Al Qaeda in Iraq mounts come­back

Claims a string of fa­tal bomb­ings

The Washington Times Daily - - Front Page - BY ROWAN SCAR­BOR­OUGH

Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Osama bin Laden-in­spired ter­ror­ist group that sank the coun­try into sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence five years ago, is try­ing to make a come­back in post-u.s.-oc­cu­pied Iraq, an­a­lysts and in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials say.

Washington is closely watch­ing whether AQI, as it is called, in the next year can re­assem­ble net­works smashed by the U.S. coun­tert­er­ror­ism cam­paign. Amer­i­can com­man­dos and in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers killed AQI leader Abu Musab Zar­qawi in 2006 and then scores of other chief­tains un­til, by 2011, the group was dec­i­mated.

But right af­ter the last U.S. troops left Iraq in mid-de­cem­ber, the Sunni Mus­lim AQI claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity for a string of deadly at­tacks, pri­mar­ily against Shi­ites, whose sect dom­i­nates Iraq’s gov­ern­ment. Last week, an AQI spokesman claimed that it had car­ried out mul­ti­ple bomb­ings that killed 55.

A U.S. of­fi­cial told The Washington Times that AQI is car­ry­ing out more at­tacks this year than it did in the sec­ond half of 2011, when the U.S. mil­i­tary was pulling out. But the in­creased vi­o­lence does not mean AQI is back to its old strength, the of­fi­cial said.

Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Nouri al-ma­liki, a Shi­ite, pro­vided AQI and the mi­nor­ity Sun­nis a re­cruit­ing mantra when he or­dered the ar­rest of the coun­try’s high­est-rank­ing Sunni leader the day af­ter U.S. troops ex­ited.

“I think AQI, which had been se­verely bat­tered by the U.s.-led coun­terin­sur­gency cam­paign, has re­gained strength,” said James Phillips, a Mid­dle East an­a­lyst at the Her­itage Foun-

da­tion think tank. “The Iraqi gov­ern­ment, dom­i­nated by Shia po­lit­i­cal par­ties, has greatly con­trib­uted to AQI’S re­vival by un­der­cut­ting and per­se­cut­ing Sunni politi­cians and tribal lead­ers.

“This has strength­ened AQI’S limited ap­peal in­side Iraq and al­lowed it to po­si­tion it­self more con­vinc­ingly as the cham­pion of Sunni Arabs against the Ma­liki regime, which is aligned with Shia Iran.”

Ex­pand­ing in­flu­ence

A sign of al Qaeda in Iraq’s re­silience is that it has had the man­power to send op­er­a­tives in­side Syria to tar­get Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad’s regime. Al Qaeda thrives in power vac­u­ums, some­thing a de­posed Mr. As­sad might cre­ate.

“AQI, which al­ways in­cluded many Syr­i­ans, Saudis, Jor­da­ni­ans and Ye­me­nis, also is in­creas­ingly ac­tive in­side Syria, where it seeks to pose as the cham­pion of Sun­nis against the Alaw­ite-dom­i­nated As­sad regime,” Mr. Phillips said. “AQI had de­vel­oped smug­gling routes that brought ji­hadists, money and sup­plies into Iraq through Syria.

“Now it is mov­ing men, weapons and sup­plies across the bor­der in the other di­rec­tion, sup­ported by Sunni tribes that strad­dle the bor­der.”

The As­sad fam­ily be­longs to Syria’s mi­nor­ity Alaw­ite Mus­lim sect, while the coun­try is ma­jor­ity Sunni.

CIA Di­rec­tor David H. Pe­traeus told Congress last month that “al Qaeda in Iraq has been a bit more ac­tive than it was for quite some pe­riod.”

Army Lt. Gen. Ron­ald Burgess, who heads the Pen­tagon’s De­fense In­tel­li­gence Agency, tes­ti­fied that Iraq’s coun­tert­er­ror­ism abil­ity still needs U.S. help be­cause AQI “is a ca­pa­ble and for­mi­da­ble foe.”

“While the Iraqis have some ca­pa­bil­ity, there are cer­tainly some things that we are still look­ing at do­ing to help them from an in­tel­li­gence stand­point,” he said.

Sen. John Mccain, Ari­zona Re­pub­li­can, who crit­i­cized Pres­i­dent Obama for not ne­go­ti­at­ing a longer stay for U. S. troops, said AQI is quickly get­ting stronger.

