Clarification to This Article
Editor's Note: A previous version of this Backgrounder mischaracterized a statement by RFE/RL analyst Kathleen Ridolfo describing the make up of foreign fighters inside Al Qaeda in Iraq. She said that 60 percent are thought to be from Saudi Arabia, and likely cross the border into Iraq from Syria.

Profile: Al-Qaeda in Iraq (a.k.a. al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia)

Greg Bruno
Staff Writer, Council on Foreign Relations
Monday, November 19, 2007; 11:40 AM


The Bush administration has singled out al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) as a central threat to its efforts to pacify and stabilize Iraq. White House officials and many experts have consistently linked the militant group with the most high-profile terrorist strikes and suicide bombings in Iraq. In an April 2007 speech, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, called AQI "probably public enemy No. 1" for U.S. forces. In the first seven months of 2007, President Bush highlighted the importance of defeating AQI more than forty times during public speeches. After years of near-constant attention from Washington, the group's ability to carry out attacks in Iraq appears to have been diminished in 2007, experts say. But AQI is not the only purveyor of violence in Iraq. By the end of 2007, AQI was one among dozens of groups contributing to Iraq's violence, prompting some to criticize the Bush administration for over-emphasizing the group's role.


Al-Qaeda in Iraq, also known as al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, is a Sunni Muslim extremist group that seeks to sow civil unrest in Iraq, with the aim of establishing a caliphate -- a single, transnational Islamic state. Established by the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an Arab of Jordanian descent, AQI rose to prominence after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. After being released from a Jordanian prison in 1999, Zarqawi reportedly commanded volunteers in Afghanistan before fleeing to northern Iraq in 2001. There he joined with Ansar al-Islam (Partisans of Islam), where he led Ansar's Arab contingent. Many analysts say it's this group, and not al-Qaeda, that was the precursor of AQI, though U.S. officials dispute this.

Ahead of the 2003 invasion, U.S. officials made a case before the UN Security Council linking AQI with Osama bin Laden. But a number of experts say it wasn't until 2004, when Zarqawi vowed obedience to the al-Qaeda leader, that the groups became linked. "For al-Qaeda, attaching its name to Zarqawi's activities enabled it to maintain relevance even as its core forces were destroyed [in Afghanistan] or on the run," writes (PDF) Brian Fishman, a senior associate at the Combating Terrorism Center at the United States Military Academy. The relationship eventually broke down, Fishman notes, when Zarqawi ignored al-Qaeda instructions to stop attacking Shiite cultural sites.


However tenuous the relationship between Zarqawi and bin Laden, it ended on June 7, 2006, when a U.S. air strike killed the AQI leader. The hit, a victory for U.S. and Iraqi intelligence, marked a turning point for the organization. But it did not spell its end. Instead, it was an awakening. "The group had to kind of reshape itself" to appeal to Iraqis, says Kathleen Ridolfo, an Iraq analyst with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague. Zarqawi had run afoul of his own conscripts and drawn criticism for indiscriminate attacks on Iraqi civilians. Yet regrouping proved problematic. While an al-Qaeda statement on an Islamist Web site named Abu Hamza al-Muhajir as the group's new chief, controversy quickly followed. Maj. Gen. William Caldwell told reporters in Baghdad days after Zarqawi's death that Muhajir was really Abu Ayyub al-Masri, a former confidant of top al-Qaeda figure Ayman al-Zawahiri. Supporters and various Islamist websites appeared to contradict the appointment of al-Muhajir, suggesting other AQI-connected leaders were jockeying for control. They included AQI's deputy emir Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Iraqi, and Abdallah bin Rashid al-Baghdadi, the emir of the Mujahidin Shura Council. The confusion over the group's leadership, Fishman noted in 2006, "demonstrates how Zarqawi's death was a significant blow to AQI."

Other post-Zarqawi moves have clouded the group's operations. In 2006 AQI was believed to have helped establish the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), an umbrella organization of Sunni insurgent groups with similar aims as AQI. Experts believe ISI was formed to strengthen AQI's credentials as a domestic movement. But Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the reported new head of ISI, was soon declared fictitious by the U.S. military. Analysts say al-Baghdadi was a persona actually created by al-Masri to give foreign-led AQI activities the illusion of Iraq-born legitimacy. Army Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner said in July 2007 that al-Masri "was essentially swearing allegiance to himself since he knew that Baghdadi was fictitious and a creation of his own." Further complicating AQI's status were reports in October 2006 and again in May 2007 that al-Masri himself had been killed, claims jihadi groups have denied. Al-Masri appears to have survived.

Since Zarqawi's death the organization has become splintered and decentralized. Additional AQI offshoots include the Islamic Army of Iraq, a Sunni-led group that numbers around fifteen thousand members, and the 1920 Revolution Brigades, a Sunni extremist group named for the post-World War I uprising against Britain's colonial occupation. In addition to AQI, dozens of other unaffiliated extremist groups, armed tribes, and criminal gangs operate (RFE/RL). The proliferation of violent groups has led some to accuse the Bush administration (AP) of putting too much emphasis on the AQI threat to buttress its claims of a foreign-based menace in Iraq.

