Al-Qaeda in Iraq (تنظيم القاعدة في بلاد الرافدين)

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Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is a Sunni insurgent faction referred to in Arabic as Tanzim al-Qaeda fi Bilad al-Rafidayn (Al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers or Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia). Originally founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as Jamia’at Tawhid wal Jihad, or the Monotheism and Jihad Organization, the group began referring to itself as Al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers in the fall of 2004, when al-Zarqawi pledged his loyalty to Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. Unlike other nationalist or nationalist-jihadi factions of the Sunni insurgency, AQI has adopted a radical religious program aimed to imposing an interpretation of Islamic law known as Wahabbism, based on the teaching of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahab. Although one of the smallest factions in the Sunni insurgency, it has been perhaps the most deadly, claiming responsibility for some of the highest-profile attacks against Shi’a targets, including the bombing of the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra in February 2006 and the massive car bombings in Sadr City in November of that year. Although the group is principally Iraqi, there is some foreign presence at the leadership and operational levels. Currently led by Abu Ayyub al-Masri (Abu Ayyub the Egyptian), AQI has been under tremendous pressure from coalition operations in Ninewa and Diyala province which began in early 2009.

While many popular accounts of the sectarian violence between Sunni and Shi'a organizations in Iraq date the explosion of violence to the bombing of the al-Askari Mosque in February 2006, organized violence between religious communities began much earlier.  Whether Al-Qaeda in Iraq was responsible for starting this cycle of violence with spectacular attacks against Shi’a targets in order to embed itself in Sunni communities, or whether these attacks were actually responses to earlier Shi’a militia activities, Al-Qaeda in Iraq had become the major Sunni participant in the war between sectarian militias in and around Baghdad by summer 2005.  It developed safe havens throughout West Baghdad and in Anbar province. In addition to attacks against Shi’a targets, Al-Qaeda began laying the basis for the future turn by the tribes. In areas of Baghdad, they began actively targeting other Sunni insurgent factions in order to establish control over neighborhoods, and their behavior in Anbar, in Diyala, and in northern Iraq began to alienate their partners in the Sunni insurgency.

In January 2006, AQI established a mechanism, the Mujahedin Shura Council, for incorporating other insurgent factions and coordinating operations.  These factions included Jeish al-Taiifa al-Mansoura, al-Ahwal Brigades, Saray al-Jihad, Katbiyan Ansar al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad, al-Ghuraba Brigades, and Jeish Ahlu al-Sunna Wa al-Jama'a.  However, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi reportedly proved abrasive to other nationalist Sunni insurgents, who believed the Mujahedin Shura Council to be a tool for dominating the insurgency. None of the other factions that comprised the MSC were major insurgent groups.  Additionally, three major Sunni insurgent groups did not join al-Qaeda in the MSC.  These groups were Islamic Army of Iraq, the Mujaheddin Army, and Ansar al-Sunna.

Several months after Zarqawi’s death in June 2006, Al-Qaeda tried again, establishing the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in October of that year. The ISI had some rudimentary religious courts infrastructure, but it never developed a classic insurgent political program. It was also a tremendous irritation to Sunni Arabs, particularly because the religious courts delivered brutal punishment for “heretical” behavior.

At the same time, tribal movements and nationalist Sunni insurgent factions in Anbar province, alienated by Al-Qaeda’s religious programs and its use of violence against tribal figures, began turning against AQI. In a series of engagements beginning in the fall of 2006 and accelerating during the winter of 2007, tribal movements and Sunni insurgents, in conjunction with US forces, drove AQI out of Anbar province. These tribal movements, known as the Awakening, have been duplicated with varying degrees of success in Salah ad-Din, Diyala, Baghdad, and Babil provinces. As Operations Phantom Thunder and Phantom Strike disrupted Al-Qaeda lines of communication and supply in the Baghdad Belts (detailed information on those operations is available here) US special operations forces began putting extraordinary pressure on the operational and logistical infrastructure of the organization, rolling up networks of Al-Qaeda operatives, facilitators, and commanders around the capital and particularly in the Tigris River Valley stretching north to Mosul. While US commanders have explicitly refrained from referring to Al-Qaeda as “defeated,” many argue that it is “on the run.”

In early 2009, Coalition forces continued to exert pressure on Al-Qaeda, and Ansar al-Sunna, in operations in Ninewa and Diyala Provinces.  While they carried out violent attacks through the spring of 2009, these levels of violence are widely believed to be unsustainable for both groups in the long run.