International Security Studies


Al Qaeda in Iraq: Options After the Surge

March 17, 2008 // 12:00pm1:30pm

This event was co-sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Center (International Security Studies and Middle East Programs), the Council on Global Terrorism, and Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies.

The most effective component of the U.S. military "surge" in Iraq has been the empowering of the Sunni community to defend itself. According to Fishman, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, did not think that the United States could successfully implement this strategy. But he was worried that the post-Saddam, Shiah-dominated government in Baghdad might develop the political will to do so.

In mid-2005, Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, wrote his now famous letter to Zarqawi, which was intercepted by U.S. intelligence and made public. Zarqawi's letter criticized AQI's terrorist campaign that had produced large-scale civilian casualties and had undermined its ability to unite Sunni insurgents against the U.S. occupation. These AQI attacks included the February 2006 bombing of the Golden Mosque, one of Iraq's most revered Shiite shrines, in Samarra. Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike in June 2006 and was replaced by Abu Ayyub al-Masri, an Egyptian. Fishman argued that Zarqawi had a coherent, albeit flawed, strategy, and noted that he was the kind of operational commander that Al Qaeda has found difficult to replace.

In the post-Zarqawi era, according to Fishman, there has been an unresolved tension in AQI's strategy over whether the military struggle should focus on the "near enemy," the post-Saddam regime and its supporters (including U.S. occupation forces), or the "far enemy" beyond Iraqi territory. Fishman argued that the paradox is how to combine the practical demands of Iraqis with the doctrinal demands of Al Qaeda's leading thinkers outside Iraq. Those theoreticians had been highly critical of AQI's decision to announce the establishment of the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI): They argued that AQI did not control enough territory and could not provide security; that major Sunni leaders were not involved; and that ISI would lead to the disintegration of Iraq. AQI rejected this criticism, arguing that "improving the conditions [of the people] is less important than the conditions of their religion." This decision produced the widespread alienation within the Sunni community that U.S. military commanders have been able to capitalize on during the surge. AQI is currently capable of mounting intermittent military attacks and assassinations, but is incapable of controlling territory.

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