Monday, 16 May 2011

What caused the decline of Al-Qaeda in Iraq?

Abstract: This essay tentatively examines the major factors that precipitated the decline of the Al-Qaeda ‘franchise’ that has operated in Iraq after the Coalition invasion. This analysis does not aspire to present a historical account, but rather to shed light on the group’s ideological leanings, and engage a synthetic framework using relevant terminology and theory from current terrorism and armed Islamism studies. In line with the author’s findings and with a textual limit in mind, this essay will concentrate on endogenous factors within Al-Qaeda in Iraq itself, and how they led to the eventual decline of the group, revealing that the Al-Qaeda mantel was adopted by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi in Iraq most significantly as a ‘marriage of convenience’, and that Zarqawi’s concept of Jihad was largely responsible for his digression from Al-Qaeda’s ideology. Instead he resorted to extremely violent tactics and sectarianism that eventually alienated many Iraqi Sunnis including important tribal and insurgent leaders. This in turn largely precipitated the fissure with other Sunni insurgency groups and damaged the credibility of Al-Qaeda in Iraq as well as its mother organization. Thereafter, tribal leaders and boosted American troop numbers ousted AQI from large parts of the country, and the group has since lost much its ability to achieve its aims. 

The phenomenon of the globalization of the armed Islamist[1] movement Al-Qaeda and its radical Salafi-Jihadi[2] ideology has attained widespread attention in recent years. This phenomenon is prevalent in the so called Al-Qaeda ‘franchises’ operating beyond its traditional stronghold of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas. One of these franchises, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, is the subject of this essay.

The United States led an invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and a prolonged insurgency ensued. Although the invasion was part of President Bush’s ‘global war on terror’, it in fact made Iraq a recruiting ground for militant Jihadists[3]. The US attacks on Al-Qaeda’s infrastructure in Afghanistan deprived the organization of a physical, permanent base and displaced many fighters, thus decentralizing Al-Qaeda[4], engendering the emergence of an Al-Qaeda “branding franchise” as members dissipated and adopted the organization’s ideology elsewhere[5]. The emergence of Al-Qaeda in Iraq[6] is one geographic manifestation of Al-Qaeda’s decentralization and globalization.

The war on Iraq proved to be ‘a God-send opportunity’[7] for Al-Qaeda whose capacity to operate had diminished after American bombardment in Afghanistan[8]. According to Hoffman, Iraq quickly became a ‘rallying call’ for Jihadists[9] and is now considered by far their most important battle field[10], acting to foment Muslim anger and galvanize Jihadists. A 2005 Chatham House publication went further in saying that the situation in Iraq had ‘provided a boost to the alQaeda network’s propaganda, recruitment and fundraising [...] and provided an ideal targeting and training area for alQaeda-linked terrorists’[11].

As an affiliate organization of Al-Qaeda central, AQI fundamentally shares a rigid Salafi-Jihadi platform and is among the most radical insurgent groups in Iraq. The group emerged out of a union between the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s established Sunni Jihadist group Tawhid wal-Jihad (‘Monothesism and Jihad’) and Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda central, after Zarqawi pledge fealty (‘bayat’) to bin Laden in October 2004. This merger served the strategic interests of both groups; providing Al-Qaeda with a ready-made base from which to attack American targets and regain notoriety as the preeminent Jihadist organisation. For Zarqawi it meant prestige, recruits, finance and operational expansion. However, crucial ideological differences surfaced between bin Laden and Zarqawi, with the latter resorting to indiscriminate attacks on civilians. What is more, Zarqawi adopted a vitriolic takfiri[12] stance towards Iraq’s Shiites, and even targeted prominent members of other Sunni insurgency groups as well as tribal leaders. All of these tactics were disapproved of by the Al-Qaeda central leadership and resulted in significant tensions that reveal that AQI’s strategic approach was essentially incompatible with Al-Qaeda’s longer term pragmatic aims which focused on unifying the Muslim Umma. On several occasions, Al-Qaeda leaders bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri wrote to Zarqawi beseeching him to abandon his excessive modus operandi including the filming of massacres, and the ordering of indiscriminate killings, yet without success[13]. Zarqawi’s takfiri tactic was also estranged from the tactics and objectives of the other major Sunni insurgency groups in Iraq. Despite Zarqawi’s allegiance to bin Laden, he did not recant or modulate his tactics.

