Al Qaeda’s Out

Al Qaeda in Iraq Abu Ghraib Jailbreak a Counterterrorism Nightmare

Up to 500 al Qaeda in Iraq members are on the loose. Eli Lake on retribution fears—and spillover to Syria.

A week after a dramatic jailbreak freed dozens of al Qaeda leaders captured during the Iraq surge at the end of President George W. Bush’s second term, America’s closest allies in that counterinsurgency are preparing for the worst.

In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, tribal leader Sheik Jassim Muhammad Suwaydawi said: “Of course I’m afraid of retribution. These people who escaped were put into jail because of those fighting al Qaeda in the awakening. Their first targets will be leaders in the awakening like me.”

The Anbar Awakening began in 2005, nearly two years before Bush sent more troops and empowered Gen. David Petraeus to execute an aggressive war strategy that decimated al Qaeda in Iraq and drove the group from its safe harbor in western Iraq.

Petraeus’s campaign would not have been possible if not for tribal leaders like Suwaydawi. Sheik Jassim, as he is known to his fellow tribesmen, was one of the first tribal leaders to rise up against al Qaeda in 2006, when he and his fighters in Anbar province warded off an assault known as the Battle of Sofia, despite being outmanned and outgunned. On Sunday, Jassim said he was trying to get messages to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, but since the last American soldier left Iraq at the end of 2011, Suwaydawi says the United States has abandoned its former ally. “We haven’t had any contact with the U.S. government since they withdrew their forces from Iraq and left us dangling in the wind,” he said. “We are threatened at any moment because of our fight with al Qaeda while the Americans were here.”

U.S. intelligence officials who spoke to The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity say the jailbreaks last Sunday in Abu Ghraib and Taji present a counterterrorism and intelligence nightmare. “We just lost track of everyone we didn’t kill who was in al Qaeda during the surge,” one U.S. intelligence analyst said.

While the United States still launches non-lethal drones and other kinds of aircraft from Turkey to gather intelligence on Iraq, the sheer number of people who escaped in the dramatic jailbreak have overwhelmed U.S. analysts. “We don’t have the analysts or the human source networks to track these guys,” the U.S. intelligence analyst said. The source added that most of the Iraq analysts have been reassigned to other areas since the United States withdrew from Iraq at the end of 2011.

Al Qaeda in Iraq has claimed that 500 of its fellow operatives and leaders were freed last Sunday. The jailbreaks were the culmination of a one-year campaign known as “destroying the walls” launched on July 21, 2012, according to al Qaeda’s own propaganda and the Institute for the Study of War, a think tank that has closely studied the counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the first communication from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of al Qaeda in Iraq since 2010, he said one of the main aims of the new campaign was to replenish the ranks of the jihad.

“The more we look at this jailbreak, the more catastrophic it appears to be,” said Doug Olivant, a senior vice president of Mantid International, an international consulting firm that does business in Iraq, and the National Security Council director for Iraq at the end of the Bush administration and the beginning of President Obama’s first term. “This will regenerate al Qaeda in Iraq networks at the mid- and senior levels. What this means for both its operations in Syria and its continuing campaign against Iraqi civilians we will see over the next year, but it will certainly be bad.”

Suwaydawi said al Qaeda’s militia fighting in Syria was behind the jailbreaks. “Ever since the jailbreak we’ve been making preparations to defend ourselves,” he said.