President Obama’s announcement that U.S. military forces will be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of the year has been accompanied by a renewed wave of terrorist attacks. In particular, Ansar al Islam (AAI), an al Qaeda-affiliated organization, has claimed responsibility for a series of recent deadly attacks.
According to the SITE Intel Group, AAI used online jihadist forums to claim responsibility for the twin Oct. 6 bombings in northern Baghdad, a “string of explosions” on Oct. 10 in western Baghdad, and the Oct. 13 blast in Sadr City. The attacks targeted Iraqi security forces and Shia militias. In all, AAI says the attacks have killed at least 60 people.
AAI is an organization that defies easy caricature. Its presence in northern Iraq was originally cited by the Bush administration in the run-up to the Iraq War. Contrary to widely-held belief, there were ties between AAI and Saddam’s regime. For example, the 9/11 Commission found: “In 2001, with Bin Ladin’s help [Kurdish extremists] re-formed into an organization called Ansar al Islam. There are indications that by then the Iraqi regime tolerated and may even have helped Ansar al Islam against the common Kurdish enemy.”
This was somewhat of an understatement, considering the publicly available record. Putting aside the question of AAI’s ties to Saddam’s fallen regime, the evidence shows the group has been willing to cooperate with other bad actors in the region. This includes Iran, which despite AAI’s targeting of Shiites (the Persians have little compunction about killing Arab Shiites in Iraq) has reportedly provided AAI with broad-based assistance. Kurdish officials routinely complain about AAI members being allowed to cross over from Iran into Iraq.
In November 2004, Edward Pound of U.S. News & World Report published a blockbuster account based on “a review of thousands of pages of intelligence reports.” The U.S. and British intelligence reports revealed that Iran sponsored AAI in a variety of ways. Iran even backed a putative AAI assassination plot, which was never carried out, against Coalition Provisional Authority head Paul Bremer.
One intelligence report read: “There were approximately 320 Ansar al-Islam terrorists being trained in Iran . . . for various attack scenarios including suicide bombings, assassinations, and general subversion against U.S. forces in Iraq.” Another report, from British defense officials, noted: “Some elements [of Ansar al-Islam] remain in Iran. Intelligence indicates that elements” of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps “are providing safe haven and basic training to Iran-based AI [Ansar al-Islam] cadres.”
There is much more to this story, including numerous other examples provided in the U.S. News & World Report article. Suffice it to say that much of the reporting on Iraq, and the American withdrawal from that country, does not convey the complexity of how our terrorist enemies actually operate there.
There is no indication in current reports that Iran played any role in AAI’s latest round of attacks. On the other hand, there is no reason to believe that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps or intelligence service disapproves, even when these terrorist attacks target Shiites. The cycle of violence only furthers Iran’s ambitions by driving Shiite groups more firmly into Iran’s fold as they seek assistance in defending themselves and gaining retribution. And the violence directed against Iraqi security forces serves to weaken the shaky Iraqi government.
In 2004, U.S. News & World Report quoted David Kay, formerly of the Iraq Survey Group, as saying: “I think we are in an intelligence war with Iran. There are Iranian intelligence agents all over the country [Iraq].” Iranian intelligence agents retain a heavy footprint inside Iraq to this day. AAI and other al Qaeda-linked groups maintain a significant presence, albeit one that is not as strong as several years ago, as well.
The main purpose of Iranian and al Qaeda-backed violence has been to drive American and Western forces out of Iraq. Sometimes the Iranians and AAI have colluded in this endeavor. Now that coalition forces are leaving, the terrorists’ violence will not stop. Our Iraqi allies will have to fend off these attacks by themselves.
The terrorist’s war against America’s Iraqi allies continues, whether the U.S. wants to keep fighting or not.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.