This was not the first time that Zarqawi clashed ideologically with bin Laden. Zarqawi had been active in Afghanistan before 9/11, where instead of joining bin Laden, he established his own Jihadist camp in Herat. Zarqawi is said to have disagreed with bin laden not on fundamental ideological matters, but on Al-Qaeda’s tactics, criticizing the organization for not being fiercer and more violent towards the enemy, and for not attacking Shiites[14]. Zarqawi held them to be vile disbelievers, whilst bin Laden believed, perhaps more pragmatically, that fomenting strife between Sunnis and Shiites would detract from the fight with America[15]. The major point of contention between the two revolved around Zarqawi’s radical takfirist stance. He declared takfir on all governments, seeing any non-Islamic political elements as infidels and targets for Jihad. Zarqawi’s takfirist position manifests a preoccupation with the ‘near enemy’, (alʻadu alqareeb); - the perceived apostate political authorities inside Islamic countries. This view considers the USA and its policies as a separate entity and further down the list of prioritized Jihad targets. Conversely, bin Laden prioritizes western and specifically American targets (the ‘far enemy’, alʻadu albaʻeed) as strategically and ideological more important[16]. This contention allegedly caused the initial rift between the two men, with bin Laden informing Zarqawi it was not in Al-Qaeda’s interest to ‘declare people infidels on superficial grounds’ and to ‘divide one segment of Muslims from others’[17].

These disagreements testify to Zarqawi’s fierce, gung-ho character, his independence and rigid tendency to refuse to concede to more moderate stances for pragmatic gains, except when he overwhelmingly benefited, as was the case when he finally pledged allegiance to bin laden in 2004 and created Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Most significantly, these episodes delineate that the partnership between bin Laden and Zarqawi was merely a marriage of convenience that was able to function only because the war in Iraq diminished the ideological gap concerning the far and near enemy between the two Jihadists. This is because as the US took control over Iraq and established the interim Iraqi authorities, the far and near enemy became conflated, thus resolving the major ideological disparity between bin Laden and Zarqawi.

Yet the world’s two most infamous Jihadists[18] would never be fully reconciled. Zarqawi quickly gained notoriety even among Jihadi groups as particularly excessive in his brutality after he personally beheaded American civilian Nicholas Berg in May 2004, and was responsible for the bombing of Shia shrines, killing 180 people. According to author Bruce Riedel, Zarqawi was the “epitome of brutality’[19]. Such tactics could not sustain popular support among Iraqi Sunnis, and Zarqawi overcame this issue with a strategic approach that favoured an isolationist contingent of internally cohesive followers comfortable with his violent tactics, over appealing to a wider cohort of Sunni insurgents. The paradox for Zarqawi was that maintaining this stance risked alienating potential support among Iraqi Sunnis but engendering extremely resilient and aggressive core followers. This ideological paradox has been called the ‘Gharib Paradox’ by Brian Fishman, using Zarqawi’s nom de guerre which means ‘the foreigner/ absent one’[20]. The result was that Zarqawi did not manage to obtain support from crucial segments of the Iraqi Sunni population, especially tribal leaders and other insurgency groups, all of which had disastrous consequences.

In the light of increasing cooperation between the US and some Sunni tribes, Zarqawi instigated bloodier attacks on Iraqi Shiites. He reasoned that his only chance of persuading the tribes to align with him was to provoke a Sunni-Shiite civil war so that the tribes would side with his cause and the Shiite-dominated government would collapse, embroiling the US in a messier quagmire that they would feel compelled to exit[21]. His plan backfired disastrously. As Zarqawi turned to assassinating tribal leaders and extorting lucrative trade profits from them, more Sunni tribes allied with the US to expel AQI[22]. By encroaching on tribal interests, Zarqawi prompted the tribes to decide between supporting a foreign-led Jihadist fight against the occupying Coalition forces which could entail a sectarian civil war and the subsequent imposition of puritanical Salafist rule if the Jihadists were successful; and on the other hand, their national interests of restoring Sunni hegemony. The latter option became more tenable when they understood that siding with the US forces could aid their efforts to achieve greater political representation for Iraqi Sunnis. Until then, the strains between AQI and the tribal and insurgency leaders were largely muted by a shared desire to overthrow Shiite rule. After all, the major motivational catalyst for the home-grown Iraqi insurgency as well as the tribes is the re-establishment of Sunni power, and avoiding being marginalized by the newly enfranchised Shiite majority[23], even if these Sunni groups employ similar religious rhetoric and terrorist tactics[24].

