President Barack Obama boasts he brought the troops home from Iraq and that the elimination of Osama Bin Laden will lead to Al Qaeda’s defeat, but he may have left a vacuum in Iraq that Al Qaeda is filling in a comeback attempt.
Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Osama bin Laden-inspired terrorist group that sank the country into sectarian violence five years ago, is trying to make a comeback in post-U.S.-occupied Iraq, analysts and intelligence officials say.
The conservative Washington Times reported that American officials told it that Al Qaeda is carrying out more attacks this year than it did in the last six months of 2011, when President Obama was pulling out troops.
Al Qaeda also has a protected base in Iran, where it previously has been unwelcome. Several of its senior terrorists previously were jailed by Tehran but now are free to plan terrorist attacks outside the country, relatively free from an American strike in its announced war on terror.
The American withdrawal, like then Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s order to pull soldiers out of the southern Lebanon security zone in 2000, was welcome by the media but may have left a vacuum that terrorists are filling, as Hizbullah did for years before it pulverized Israel in the Second Lebanon War in 2006.
Iraq is now ruled by Shi’ite Muslim Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who promptly arrested several Sunni Muslim terrorists after they carried out attacks following the American withdrawal.
“I think AQI [Al Qaeda International], which had been severely battered by the U.S.-led counterinsurgency campaign, has regained strength,” James Phillips, a Middle East analyst at the Heritage Foundation think tank told the Washington newspaper.
He noted that Al Qaeda has shown its strength by sending agents to target Syrian President Bashar Assad’s loyalists and appear as if they are allies of the majority Sunni Muslims fighting the Alwaite regime of Assad.
After the elimination of bin Laden, a Sunni Muslim, President Obama said it was only a matter of time until the United States defeats Al Qaeda, but Republican Senator John McCain disagrees.
“Violence is up significantly since the departure of U.S. troops,” he told the Times. The ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee added, “Al Qaeda in Iraq and violent Shia extremist groups are still very much active and threatening to Iraq’s stability. It is increasingly difficult to argue that Iraq, to use the president’s words, is, quote, ‘stable and self-reliant.’
“Al Qaeda officials – affiliates in Iraq, the Horn of Africa and the Maghreb – are growing stronger, more independent, more diffuse and more willing to attack American interests.”
The United States has succeeded in killing several Al Qaeda chiefs, but the terrorist organization has no problem in replacing them, according to Ramzy Mardini, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.
Al Qaeda’s current leader in Baghdad is Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, for whom the U.S. State Department has offered a $10 million reward for information leading to his killing or capture.
For the time being, American officials insist that Al Qaeda has not exploited the American troop withdrawal.
“There are very few indications that AQI has taken advantage of the withdrawal of U.S. forces to make major improvements to its organization,” an official told the newspaper. “Although AQI terrorist activity is higher this year than it was in the last six months of 2011, it is well within the normal levels of violence that we have seen since 2010.”
However, Al Qaeda has more freedom to maneuver in Iraq, which borders Iran, and is far from being eliminated.
The terrorist organization has taken over much of southern Yemen, where its assaults the past week have killed 185 people, including dozens of soldiers whose bodies were beheaded and mutilated.
The Arab Spring uprising against the former Saleh regime had the same results as the rebellions in Egypt and Libya – the removal of centralized authority without an adequate replacement.
If Al Qaeda succeeds in exploiting Sunni-Shiite distrust in Iraq, a similar situation could result there, leaving it back in the saddle against the United States.