A snapshot of Al-Qaeda in Iraq

Kidnapping for ransom and the use of children as suicide bombers were common ploy of the group, leaked documents show.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

The leaked reports do not offer a complete picture of American intelligence on Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), since they do not include higher-level intelligence assessments or anything classified “top secret”.

Still, they suggest that the army had a hit-or-miss understanding of the group, particularly in the early years of the conflict. Individual units received hundreds of reports of alleged AQI plots. Sometimes they were accurate: On August 12, 2006, for example, a source tells the US military that seven vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices will soon be used in Baghdad. Days later, a series of car bombings rocked the capital: a blast in Zafraniya neighbourhood killed 47 people on August 14 and 21 people were killed in three car bombings on August 16.

Other times, though, the quality of intelligence is quite suspect: Hundreds of threat reports describe often-outlandish plots to stage attacks against high-profile targets, both Iraqi and international.

A September 2005 report described a letter, allegedly from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a senior AQI leader, outlining a plot to storm the Abu Ghraib prison – “at an unspecified time on an unspecified day during Ramadan 2005” – and release prisoners.

50 to 100 rockets will be used to signal the beginning of the attack and the attack will continue with many rockets. The detainees held at Abu Ghurayb were to prepare for the attack (NFI)… attackers are prepared to sacrifice the lives of detainees in order for the attack to be a success as dying during Ramadan is seen as an honor.

The attack never happened, and a follow-up report from January 2006 has al-Zarqawi urging his followers to carry out the apparently-postponed operation “in the next few weeks”.

Another September 2005 report has an “AQI affiliate” in the southern city of Basra plotting an attack against the British military, foreign oil companies, the international airport and the Iranian border. The attack never materialised. In October 2005, seven VBIEDs reportedly planned to target US military convoys in a synchronised attack outside Baghdad. The attack never took place. A 20-man AQI cell plotted to attack the Jordanian embassy in December 2005, it was reported. This never happened as well.

‘Pipeline of fighters’

There are thousands of reports of “foreign fighters” detained by US troops, but it is often extremely difficult to determine their identities. Many were arrested carrying false passports, or no paperwork at all; US forces routinely guess their nationalities based on accent, dress and mannerisms. Thus, while a vast number of foreigners are detained by the US military, only a small fraction are positively identified as coming from one country or another.

A US creation, of sorts

“The question is, do we fight them over there, or do we fight them here? I choose to fight them over there.” – General Tommy Franks, September 2, 2004

One of the stated rationales for the war was a desire to fight al-Qaeda “over there” – in Iraq – rather than “over here” – in the United States.

But the documents underscore a truth that has been known for years: AQI was not really “over there” until after the US invaded.

There are only a half-dozen references to al-Qaeda in 2004, most involving isolated arrests or intelligence tips in connection with Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish Sunni group with ties to al-Qaeda.

As for al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), it is not not mentioned as a distinct entity until July 2005. Its predecessors, notably Jama’at al-Tawhid w’al-Jihad (JTJ), began appearing roughly a year earlier – JTJ would later pledge allegiance to Osama bin Laden in an October 2004 letter.

A review of the documents – in which only the fighters with positive identification are counted – suggests, not surprisingly, that Syria and Saudi Arabia were the main sources of foreign fighters for the Sunni insurgency. In 2004, at least 20 Syrian fighters were either detained or killed in Iraq. That number jumps to 55 in 2005, and then begins to decrease: 43 in 2006, 34 in 2007 (including several “facilitators”), 12 in 2008, and five in 2009. (These numbers, again, are obviously an underestimate: The US National Bureau of Economic Research published a paper in 2006 that counted at least 66 Syrian foreign fighters in an eight-month period in 2005.)

Still, the pattern reflected in the documents mirrors statements from US military officers: They criticised Syria for years for allowing smugglers to operate a “pipeline” of foreign fighters into Iraq, but began praising Syria in early 2008 for better co-operation. Admiral Gregory Smith told reporters in early 2008 that the flow of foreign fighters from Syria had more than halved since early 2007.