Even the tribal backlash against AQI was not enough to convince Zarqawi to moderate his stance. He characteristically declared Takfir on the tribal leaders and sustained greater damage to his personal legitimacy and that of AQI. A barrage of rebuttals from leading scholars and Jihadists rebuked him and disassociated themselves from his tactics[25].

In the ensuing period, AQI established the Mujahedeen Shura Council (MSC) in January 2006 to contain the friction with AQI and other Sunni insurgency groups and create a unified, emboldened insurgency. However, this overture was simply an attempt to consolidate AQI’s role as the foremost powerful group. Zarqawi even demanded total allegiance from the other organizations[26].

In the analysis presented in this essay, a clear pattern has emerged of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s narcissistic personality and masochistic tactics that stood in the way of AQI’s success. As is by now predictable, AQI’s transformation into the MSC did not galvanize the dichotic Sunni insurgency under Zarqawi’s leadership. Neither would the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), another AQI-offspring succeed, but would recede with the coinciding US troop surge to a small stronghold around Mosul in Northern Iraq. Zarqawi himself was killed by a US airstrike in Baquba in July 2006 and the remnants of AQI have since failed to demonstrate clear leadership[27], and also continued infighting with rival groups.

As this essay has shown, the decline of the Al-Qaeda franchise in Iraq, the AQI, is substantively due to its leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his diversion from the bin Laden-sanctioned Al-Qaeda ideology. Instead, AQI pursued an excessively bloody and inflexible strategy based on inflicting sectarian division, and which failed to garner any ability to compromise despite pressures from Al-Qaeda central and native Iraqi insurgent and tribal leaders. The latter firmly derived its impetus from its abjection to the US occupation, as did the Al-Qaeda central leadership. Yet Zarqawi pursued a steadfast sectarian approach.
Zarqawi erred in abandoning bin Laden’s more pragmatic approach that would inevitably have appealed more broadly to the essentially nationalist, restorantionist ambitions of the native insurgency. Furthermore, Zarqawi’s resolve that the ‘near enemy’ was more important to the Jihad in Iraq, was a fundamental miscalculation that diverted energies away from Al-Qaeda’s stated enemy of the United States, and led to a sectarian-based Jihad that was not only unacceptable to the masses because of the carnage it caused, but was also Islamically unjustifiable to many Jihadists including scholars. This in turn precipitated AQI’s loss of credibility and the backlash of Sunni insurgent and tribal allegiances to AQI, and provided momentum for an ‘awakening’ trend that fought against AQI. In the words of one academic, “Zarqawi [was] at the root of the division between the mainstream insurgents and AQI”[28]

The rift that developed between bin Laden and Zarqawi on the ideological, strategic and tactical levels illustrates the weakness in the notion of the Al-Qaeda ‘franchise’. In the case of AQI, it has proven to be something of a loose cannon; susceptible to diverging dramatically from Al-Qaeda’s fundamental doctrines, and when these divergences prove unsuccessful, as in the case of AQI, it damages the credibility of Al-Qaeda as a credible, ‘legitimate’ organization[29] as Brian Fishman and Assaf Moghadam affirm[30]. Zarqawi, it turns out, though agreeing with bin Laden on the fundamental Salafi-Jihadi objective of establishing the Caliphate, operated under a significantly disparate conception of Jihad. Although the US invasion of Iraq diminished the significance of the ideological clashes between bin Laden and Zarqawi, the disparity still stifled any possibility of a genuine partnership. The fact that Zarqawi pledged allegiance to bin Laden as late as 2004, indicates that the two were antagonistic from the outset, embarking on a mutually beneficial venture in which bin Laden’s myopic strategy handed over the Al-Qaeda name to a leader it would subsequently fail to contain. The result is that Al-Qaeda is now reeling from a tarnished reputation because of its Iraq experience. Support for bin Laden and Al-Qaeda sunk dramatically between 2003 and 2007, - from 56% to 20% in Jordan, from 20% to just 1% in Lebanon, and from 59% to 41% in Indonesia[31].

