On Monday, Iraqi army forces and other tribal fighters started to encircle the city of Fallujah and, according to some reports from the ground, began shelling al-Qaeda positions inside. The news is reminiscent of the battle of Fallujah nearly ten years earlier when the U.S. military began the long slog of taking back the western Iraqi city in one of the war’s most important battles.
But analysts inside and outside the U.S. government say the chances of al Qaeda’s affiliate actually holding Fallujah are slim. One U.S. official Monday acknowledged “The security trends in Iraq are concerning,” noting that violence has spiked and al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq is resurgent. But this official also said, “The situation in Fallujah and Ramadi, however, remains fluid. Prime Minister Maliki and his government are doing their best to beat back al-Qaeda’s advances.”
Al Qaeda’s Iraq affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant (ISIL) has focused much of its attentions recently on Syria, where its reclusive leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, is believed by U.S. intelligence officials to reside. And it is in Syria that ISIL has recently lost ground.
As Baghdadi’s fighters were planting the black flags of al Qaeda in Fallujah, the group suffered major losses in its strongholds in northern Syria to other Islamist rebel groups.
“It’s far more significant for the future of (al Qaeda’s Iraq affiliate) that the Sunni Islamist groups are turning on them,” said Will McCants, the director of the project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution. “This could be a major set back for the organization. Until now, they have not played nicely with those groups.”
Al Qaeda’s Iraq affiliate also has not played nicely with al Qaeda’s central leadership. Al Jazeera reported last June that al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had rejected ISIL plans to take over al Qaeda’s other affiliate in Syria known as Jabhat al-Nusra, which had a majority of Syrians fighting in its ranks and often collaborated with other rebel groups. But Baghdadi publicly rejected Zawahiri’s edict and continued to expand his group’s operations in Syria, which is considered by al Qaeda to be a more important front in the wider jihadist struggle today than Iraq.
“Jabhat al-Nusra has been accepted by the opposition,” said Valerie Szybala, a Syria analyst with the Institute for the Study of War. “They have been there since the beginning. Seventy percent of their fighters are Syrian, but their leadership has more foreign fighters. Compared to ISIL they are much harder to vilify.”
Another important reason many al Qaeda watchers don’t expect it to hold the territory in western Iraq is because the group responsible for 9/11 and committed to restoring an ancient Islamic caliphate has never succeeded at actually governing.
In a confidential letter from the emir of al Qaeda’s north Africa affiliate to fighters in Mali first published by the Associated Press (PDF), the emir chastises his underlings for applying Islamic law, or Sharia, too rapidly on a population not ready to live under harsh strictures. A similar problem led al Qaeda’s Iraq affiliate to defeat in 2006 and 2007 in Anbar province. After imposing a harsh version of Sharia law and committing other abuses against the local population, al Qaeda faced an uprising from tribal sheiks that eventually known as the Anbar Awakening.
Today, ISIL was able to muster the strength to take over Fallujah in part because many of those local tribesman who opposed al Qaeda in 2006 and 2007 are now angrier with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government in Baghdad. For the last year, the anger of Anbaris at the government in Baghdad for its prosecution of prominent Sunni politicians and its enforcement of laws designed to purge the Iraqi government of senior members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party, has taken the form of protests in Fallujah and Ramadi.
Sterling Jensen, who served as the main translator for the U.S. Army in Ramadi at the beginning of the Anbar Awakening and is now an analyst at the National Defense University, said for now ISIL was “not the short term strategic enemy of many of the tribesmen who supported the protests.” Jensen also said Anbaris don’t like ISIL but they are not threatened by al Qaeda in the same way they feel threatened by Maliki’s government.
Secretary of State John Kerry promised on Monday to aid Maliki’s government against the new al Qaeda threat. But he also said there were no plans to send Americans to Iraq to fight along side of them.
Instead the Iraqi government will have to count on an uneasy alliance with those tribal leaders who have protested the Maliki government in the last two years but still have a long memory of the nightmare years when al Qaeda attempted to govern western Iraq.