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.
AQI’s tactics focused less on guerrilla attacks, involving small arms and indirect fire on US and Iraqi forces, and more toward high-profile suicide bombings. While they did still target US forces, they were increasingly targeting Shia Iraqis, a trend that was going to raise concerns with the core Al Qaeda leadership.
In July 2005, Zarqawi sent a letter to Ayman al Zawahiri, outlining his strategy for Iraq. While he does stress driving the US and Coalition forces out of the country and establishing Shariah rule, the majority of the letter is a lengthy screed against the Shia and those Sunnis who would not sacrifice themselves alongside Zarqawi’s hardliners. (He refers to the shaykhs as “Sufis”—who are considered heretics by both Sunni and Shia—as a way of disparaging them for not embracing bloody jihad as he has.) He emphasized striking the Shia as a way to “drag the Muslim nation into the battle.”
AQI continued to claim responsibility for multiple high-profile bombings and kidnappings in the months that followed. They were also suspected in the rash of crude chlorine bombs that were detonated in 2006-2007. Increasingly, their activities were aimed at killing as many Shia as possible. Shortly after Zarqawi’s letter, a response, penned by Ayman al Zawahiri, called on him to stop targeting Shia sites so much, citing a need to unify the Muslim Ummah against the infidels. Zarqawi ignored the correspondence, leading to a breakdown in relations between the core Al Qaeda and its Iraqi affiliate, at least until Zarqawi’s death in an airstrike in June of 2006.
In January of the same year, Zarqawi set up the Mujahideen Shura council as an umbrella organization for the Sunni jihadists operating in Iraq. Zarqawi’s network had already become something of a hub for would-be mujahideen coming into the country; he had one of the largest networks of contacts. AQI proceeded to lump all of their operations under the title of the MSC, until October, when Abu Ayyub al Masri declared the Islamic State of Iraq. This became the new umbrella organization and AQI claimed any further attacks under the auspices of ISI.
ISI claims to cover multiple insurgent organizations within Iraq, in addition to AQI. Jeish al-Fatiheen, Jund al-Sahaba, Katbiyan Ansar Al-Tawhid wal Sunnah and Jaysh al Taiifa al Mansoura are among the organizations claimed to fall under the Islamic State of Iraq.
In 2007, the ISI actually took over the Dora neighborhood of southern Baghdad, instituting strict Shariah law and driving out the Assyrian Christians who refused to pay the jizya, the tax on all non-Muslims who are suffered to live under Muslim rule. By the end of the year, Coalition forces had driven ISI out, allowing several of the churches to be reopened, but many of the Assyrians did not return.
As the Iraqi government became more and more under Shia majority control, the ISI continued its bombing campaign in Baghdad and Basra, targeting Shia neighborhoods and mosques. As US forces began to pull out of the major cities in 2009, there was a spike in attacks, as AQI attempted a resurgence against the Iraqi security forces. They took heavy losses, particularly in their leadership, as both Abu Ayyub al Masri and Abu Abdullah al Rashid al Baghdadi were both killed in 2010. General Odierno claimed that AQI was crippled and cut off from the core Al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan.
However, at this time, Abu Dua, aka Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, among other kunyas (kunyas are honorifics in Arabic, usually referring to the person’s son, though they have been used extensively by jihadists as aliases, usually referring to historical Islamic warriors). His real name is Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al Badri. He remains the leader of ISI today and has a $10 million price on his head. Only Zawahiri has a higher reward for information leading to his killing or capture.
After the 2012 pullout of US forces from Iraq, the ISI did see a resurgence, with its most notable effect being the rash of attacks across the country leading up to the provincial elections in April 2013. With nearly 120 people being killed in a week’s time, ISI has demonstrated that it can challenge the Iraqi Security Forces with impunity.
When Jabhaat al Nusra began to grow more influential in the Syrian civil war in late 2012, it was suspected, largely because of their tactics and methods, that they were somehow affiliated with ISI. This suspicion was eventually confirmed, especially as al Baghdadi publicly announced that ISI had funded and supported al Nusra from the beginning. However, this wasn’t enough for al Baghdadi. He announced that ISI and al Nusra were no longer separate entities, but instead were now under the single banner of the Islamic State in Iraq and as Sham, or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Far from simply announcing the change, al Baghdadi traveled to Aleppo to open offices of ISIS. The Emir of al Nusra, Abu Muhammad al Julani, rejected the formation of the new group, instead pledging allegiance directly to Ayman al Zawahiri. Zawahiri ruled in favor of independent entities, but al Baghdadi, much like his predecessor Zarqawi, has rejected the Emir’s ruling.
AQI/ISI’s activities continue, with a suicide bombing in Ninawa and an IED blast in Karma on June 19th.