Still lethal, if today’s coordinated bombings in Baghdad are any indication. But in the wake of last week’s surprise killings of AQI leaders Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, I asked Maj. Gen. Stephen Lanza, spokesman for the U.S. military command in Iraq, for a sense of what the extremist network in Iraq looks like after losing its leadership for the first time since 2006.
In the face of pressure from Iraqi and U.S. forces, AQI has “fractured,” Lanza said, into three component groups: opportunists looking for cash in the absence of better choices; nationalists who want to drive the U.S. out and overthrow the Iraqi government; and ideologues like the leadership who buy into al-Qaeda’s larger conspiratorial worldview. It’s now almost entirely an Iraqi phenomenon, as opposed to the pre-surge AQI that was augmented by foreign fighters traveling to Iraq to attack U.S. and Iraqi forces and civilians and receiving cash from al-Qaeda’s leadership in the Pakistani tribal areas. “We see not as many, and very few, foreign fighters compared to what we have seen a few years ago,” Lanza said on a blogger conference call. By contrast, in 2008, an aide to Gen. David Petraeus, then the commander in Iraq, described the typical adherent, or “Mr. AQI,” as a foreign fighter who came to Iraq after being radicalized through images of U.S. forces torturing detainees at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay.
The Iraqis that do join AQI rely on extortion to finance their attacks. “It’s through extortion, it’s through kidnapping, it’s through extortion of oil at the Baiji Oil Refinery and other facilities to get their money,” Lanza said. That’s a far cry from the days when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi wrote to Ayman al-Zawahiri for cash. It appears, Lanza said, that al-Qaeda Senior Leadership is moving resources to other franchises. (As we’ve seen with the rise of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.) That trend may accelerate now that al-Masri is dead. “They’re still looking for a way to expand they’re network, but he was their link outside of Iraq,” Lanza said.
AQI is still a capable force and has had recent high-profile successes in pulling off suicide car bombs in crowded areas. But its strategic objectives — plunging the country back into sectarian war — aren’t being achieved, and Iraq is down to levels of civilian violence comparable to January 2004. When I asked how many Iraqis support AQI, both as active fighters and as people who passively tolerate the extremists’ presence, Lanza said he couldn’t disaggregate that figure, but a rough estimate was between 1,500 and 2,000 Iraqis total. And that’s not so different from what the State Department’s intelligence branch pegged it at in 2007.
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