Many in the international community hoped that the troop surge implemented American Multi-National Force—Iraq commanding general David Petraeus would quiet the civil war roiling within Iraq. For a time, the surge was considered a success, and al-Qaeda’s influence within Iraq was hardly mentioned.
However, this summer has seen a fierce uptick in the Sunni insurgency against the Iraqi Shi’a majority government, and this uptick seems to have al-Qaeda’s fingerprints all over it. In July, there were enormous attacks on two prisons, which led to the freeing of hundreds of al-Qaeda operatives jailed by the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Then, this week, there was a slew of Ramadan bombings all across the country, leaving over 60 dead. The leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, known by the nom de guerre Abu Dua, has taken responsibility for the attacks.
But why the uptick in violence this summer, despite al-Qaeda’s ostensibly weakening international influence after the death of figurehead Osama bin Laden? Much of al-Qaeda’s turbulent relationship within Iraq stems from two key issues within the country—the presence of American troops and American influence, and the Iraqi Shi’a-Sunni divide.
Al-Qaeda’s declared war on the United States has been an evolutionary process, as its organizational roots stem from the mujahedeen in Afghanistan during the Cold War, which the U.S. funded to combat the Soviet Union-aligned Afghani central government. Osama bin Laden began funding and controlling the organization in the late 1980s, shaping it into its most archetypal structure. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in the First Gulf War in 1990, bin Laden offered to aid the government of Saudi Arabia in the area’s defense. However, the Saudi government refused in favor of military aid from the U.S. It was bin Laden’s anger at the American military presence on his native soil that led to the current state of enmity between the two entities.
To be sure, the U.S. has in part aided to weaken the international structure of al-Qaeda, but the organization still takes every opportunity it can to undermine American authority and influence in the world. Because Iraq is a key spot of American military and political influence at the moment, it is a ripe and fertile ground for al-Qaeda to work to undermine the U.S., and because many native Iraqis are already angry at the American presence, it does not present much cost for a weakened al-Qaeda to influence the insurgency.
The second factor major of al-Qaeda’s influence within Iraq is the country’s strong Shi’a-Sunni divide, which was aggravated first by years of Sunni minority rule by Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath Party, and then by Maliki’s harmful and discriminatory anti-Sunni policies once the Shi’a majority came back to power after the American invasion. Of course, al-Qaeda is an international Sunni Islamist organization, and the Shi’a majority rule within Iraq after the American invasion is something al-Qaeda exists to fight against. Moreover, like the American presence, Shi’a rule has not come without complaint from Iraqi citizens, making it relatively easy for al-Qaeda to exert influence within the insurgency.
Undoubtedly, the American presence and Shi’a rule are spurring al-Qaeda to exert violent influence within Iraq. But these two factors have been in play in the country for years, so why has al-Qaeda-spurred violence come to a head now?
It seems that while many thought the surge was a success and al-Qaeda’s influence was on the decline, any peace bought by the surge was fragile, and al-Qaeda was merely sleeping. Or rather, the international central structure was sleeping, and the organization’s regional franchises in the Maghreb, the Arabian Peninsula, and Iraq were regrouping, recruiting, and strengthening. At least, this is an obvious conclusion to draw from the fact that the U.S. Department of State closed two-dozen embassies and consulates across the Middle East and Africa in the wake of a highly credible threat from al-Qaeda.
Of course, for security reasons, the U.S. government has not released specific details of the threat that led to the extreme region-wide shutdown, so we may not know for a while how al-Qaeda’s resurgence has developed. But it seems that this new al-Qaeda has been feeding as much on anti-Western sentiment as the vitriol against Middle Eastern governments that has seemingly multiplied after the Arab Spring. The new al-Qaeda in Iraq, and in other parts of the Middle East, may be fighting for Islamist autonomy on altogether new fronts.
By Laura Gates
Source: The Daily Beast, The New York Times, The Economist