Saudi Arabia, Iraq’s neighbour to the south, was also the source of a significant number of foreign fighters – at least 58 of them were positively identified over the six-year period covered by the documents, plus seven high-level facilitators or financiers. More than 40 other fighters were also presumed to be Saudis, based on their accents or their names.

Fighters from Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Jordan and Algeria are also mentioned in the documents. And there are a handful of fighters from Western countries: several from the United Kingdom, at least two from Canada, and at least three Americans.

Recruiting children

But the “pipeline” began to dry up starting in mid-2007, as Iraq’s neighbours tightened their border controls and AQI’s ongoing brutality hurt its popularity in the Muslim world. As the flow of foreign fighters decreased, AQI became increasingly desperate in its recruiting. It first turned to women, as described in one May 2007 report.

AQIZ is using an unidentified female member to recruit other members to conduct suicide attacks on coalition forces and other unspecified targets. AQIZ is recruiting women because the perception of AQIZ is that women can pass coalition forces (CF) checkpoints with less scrutiny than men. Also, less background information exists on women for CF to investigate, so security interviews or screenings are less comprehensive.

The group’s recruiting efforts were temporarily successful: Women staged eight suicide bombings in Iraq in 2007 and more than 15 in 2008, including one that killed 29 people at a football match in Diyala.

But the group apparently needed more recruits, and the leaked documents show the AQI regularly using children as suicide bombers – some as young as 11 years old – in late 2008 and 2009. AQI even allegedly set up dedicated cells of children and young men in their 20s, according to one report, which followed a May 2009 suicide bombing in Kirkuk carried out by a 14-year-old boy.

In recent weeks, there has also been increase [sic] reporting of an IN IRAQ’>AQI sub-group which called themselves the “Bird of Paradise.” The most recent report stated that on or about 02MAY09, 15 SVEST bombers ranging from 14 to 25 years old were transported from Baghdad to Kirkuk to “increase Arab and Kurdish tensions.”

AQI also took advantage of the mentally ill: In April 2008, the group used a “16-17-year-old male… who looked mentally retarded and had facial features of a person with Down syndrome” to carry out a suicide bombing at a funeral in Diyala.

Todays [sic] attack is a clear example of a known TTP seen in recent months. The use of a mentally handicapped individual to be a S-PBIED (suicide bomber) demonstrates the decline in AQIs ability to recruit members and, more specifically, people willing to be suicide bombers.

At least one other report describes a mentally ill person recruited by AQI.

Financial difficulties

Some of AQI’s funding came from external sources, like Syria or wealthy donors in the Gulf. But it also raised a great deal of money inside Iraq.

Reading the Documents

  • Glossary: Military jargon
  • Editor’s note: About the documents

Kidnapping for ransom was a common tactic. In February 2008, for example, AQI kidnapped Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho, a Christian leader in Mosul. It was the second time he was abducted.

They will likely demand a large ransom for his release. Last time the Archbishop was kidnapped, the terrorists received $200,000 for a ransom. This time they will likely demand more. This shows that IN IRAQ’>AQI/ISI are running low on funds, and are resorting to drastic measures to get money. [[338:741]]

The group also relied on other forms of extortion. A September 2008 report from Mosul describes an army unit finding a half-burnt passenger bus. The owner of the bus said he had received phone calls from AQI, threatening he would “suffer the consequences” unless he paid the group $20,000. “It is assessed that the attack was intended to threaten and intimidate the driver into paying the money,” the report concluded. [[371:088]]

Robbery, too, became an increasingly valuable source of revenue for the group, reports suggested. When an unknown group of gunmen stole $1.6m from the Iraqi oil office in Mosul in December 2008, the US military immediately pinned the blame on the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), an umbrella group for several militant organisations.

Though there haven’t been many reflections of financial difficulties recently, it is probable that this was ISI. The insurgency is always in need of money and despite reports of funding from UAE and Syria, the evidence from Homestead 22 indicates that Mosul provides money to ISI Iraq-wide.

That trend has continued to this day. Iraq has seen a number of mysterious robberies this year, many of them directed at gold markets or jewelers. The culprits are rarely caught.

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Source: Al Jazeera