Jessica Lewis of the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) was a decorated intelligence officer for the U.S. Army. She performed that role in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lewis is the author of a new ISW report called “Al Qaeda in Iraq is Resurgent.” It’s always nice when a report gets to the point in the title, even if the point isn’t nice.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) reached its peak in late 2006 and early 2007, before the troop surge and Sunni awakening. After the surge and the awakening, AQI was pushed out its safe havens in and around Baghdad, pursued northward through Diyala, Salah ad-Din, and Mosul, and degraded to the point that only a small fraction of its leaders, functional cells, and terroristic capabilities remained.
The rout of AQI was a great success story.
But in mid-2012, with the war-weary U.S. out of the way, AQI organized an operation called the “Breaking the Walls” campaign. This campaign consisted of a series of 24 major vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) attacks and eight prison breaks that, says Lewis, demonstrate the evolution of AQI’s military capability.
Since May 2013, AQI has consistently exceeded the number of VBIED attacks per month it conducted in June 2007, while sustaining operations in Syria as well. Meanwhile, its prison breaks have replenished AQI’s ranks and brought many of its best fighters back into the field.
The “Breaking the Walls” campaign culminated on July 21, 2013, when AQI successfully breached the prison at Abu Ghraib. 500 or more prisoners escaped. Most had been detained for terrorist activities.
Today, according to Lewis, “AQI an extremely vigorous, resilient, and capable organization that can operate from Basra to coastal Syria.” VBIED attacks require extensive planning and logistical structure. Thus, the wave of such attacks demonstrates “the development of a force-level planning effort within AQI’s military organization to orchestrate simultaneous attacks involving many cells.” To understand this capability is to appreciate the level of the threat AQI poses to the Iraqi state and, potentially, to U.S. interests.
Lewis notes that AQI’s expressed operational objectives to retake territory that it had formerly controlled in Iraq and to establish governance in these areas and in parts of Syria. It is succeeding in the north of Syria, over which there is little prospect that Assad will ever reestablish governance.
Once AQI establishes governance of a sizeable territory, it will have a base of operations from which to plan and launch attacks on U.S. interests and on our homeland.
What is the Obama administration doing in response to AQI’s resurgence? It has placed a $10 million bounty on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of AQI, whom officials say was based in Syria in August 2013. But Lewis, backed by common sense, contends that targeting AQI’s leader, “will not be effective in halting the organization’s growth” because “AQI is no longer a small cadre based around a single leader.”
The U.S. has also provided information and technical advice to Iraqi security forces to help them map the AQI network, go after its financiers, and target its fighters with precision. Yet, says Lewis, “the AQI network has grown robust over the past fourteen months, and mapping the network and its finances may not suffice to halt its expansion.”
Unless the U.S. is prepared to do more, both in Iraq and in Syria, AQI may find itself with a quasi-state similar to what the original al Qaeda had in Afghanistan pre-9/11.