Zarqawi’s refusal to moderate his tactics even after rebukes from al-Zawahiri, and his decision to remain hostile to Sunni tribes when it was clearly in his interest not to, reveal Zarqawi as a reckless and disastrous strategist for AQI.

In sum, Zarqawi as the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq sowed the seeds for its eventual near collapse in 2007, and in the view of this author, was the determining factor in Al-Qaeda in Iraq’s decline.


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[1] In view of the ubiquity of “Islamic” terminology in contemporary media and political discourse, it is important to define specialist terminology used in this essay. Islamism is understood as Islamic activism but comprises several distinct ideologies that can overlap. It includes non-violent and violent, progressive as well as reactionary political movements. Militant groups such as Al-Qaeda represent only a small fraction of Islamism (Hegghammer, Global Jihad After the Iraq War, p12). Furthermore, it must be recognized that various Islamist factions may operate within the same territory yet espouse opposing agendas, as will become clear in this essay.
[2] The term Jihad literally means ‘struggle’ in Arabic; the connection with armed Islamist groups and individuals is a neologism. Proponents of Jihad view violence as the legitimate and most viable means for achieving political and social change. Like Islamists, Jihadists share the notion that only Islamic teachings can resolve their dilemmas, yet unlike some Islamists, Jihadists reject modern political structures including democratic principles, and instead operate solely through a religious paradigm. They refer to selective literal interpretations of Islamic texts, and are intolerant of rival ideologies. Salafism is characterized by an adherence to a perceived pure Sunni Islamic doctrine as practiced by 7th century AD Muslims. It adopts a literal or puritanical interpretation of Islamic texts. Salafist groups may be political (Salafiyya Jihadiyya) or apolitical (Salafiyya ‘ilmiyya). A Salafi-Jihadist group combines violence with Salafist ideology with a political agenda of establishing Islamic Law (Shari’a) within an Islamic state (Caliphate). Al-Qaeda is currently the major Salafi-Jihadi group ( Ashour, The de-radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements, p2). Al-Qaeda perceives violent combat as a sacred act next in importance to the confession of Islamic faith, and refers to Jihad as an obligatory duty incumbent on each individual (fard ‘ayn). For an extensive overview of these terms, see for example Brachman, Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice, p1-22.
[3] Gerges, The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global, p264
[4] Credit for the globalization of Al-Qaeda should also be afforded to return of the ‘Arab Afghans’ to their homelands or the nations where they settled after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Further Al-Qaeda inspired ventures in Bosnia and Chechnya also strengthened this decentralization (see Gerges, The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global, p132).
[5] Harmony Project, p19. It is critical to keep in mind that Bin Laden always envisioned Al-Qaeda as a vanguardist transnational movement, at least since his 1998 World Islamic Front Statement urging Jihad against Jews and Crusaders in which he called upon Muslims everywhere to kill Americans ‘wherever they find them’ -p55 World Islamic Front Statement urging Jihad against Jews and Crusaders, Al Qaeda in its own Words, ed Gilles Kepel. This declaration publicly affirmed the organization’s substantive reorientation from supporting parochial irredentist defensive Jihad in Muslim lands, towards an operationally globalist perspective
[6] Al-Qaeda in Iraq is also known by its translated Arabic name ‘Al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers’, or Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. This essay will refer to the group by the acronym AQI.
[7] Gerges, p265
[8] Ibid. p251
[9] Hoffman, The Changing Face of Al Qaeda and the Global War on Terrorism, p555
[10] Hegghammer, Global Jihad After the Iraq War p17
[11] As quoted in Atwan, Bari Abdel, The secret history of al-Qa'ida, p214
