s composition, its aims, or its prospects. The offensive launched by its combatants at the beginning of 2014 is far from being the first of its kind; much in the same way that speaking of the “return” of al-Qaeda in Iraq betrays an ignorance of what has occurred in recent years. Al-Qaeda, in fact, has remained present in some form or fashion since its members succeeded in infiltrating Iraq prior to the American invasion. It was in October 2004 that al-Qaeda formally set up its local base under the command of Jordanian Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi, a veteran of Afghanistan responsible for numerous armed incidents against Western interests in the Middle East and proclaimed the “prince” of jihad by no less than Osama bin Laden.
Al-Qaeda’s struggle in Iraq began in August 2003 with the bombing of the United Nation’s headquarters in Baghdad whose most notable victim was UN Special Representative Sergio Vieira de Mello. Ten days later, the group targeted a Shia mosque in the holy city of Najaf, marking the start of an uninterrupted wave of sectarian attacks aimed at places of worship in addition to the general Shia civilian population. In the jihadists’ eyes, Americans and Shias are “miscreants” and eternal “enemies” of Sunni Islam who need to be fought with the same ardour. Starting in 2004, chaos became a durable fixture in Iraq as al-Qaeda redoubled its efforts during the American military sieges of the city of Fallujah, an operation provoked by growing violence and the kidnapping and assassination of contractors working for the private security company, Blackwater.
Despite the serious losses that it incurred, al-Qaeda realised an unprecedented breakthrough among the groups involved in the armed struggle as a majority of insurgents came under its command. Zarqawi exploited the feeling of humiliation shared by many Sunnis to make the majority Sunni province of Anbar in western Iraq a bastion par excellence for the anti-American jihad. Sunni resentment further translated, in January 2005, into a massive boycott of Iraq’s first elections and a clear radicalisation of attitudes. Nationalists above all, the jihadis, as they progressively became Salafis, grafted together the objectives of liberating Iraq to carrying out a struggle to the death against the Shia and Iraqi “collaborators” with the foreign occupiers. Attacks and killings multiplied, culminating in the February 2006 destruction of the Shia mosque at Samarra that unleashed a quasi-civil war. Exasperated, certain Sunni political forces began to denounce al-Qaeda and its crimes, while some Sunni tribes in Anbar chose to work with the United States military.
Several weeks later, this mobilisation led to the tribal Sahwa, or Awakening, that permitted an improvement, albeit temporary, in security. The tribes also intended, via their alliance of circumstance with the Americans, to regain control of oil smuggling that Saddam Hussein had granted them but which al-Qaeda had taken away. Just before his death in an air raid near Baqubah in June 2006, Zarqawi understood very well the importance of preparing his succession and placing at the head of his movement a new generation of Iraqis to replace the foreign fighters. This “Iraqisation” was meant to combine the armed uprising with a specific political project for the Sunnis, who had been collectively marginalised in the transition process since 2003. In mid-October 2006, the new emir of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, proclaimed an Islamic state that covered several Sunni provinces intended to form the basis of a restored caliphate. The Syrian crisis would offer him an opening to the north with the proclamation in April 2013, the anniversary of the fall of Baghdad ten years earlier, of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, Da’sh in Arabic).
More than anything, the seizure of Fallujah and other parts of Anbar by jihadists strongly indicates, in case anyone still has any doubt, that ISIL’s tactical capability and ideological determination remain intact, and it testifies to how the secessionist aims that ISIL espouses fundamentally call into question the current Iraq-Syria borders. The problems facing ISIL’s members in Syria, due to opposition by a more moderate fringe of the Syrian armed opposition, could explain ISIL’s decision to fall back on its Iraqi base and to wage its struggle on more familiar turf. ISIL’s most recent successes in Iraq can also be attributed to the exacerbation of Sunni anger in regions where they predominate, particularly since the eruption, in December 2012, of a vast popular protest movement that central government authorities dealt with through repression.
It is by force and not by some sort of dialogue that Maliki intends to regain control of territory lost to ISIL and to rid himself of his opponents, as illustrated by the fighting between government forces against insurgents over the past several weeks and the bombardment of Fallujah as well as several other cities in Anbar. Maliki can count, in this regard, on the support of several Sunni tribes that, after putting down their weapons in 2008, decided to resume the fight against al-Qaeda, this time on the side of the central government and not alongside the US. Other Sunni tribal sheikhs, however, have chosen to align themselves with al-Qaeda, convinced that they have been doubly “betrayed” by the Americans and the Iraqi government, which had promised they would be integrated into a new military and security apparatus.
Whatever the outcome of the still raging confrontation, the uniquely military option presently preferred by Maliki cannot by itself quell al-Qaeda or those who aspire to wage jihad. The greater likelihood is that this approach will only further polarise the situation. More than once in the past, al-Qaeda has shown an impressive ability to reconstitute its ranks by capitalising on fragile socio-economic conditions and on wider disenchantment to attract an endless flow of new recruits.
The original version of this op-ed will appear in French newspaper Le Monde.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.