Foreign Fighters

The most heated and enduring question about AQI is the origin and allegiance of its fighters. Few doubt the group includes a foreign element, but debate on the numbers and countries of origin has persisted since the U.S.-launched invasion of Iraq. President Bush has said the group is connected to al-Qaeda leadership based in Pakistan's tribal areas, and he used this argument as a central reason to overthrow Saddam Hussein. In July 2007 he reiterated (NYT) this during a speech to military personnel in South Carolina. That same month, Brig. Gen. Bergner, then the U.S. military's chief spokesman in Iraq, said AQI was responsible for 80 percent to 90 percent of the country's suicide bombings, many carried out by foreigners. RFE/RL's Ridolfo is less certain on the precise numbers of foreign fighters but says they do appear to comprise a significant portion of the group's members. As many as 60 percent are thought to be from Saudi Arabia, she said, and likely cross the border into Iraq from Syria.

But not everyone agrees. Critics of the "foreign fighter" assessment maintain the bulk of AQI operatives are disenfranchised Iraqis, including Sunnis shut out from the Shiite-led government. Joost Hiltermann, deputy program director of the International Crisis Group's Middle East Project, says AQI has "d eep pockets and has been a magnet for disaffected Iraqi youths who have lost faith in their tribal elders or former-regime commanders." Hiltermann adds that AQI has managed to recruit inside Iraq with intimidation, money, and brutality. "By attacking populations it considers unbelievers (Shiites, Yazidis), it has succeeded in polarizing Iraqi society along sectarian lines, and to kick-start civil war in 2005." The Washington Post reports that 2006 brought "dramatic changes" to AQI membership, shifting it from a predominantly foreign force to an "overwhelmingly Iraqi organization."

Expert estimates on the number of foreign fighters among Iraqi insurgent groups range from a few hundred to over 3,000. Total AQI numbers have been estimated at over 10,000. Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Syria, and Yemen were among the top suppliers of non-Iraqi militants to Iraq as of September 2005, according to the most recent data from the Brookings Institution's Iraq Index (PDF). As of August 2007 between forty to sixty foreign fighters entered Iraq each month, though U.S. military officials say foreigners still account for the majority of suicide bombers. Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East specialist at the Congressional Research Service, writes (PDF) that AQI insurgents, along with other foreign fighters, "entered Sunni-inhabited central Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, from the Kurdish controlled north" and elsewhere in the Middle East.

AQI's Staying Power

The status of AQI in late 2007 is something of a question mark. The August 2007 National Intelligence Estimate says AQI "retains the ability to conduct high-profile attacks." Still, there are signs the organization's capabilities have been dramatically reduced. As of October 2007 the Pentagon had captured nearly three dozen "senior al-Qaeda leaders" (PDF) as well as members of the group's media wing. Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told reporters the same month "al-Qaeda simply is gone" (CSMonitor) from Fallujah, Ramadi, and other parts of Anbar province.

A major force behind the drive to eliminate AQI is the so-called "Anbar model," which brought about local cease-fires in Sunni-dominated tribal areas west of Baghdad. This model, says CFR Senior Fellow Stephen Biddle, has sent the Sunni insurgency packing in many regions. "AQI brutalized its own prospective allies, especially Sunni tribes in Anbar, but also elsewhere in Iraq," Biddle says. "In the course of all that, they made themselves look like a bigger threat to the Sunni population in Iraq than us, or even than the Shiite government."

Rear Admiral Gregory Smith, spokesman for the U.S. military in Iraq, sounded a more cautious tone in a November 2007 interview: "Certainly al-Qaeda has had its network and much of its leadership decimated. But I'll tell you, the regeneration capacity of al-Qaeda is still out there. AQI has certainly been hit hard, but they're operating still with capacity to the north of Baghdad, some of the more rural areas, and also trying to move back into Mosul. I think you're okay by saying that AQI is becoming a defeated force, but they're not defeated."


Also unclear is how the U.S.-led crackdown has affected the group's funding for arms and training. Experts say supporters in the region, including those based in Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, provided the bulk of past funding. AQI has also received financial support from Tehran (despite the fact that al-Qaeda is a Sunni organization), according to documents confiscated last December from Iranian Revolutionary Guards operatives in northern Iraq. But the bulk of al-Qaeda's financing, experts say, comes from internal sources like smuggling and crime.

Major attacks attributed to AQI

High profile attacks on civilians, military, and religious targets are the hallmark of AQI. Following are some of the more notable attacks attributed to the group:

* August 2003 bombings of the Jordanian embassy, UN headquarters in Baghdad, and a Shiite mosque in Najaf. The UN attack killed the world body's special envoy to Iraq, prompting the UN to withdraw.

* The February 2006 bombing of the al-Askari Mosque in Samara, Shiite Islam's holiest shrine. This bombing caused no injuries but severely damaged the holy site's golden dome, kicking off a wave of retaliatory sectarian violence that some experts have called a de facto civil war.

* A series of car bombs and mortar attacks in Sadr City that killed hundreds in November 2006, igniting further sectarian violence and retaliation.

* A series of car bomb attacks in August 2007 targeting Yazidi villages in northern Iraq that left as many as 700 dead, according to coalition forces. U.S. Air Force officials later announced the death of Abu Muhammad al-Afri, an alleged mastermind of the Yazidi strikes.

* AQI has also launched attacks outside Iraq. Daniel Benjamin, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told lawmakers in July 2007 the bombing of American-owned hotels in Amman, Jordan, in 2005 "appears to have been orchestrated by AQI" (PDF). AQI fighters who have seen action in Iraq have also been linked to the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in Lebanon where militants have clashed with Lebanese security forces, Benjamin said.

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