“Vi­o­lence is up sig­nif­i­cantly since the de­par­ture of U.S. troops,” said Mr. Mccain, the rank­ing mem­ber of the Se­nate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee. “Al Qaeda in Iraq and vi­o­lent Shia ex­trem­ist groups are still very much ac­tive and threat­en­ing to Iraq’s sta­bil­ity. It is in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to ar­gue that Iraq, to use the pres­i­dent’s words, is, quote, ‘sta­ble and self-re­liant.’ “

“Just con­sider the scale and scope of these risks,” the se­na­tor said. “De­spite the re­mark­able dam­age in­flicted on al Qaeda’s core lead­er­ship by our mil­i­tary and in­tel­li­gence pro­fes­sion­als, al Qaeda of­fi­cials — af­fil­i­ates in Iraq, the Horn of Africa and the Maghreb — are grow­ing stronger, more in­de­pen­dent, more dif­fuse and more will­ing to at­tack Amer­i­can in­ter­ests.”

Ramzy Mar­dini, an an­a­lyst at the In­sti­tute for the Study of War who tracks Iraq’s post-u.s. cri­sis, notes that AQI is not bomb­ing just Shi­ites. It also has stepped up its as­sas­si­na­tions of mem­bers of the Awak­en­ing Move­ment be­gun by Sunni lo­cal lead­ers to combat in­sur­gents.

Mr. Mar­dini said four were killed dur­ing one week in Jan­uary. They in­cluded Mul­lah Nadim al Jubouri, who de­fected from al Qaeda in Iraq and helped U.S. troops tar­get AQI.

Abu Bakr

The killings are do­ing what AQI wants: cre­at­ing more dis­trust be­tween Sun­nis and the Shi­ite-led gov­ern­ment, Mr. Mar­dini said.

“Some Awak­en­ing mem­bers have ar­gued that Bagh­dad is al­low­ing the at­tacks to oc­cur as it lags to find em­ploy­ment for the Sunni fight­ers,” Mr. Mar­dini wrote in an anal­y­sis.

AQI has been able to find a new leader each time U.S. and Iraqi raids kill its chiefs.

The cur­rent leader is Abu Bakr al Bagh­dadi, whom the State Depart­ment in Oc­to­ber added to its list of des­ig­nated global ter­ror­ists and put up a $10 mil­lion re­ward for in­for­ma­tion lead­ing to his killing or cap­ture. Af­ter Navy SEALS killed bin Laden in May, Abu Bakr vowed to launch more than 100 at­tacks in Iraq, which con­tinue to this day.

With the State Depart­ment’s des­ig­na­tion, Abu Bakr has reached the ter­ror­ist sta­tus of al Qaeda leader Ay­man al-zawahri and Afghan Tal­iban leader Mul­lah Mo­hammed Omar.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, how­ever, is down­play­ing the chances that Abu Bakr can re­turn AQI to its high rate of killings in 2006 and 2007.

“There are very few in­di­ca­tions that AQI has taken ad­van­tage of the with­drawal of U.S. forces to make ma­jor im­prove­ments to its or­ga­ni­za­tion,” said the U.S. of­fi­cial, who pro­vided the as­sess­ment to The Times anony­mously be­cause of the sub­ject’s sen­si­tiv­ity. “Although AQI ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­ity is higher this year than it was in the last six months of 2011, it is well within the nor­mal lev­els of vi­o­lence that we have seen since 2010.”

Ken­neth Katz­man, a Mid­dle East an­a­lyst at the Con­gres­sional Re­search Ser­vice, said there is not enough ev­i­dence to show AQI is back on top.

“We had these at­tacks even when we were there,” Mr. Katz­man told The Times. “To say they are mak­ing a come­back, I think, is not that ac­cu­rate a way of de­scrib­ing it.

“They never were com­pletely de­feated and now they’re act­ing. And they did act when we were there. I think what it is, is they may see more free­dom of ac­tion now that we’re not there. They may feel they have more po­lit­i­cal sup­port from the Sun­nis to go af­ter the gov­ern­ment now.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

‘GLORY TO RUS­SIA’: Sup­port­ers gather out­side the Krem­lin to cel­e­brate Prime Min­is­ter Vladimir Putin’s ap­par­ent vic­tory in Sun­day’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. The op­po­si­tion and in­de­pen­dent ob­servers say the vote was marred by wide­spread vi­o­la­tions.

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