[12] Takfir, ‘excommunication’, is an Islamic doctrinal practice whereby a Muslim is declared to be a kufr, or ‘disbeliever’ for committing a sin that demonstrates deliberate disbelief. The guilty party is thereafter eschewed from the umma and in some cases the doctrine allows the legitimate killing of the individual or group in question. Jarret Brachman notes that the concept of Takfir is problematic for Jihadists because although they view it as core doctrine, it is unpopular amongst mainstream Muslims. That the majority of Muslims will not proclaim Takfir on others is paradoxical for Jihadists because it entails that the Jihadists must therefore proclaim Takfir on those Muslims, since not doing Takfir on perceived disbelieving Muslims (i.e. non-Jihadists and Shiites) is considered an act of disbelief in itself, and grounds for proclaiming Takfir on them. (Brachman , p45-6). Such a doctrine can easily lead to a radical obsession with identifying ‘enemies’ and killing them, as was the case with Zarqawi who justified mass killings and gruesome beheadings by it. As will become clear, this ideological preference of Zarqawi’s would have disastrous consequences for AQI.
[13] Tawil, Camille, The Other Face of Al-Qaeda, p29. In a letter, Al-Qaeda number two Zawahiri pleaded with Zarqawi that the general Muslim population in Iraq would never find the ‘scenes of slaughter’ perpetrated by him as ‘palatable’, Letter from al-Zawahiri to al-Zarqawi, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, p10. available at tp://>
[14] Gerges, p254
[15] Gerges, p256-7
[16] For a detailed study on the concept of the far and near enemy and its role in Jihadist organizations, see Op.Cit ., Gerges, The Far Enemy
[17] As originally quoted by Abdullah Muhammad Fazul, an Al-Qaeda operative in the Horn of Africa, and recorded in Fishman, Brian & Moghadam, Assaf (eds), ‘Self-Inflicted Wounds: Debates and Divisions within al-Qa’ida and its Periphery’, p94-5
[18] The prominence of Zarqawi by this point is evident in that the bounty for his capture was the same as bin Laden’s, standing at $25million
[19] Riedel, Bruce, The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology, and Future, p86
[20] Fishman, Brian, After Zarqawi: The Dilemmas and Future of Al Qaeda in Iraq, p22
[21] Katzman, Kenneth, Al Qaeda in Iraq: Assessment and Outside Links, CRS report for Congress: assessment and outside links, p10
[22] Ahmed S. Hashim notes that a coalition of 25 tribes emerged in Anbar province alone in the August 2006 Sahwa (‘awakening’) movement. Hashim, Ahmed S., Iraq’s Sunni insurgency, p63
[23] Ahmed S. Hashim affirms that the home-grown Sunni insurgency is nationalist in nature,- ‘an insurgency by a hitherto dominat group seeking to restore its former position of power: a restorationist or ‘reactionary’ insurgency’. Hashim, Ahmed S, Opt. Cit., p13. Conversely, the foreign-led insurgency spearheaded by Zarqawi’s AQI has a transnational agenda that desires to install a Sunni Caliphate.
[24] Tilghman, Andrew, The Myth of AQI, Washington Monthly, p2
[25] For example, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Mohammad Sayyid Tantawi called on the international community and the umma to punish Zarqawi for his rampant killing of Muslim civilians- a blatant violation of Islamic precepts. Strong rebukes also emerged from the leaders of three former Salafi-Jihadi groups, Islamic Jihad, Tanzim al-Jihad, and the Islamic Group in Egypt who criticized Zarqawi for indiscriminate civilian deaths and trying to ‘annihilate’ the Shiites. ,- Gerges, p261. Crucially, it was at this point that Al-Qaeda central second-in-command Zawahiri issued his letter attempting to moderate Zarqawi.
[26] Katzman, p12
[27] It emerged that the new emir of the ISI, al-Baghdadi, was not the purported new Iraqi-born leader, but in fact a fictitious character, with the actual leader thought to be an Egyptian.- Fishman, Brian, Using the Mistakes of al Qaeda’s Franchises to Undermine its Strategies, The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, p50
[28] Ahmed S. Hashim, Iraq’s Sunni insurgency , p59
[29] The author of course means legitimate in the eyes of Jihadists and potential Jihadists.
[30] Fishman, Brian & Moghadam, Assaf, p97
[31] Statistics published by the Pew Center and quoted by Ilan Berman in Present Dangers, Al-Qaida's Dirty Little Secret, available at . The author is aware that multiple factors would certainly have played a role in these poll results.

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