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Al-Qaeda in Iraq's Growing Ambitions

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After two extremely bloody and costly interventions in Iraq in recent times, there is surely little enthusiasm for a third. However, the growing al-Qaeda threat in that country may force Iraq to once again be prioritised.

Last Sunday, key al-Qaeda (AQ) fighters escaped prison following a jailbreak the group initiated in Abu Ghraib, Iraq. A similar jailbreak, in Taji, was thwarted.

AQ used suicide bombers in cars packed with explosives to breach the gates. Their gunmen then attacked guards with mortars and RPGs and other fighters positioned near the main roads leading to the prison prevented security reinforcements reaching the prison. The IrISIL government believes that AQ was assisted by sympathisers within the prison itself.

There is an analog to the potential impact this could have. In February 2006, 23 members of AQ imprisoned in Yemen tunnelled out of prison and to a nearby mosque. Their escape breathed life back into an AQ group that is now among the most virulent in existence (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP). However, the consequences in Iraq could be even direr than they were in Yemen.

Firstly, the numbers that escaped were significantly higher. Approximately 500 prisoners were released (although around 150 have since been recaptured) and it seems that many were connected to Iraq's AQ group: the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). This included the release of several of its top commanders.

Secondly, unlike Yemen in 2006, AQ was already thriving prior to the jailbreak. The release of these prisoners simply swells the ranks of a group that is increasingly strong domestically and has even begun to extend its operations into neighbouring Syria.

Much of the media narrative suggests that the group was irrevocably destroyed by the Anbar Awakening and American surge of late 2006/early 2007. While it is true that these events hugely damaged ISIL, it is not as if the group packed up its operations and accepted defeat. AQ is nothing if not resilient, and the departure of all American troops in 2011 provided it with the perfect fillip to bounce back with a vengeance.

Even prior to the 2011 withdrawal, ISIL was able to carry out co-ordinated attacks every four to six weeks, killing on a mass scale. They have picked up their pace further now, with approximately 2500 dying in Iraq as the result of terrorism in the last two months.

Some Western governments believe this not to be a strategic concern, as ISIL is a parochial group mainly obsessed with the Shia and Iranian influence in Iraq. While they may be operationally capable (so this logic goes), their primary goal is killing the Shia and fermenting sectarianism. This is seen as clearly undesirable, but not an international threat.

However, this complacent attitude needs challenging, as there is evidence of a more global focus than is sometimes assumed.

AQ in Iraq suicide bombers killed over fifty during attacks on hotels in Amman, Jordan in 2005. Telephone numbers of ISIL members were found on the mobile phones of the bombers behind a car bomb attack in London's West End and attempted suicide attack on Glasgow airport in June 2007. In September 2007, the group offered $100,000 to anyone who murdered Lars Vilks, a Swedish cartoonist who had drawn insulting pictures of Islam's Prophet, Mohammed.

ISIL also provided operational support to a large plot directed against targets in Jordan at the end of 2012; and then, last month, five ISIL members seeking to manufacture chemical weapons were thought to be intending to smuggle some of these weapons to the US, Canada and Europe.

Clearly, this is not a group that solely looks inward. As a result, the international community must begin to consider its options.

However, the West still has so much 'Iraq fatigue' that it is hard to see an effective response coming. The US has only just left Iraq, with President Obama assuring all that he had ended the war responsibly. They are hardly likely to be at the forefront of an international effort to re-engage on ISIL security problems. The consequence of this is that a weak ISIL government will be unable to defeat ISIL, the security situation will worsen and the insurgency will be emboldened. This will have terrible consequences not just for Iraq but for Syria, where ISIL now has a strong presence.

Three years after AQ's jailbreak in Yemen, AQAP recruit Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to blow up a flight heading to Detroit. AQAP has been under sustained scrutiny - and regular U.S. bombing - since. It must be hoped that it does not take another Abdulmutallab before we begin to take the threat emerging from Iraq as seriously as we take that from Yemen.