Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Al-Qaeda in Iraq: Resurging or Going Out with a Bang?

There are two very different fights going on in Iraq right now, in particular since the end of the Sunni-Shiite civil war a year ago: an internal Shiite struggle for dominance (largely in Basra and the Sadr City suburbs... today, fighting killed 11), and a consolidation effort to eliminate Al-Qaeda. Today, we're focusing on the second.

In my last post, we saw a promising graphic of decreasing Al-Qaeda presence in Sunni strongholds that it has held onto for years, especially in Anbar and Baghdad. But recently, suicide bombings are making a comeback in Iraq, and just two days ago, 60 were killed as coordinated car bombs ripped through the country. Does this information contradict Petraeus' report? Is Al-Qaeda making a comeback?

I must first admit that I don't actually know the answer. Al-Qaeda could in fact be making a comeback; Petraeus could be wrong or just plain deceptive. More likely, based on some circumstantial evidence, Al-Qaeda is going out with a bang. Like a star going supernova, radical groups often make the most trouble when they are desperate. And it should be noted that even an extremely weak Al-Qaeda can set of car bombs in cities; Iraq remains a place where access to old Soviet weaponry and explosives is high; a group of five dedicated individuals could certainly still create chaos in Iraq, if they were not caught beforehand. This is quite telling of the prolonged danger in Iraq even if Al-Qaeda is eliminated, but is not particularly telling of Al-Qaeda's state.

A letter found in an joint MNF/Iraqi Security raid may be telling of Al-Qaeda's struggling state. The letter speaks to the importance that Al-Qaeda militants must impart to keeping their enemy in "psychological conflict," so that they "will not all unite against us." Al-Qaeda in Iraq should surely be worried about such a unity; it would lead to an Iraq where Al-Qaeda is not welcome. But random bombings, particularly targeted against Sunnis and Shiites alike, may well have the opposite effect. The bombing of the Golden Mosque was a brilliant tactical move in trying to divide the Sunnis and Shiites (and led to a year of massive bloodletting), but the most recent bombings all over Iraq are crude, random, and have the footprint of Al-Qaeda in Iraq all over them. The Iraqi and US governments are having a very easy time identifying Al-Qaeda in Iraq as the likely culprit, and there is no way such a bombing is going to bring a "psychological conflict" to the Iraqis--it is more likely going to unite them against a common enemy that is indiscriminately killing Iraqi civilians. Such sloppy tactics are indicative of an Al-Qaeda acting desperately and rashly, hoping to simply create as much chaos as possible in hopes that it will disrupt anti-insurgent operations that seem to have increasing success.

The second very interesting part of the letter is that it urges militants to not speak to their wives or families about Al-Qaeda operations; apparently, sloppy intelligence hygiene is giving US anti-insurgent operations a leg up in finding and raiding Al-Qaeda strongholds.

The final interesting part is the emphasis on attacking American-backed Sunni militias. During the civil war, these Sunni militias were anti-American and were soft allies of Al-Qaeda, as both were bent on disrupting the government and driving out the Americans. But now that the "Sunni Awakening" or "Sunni Renaissance" has occurred, Al-Qaeda's traditional strongholds are turning into hot zones. Al-Qaeda has no hopes of winning back wide support among the Sunnis (and will certainly not get it among Shiites or Kurds), but wants to quell Sunni attacks using terror tactics. But as the Sunni-Shiite civil war shows, attacking civilians (particularly, indiscriminately) will push the Sunnis even further away. Al-Qaeda is adopting a "Full Adversary" strategy; that is, making all elements of the populace and government an enemy. Given this, its ability to find sanctuaries in Iraq is likely to only shrink with time.

Sadly, this supernova effect is going to mean continued civilian death and carnage. But it will solidify Iraq's unity against Al-Qaeda, and lead to a stronger front to drive them out.

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