With AQI and its Syrian affiliate/rival Al Nusra increasingly in the news, here is a brief rundown of AQI’s history.
Al Qaeda in Iraq got its start in 2003, originally called Jama’at al Tawhid wal Jihad (The Group for Monotheism and Jihad). It was founded by Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a would-be mujahid who got to Afghanistan after the Soviets departed. Unable to take part in the jihad against the Soviets, he turned his attention to overthrowing the Kingdom of Jordan, where he was imprisoned until being released in 1999. He then traveled to Afghanistan and trained with other Islamists near Herat, until traveling to northern Iraq to join forces with Ansar al Islam.
Michael Ledeen, in his book The Iranian Time Bomb, linked Zarqawi to both Al Qaeda and Iran as early as 2002. While Zarqawi’s activities in Iraq have gained considerable attention, there are multiple court cases pointing to his activities and agents in Germany and Italy as well. The fact that Ansar al Islam, an affiliate of Al Qaeda, fled to Iran in the aftermath of the 2003 US invasion also tends to support the contention that the Mullahs have supported Al Qaeda, at least against the West.
In October 2004, Zarqawi openly pledged allegiance to Osama Bin Laden and the core of Al Qaeda, changing the name to Al Qaeda in Iraq. A month later, US Marines stormed Fallujah in order to root out the elements of AQI that had dug into the city. The majority of the leadership managed to escape the assault.