Is there a future for al-Qaeda in Iraq?
London - With the military defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq, at least in terms of territory, there is speculation that al-Qaeda is looking to reclaim leadership of jihadist militancy in the country.
Prior to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, the only significant al-Qaeda presence in Iraq was that of the predominately Kurdish group Ansar al-Islam, which controlled several villages near the Iranian border in the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan. The group, mainly made up of fighters returning from Afghanistan, was beyond the reach of the Iraqi Army and too powerful for the peshmerga to dislodge.
Once the Iraqi state collapsed in 2003, al-Qaeda called on its supporters to flood into Iraq as the place for holy war with US forces. Al-Qaeda became the most dominant force of Sunni insurgency in Iraq until 2006 when its leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, notorious for targeting civilians, was killed.
Al-Qaeda was weakened with the formation of Arab Sunni tribal forces known as Sahwa (Awakening) in Anbar province in late 2006 but it regained strength when the Shia-led Iraqi government gradually stopped the payment of salaries to the anti-Qaeda fighters.
Like other extremist groups, al-Qaeda benefited from the grievances of local populations — discrimination, unemployment, severe poverty, having a loved one killed or tortured at the hands of US or Iraqi forces — to help increase its recruits. Women, children and even mentally ill patients were targeted for recruitment.
The militant group rebranded itself from al-Qaeda in Iraq to the Islamic State in Iraq in 2006. It formally split from al-Qaeda and named itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in 2013.
The split between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) began with a dispute over leadership roles but other differences between the two groups gradually became apparent.
ISIS was more focused on territorial control, as opposed to al-Qaeda’s hit-and-run strategy. Following ISIS’s 2014 capture of Mosul, it declared itself as a “caliphate.”
ISIS surpassed al-Qaeda’s notoriety in targeting civilians in Iraq and boasted of grotesque punishments on social media. That led the group to be considered a cult rather than a typical jihadist militancy.
This and the fact that many al-Qaeda supporters did not have to endure living under al-Qaeda rule, resulted in the militant group being seen as the lesser evil compared to ISIS.
Some observers say al-Qaeda may regain support from Iraqis who believe ISIS has gone too far in its brutality. Other analysts suggest the two groups might unite. A third view is that a worse group — maybe ISIS 2.0 — could emerge if the Iraqi government does not learn from its past mistakes.
It is worthy to note that al-Qaeda in Iraq, before giving birth to ISIS, was deemed too brutal by al-Qaeda’s leadership in Afghanistan.
“Among the things that the feelings of the Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable — also — are the scenes of slaughtering the hostages. You shouldn’t be deceived by the praise of some of the zealous young men and their description of you as the sheikh of the slaughterers,” wrote Ayman al-Zawahiri, then al-Qaeda’s number two, to Zarqawi in 2005.
In the same letter, Zawahiri expressed the concern of many al-Qaeda members of what Zarqawi was doing to Shias in Iraq: “If the attacks on Shia leaders were necessary to put a stop to their plans, then why were there attacks on ordinary Shias?”
Despite calls on Zarqawi to tone down his zeal for bloodshed in Iraq, the Jordanian-born militant did not listen to the leaders to whom he had pledged allegiance.
Baghdadi’s whereabouts remain unknown, and there are questions over whether he is still alive. Yet ISIS-inspired attacks continue, the latest of which claimed more than 30 lives in Baghdad.
Regardless of the name or the nature of the next terror threat, all militant groups are feeding off the same pool in Iraq. They are generally competing for the same recruits.