Latest Attack Shows That Al’Qaeda In Iraq Is Anything But Dead
Just a few days after the group’s two top leaders were killed in a joint Iraqi-U.S. counterterrorism operation, the notorious Al’Qaeda in Iraq responded with a series of powerful and horrific bomb blasts that killed at least 69 people across the country. The attack, which occurred this past Friday, was by far the deadliest day for Iraq this year; a terrible sign of unrest that comes at the same time that Iraq’s leaders continue to haggle over who gets to form the next government.
The Associated Press has reported that a total of at least 10 bombs exploded in and around Baghdad, most of which targeted Shias in their own neighborhoods immediately following Friday prayers. By the far the most destructive by AQI was a coordinated attack just a few hundred yards away from Muqtada al-Sadr’s compound, which claimed the lives of 25 people and injured another 150. Another 14 people were killed near a Shia mosque in eastern Baghdad, and just as Iraqi civilians thought the bloodshed was over for the day, another eight died in a roadside bomb blast just north of that location.
Many analysts have predicted that last Friday’s violence could just be another sporadic attack by Al’Qaeda in Iraq, perhaps a retaliatory act for the killing of the group’s two main men, Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. This assessment is certainly possible. After all, Al’Qaeda has engaged in similar operations in the past, such its campaign last August against Iraqi embassies that left hundreds of government employees and civilians dead. Given the organization’s propensity for revenge and its track record for shock-and-awe, this argument is both highly credible and worth investigating.
Yet just because it’s credible does not necessarily mean it is correct. Last week’s operation could be something different entirely, and much more serious at that. Despite numerous setbacks in manpower and capability over the past three years, Al’Qaeda is still strong and able to plan and carry out operations against targets before Iraqi intelligence gets a whiff of them. Last Friday’s act of terrorism was highly coordinated, with bombs hidden in cars and bombs tucked along roads going off within a two-hour time span. The fact that most of the targets were Shias demonstrates the unbending resilience and fortitude of AQI, as well as their inability to except defeat in their overall mission of creating as much chaos in Iraq as entirely possible. Reigniting sectarian warfare is still an overarching goal, and if violence keeps coming, Shia militias like Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army may be inching to pull the trigger.
If this is the case, then I’m afraid that terrorism in Iraq is anything but over. It couldn’t come at a worst time either; tens of thousands of American forces are scheduled to redeploy out of the country this summer, and Iraq’s leaders have still not managed to cobble together a coalition government that is both representative of the Iraqi population and capable of delivering the basic services that all Iraqis are entitled to.
But there is a larger lesson to be learned here as well, a lesson that unfortunately has not been heeded by U.S. counterterrorism officials. No amount of targeted killings against senior Al’Qaeda in Iraq figures (as well as senior Al’Qaeda figures in the Pakistani tribal belt) will destroy the movement, let alone bring a level of measured peace to the country.
This is not to suggest that the operation against al-Masri and al-Baghdadi was unnecessary. In fact, escalating the campaign against AQI should be applauded with the utmost vigor, not only because these campaigns keep the pressure on the group as it tries to reinsert its role as a spoiler, but also because it helps the Iraqi Security Forces improve their intelligence gathering capabilities. Iraq’s military is taking the lead in many different missions across the country, and the more they continue to do so, the better off they will be in terms of execution.
Even so, assassinating AQ figures will not really hamper the organization in the long run. AQI has survived this type of setback before. When Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in the summer of 2006, the organization quickly regrouped and brought Iraq to the brink of a full-on civil war between the country’s two main sectarian groups (particularly in Baghdad). This has been emulated in the work of terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman as well, a man of impeccable credentials who right argues that “al-Zarqawi’s death did not end AQI attacks and…following the killing, violence attributed to the group actually increased.” This does not even mention the gravity of the attacks, which happened to kill dozens of American soldiers and thousands of Iraqi civilians in the months that followed al-Zarqawi’s assassination.
Like in 2006, AQI may reach a similar comeback. This could all be pure speculation, or it could a sign of things to come. For the sake of Iraq’s survival as a modern state, I hope I am wrong.
-Daniel R. DePetris
**Comments courtesy of the Economist**