Al-Qaeda’s Resurgence in Iraq: A Threat to U.S. Interests

Chairman Royce, Ranking Member Engel, and Members of the Committee, thank you for inviting me to discuss the situation in Iraq with a focus on al Qa’ida’s primary offshoot in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Threat Posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)

I will begin with a brief overview of the security situation in 2011 and 2012, as it is important to understanding the current environment. In both years, 2011 and 2012, Iraq remained a very violent country. By our counts, 4,400 Iraqis were killed each year, most in attacks by extremist groups led by al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI).

While this violence was persistent and targeted, it did not threaten the stability of the state, or a rekindled civil war. Indeed, based on studies of historical parallels – civil wars and insurgencies – Iraq by 2012 had entered what is called a “low boil” stage of insurgency. A low boil insurgency reflects a level of violence that may not present a serious risk of state collapse, or rekindled broad scale reprisals, but rather a persistent tempo of attacks carried out by the hardened core of an insurgency – which, by historical examples, can take a decade to fizzle out.

These two years, 2011 and 2012, also witnessed the escalating civil war in Syria, inflamed by regional rivalry and opportunism by terrorist groups. The Asad regime’s unwillingness to engage with the opposition in meaningful political dialogue and violent suppression of peaceful protests led to open, armed conflict. As the fighting has dragged on, the conflict has attracted terrorist groups seeking to take advantage of the loss of state authority, including in eastern Syria, leading to the rise of terrorist groups near the Iraq border.

The most organized and lethal of these groups – the al-Nusrah Front and ISIL – were franchises of AQI. They vary in their objectives: al-Nusrah has put greater priority on the toppling of Asad and working with other Syrian opposition groups, whereas ISIL has focused on a more regional agenda, with an aim to carve out an Islamic caliphate stretching from Baghdad to Lebanon. These dueling objectives have at times required direct mediation by Osama Bin Laden’s former deputy, and now global head of al-Qa’ida, Ayman al Zawahiri. The debate has been a central focus among global jihadist networks, and has given ISIL, in particular, a global platform to propagate its agenda and recruit adherents.

Flush with resources, recruits, weapons, and training, ISIL slowly began to execute its strategy across the Syrian border in Iraq. Violence in Iraq ticked up towards the end of 2012, but did not accelerate until early 2013. This included a marked rise in suicide bombers. The majority of these suicide bombers, we believe, are foreign fighters, recruited through extremist propaganda. Suicide bombers are a key data point we track, as they have a pernicious effect on the stability of Iraq, and demonstrate a sophisticated global network that is able to recruit, train, and deploy human beings to commit suicide and mass murder. The suicide bombers are, in a twisted turn of logic, ISIL’s most precious resource.

It was significant, therefore, that by early 2013, we began to see signs of ISIL shifting these resources from Syria to Iraq. In 2012, Iraq witnessed an average of 5-10 suicide attacks per month. By the summer of 2013, it was averaging 30-40 suicide attacks per month, and increasingly coordinated and effective attacks. On March 14, 2013, for example, five suicide bombers from ISIL attacked and took hostages in the Ministry of Justice in Baghdad, and controlled the building for several hours before detonating themselves. This was the first in a series of sophisticated military-style operations throughout 2013, with suicide bombers used to clear a path, followed by well-trained fighters to take and hold an objective.

By the summer of 2013, ISIL suicide bombers struck regularly, focused primarily on Shia civilian targets (playgrounds, funerals, markets), but also Sunni areas (to contest territory) and Kurdish areas (to spark ethnic conflict). In November 2013, Iraq witnessed 50 suicide attacks, compared with only three in November 2012. These attacks had a devastating effect on political discourse in the country, further fueling mistrust from political leaders to ordinary citizens, and making the tangible reforms that Iraq needs to reconcile its society even harder to reach.

Indeed, the violence may appear indiscriminate – but it is not. From what we are now seeing, ISIL attacks are calculated, coordinated, and part of a strategic campaign led by its Syria-based leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This campaign has the stated objective to cause the collapse of the Iraqi state and carve out a zone of governing control in the western regions of Iraq and eastern Syria (an area known as the “Jazeera”). To do this, they are now using three primary tactics:

  • First, attacking Shia civilians with an aim to re-ignite a civil war and cause ordinary people to look to militias, not the state, for protection. Adherents to ISIL’s extreme ideology believe Shia should be killed based on their sect alone, and the suicide bombers seek populated areas to murder as many innocent people as possible. These are the vast majority of ISIL attacks.
  • Second, contesting territory in Sunni areas to assert dominance over local Sunni officials and tribes. Targeted assassinations and attacks increased in these areas as ISIL focused its resources inside Iraq. In one 30-day period between September and October of last year, for example, more than a dozen suicide bombers were used in assaults on three towns in Anbar province (Rawa, Rutbah, and Haditha).
  • Third, attacking the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR) and disputed boundary areas in northern Iraq to stoke ethnic tensions and conflict. The thriving capital city of the IKR, Erbil, faced an attack in September similar to attacks seen in Baghdad earlier in the year: multiple suicide bombers followed by an infantry assault to temporarily control a government building.

By the end of 2013, suicide and vehicle-borne attacks initiated by ISIL returned to levels not seen since the height of AQI’s power (its earlier incarnation) in 2007. Overall levels of violence, however, remain far below 2007 levels, demonstrating that reprisal attacks from Shia militias have been restrained, though the risks of such reprisals continue to rise as ISIL continues to attack Shia civilian areas.

In summary, ISIL’s strategy is sophisticated, patient, and focused. It will take a similar combination of sophistication, patience, and focus to combat it, and I will explain shortly what this strategy should look like, and how we intend to help the Iraqis increase the chances that they can arrest these 2013 trend-lines in 2014.

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