al Qaeda in Iraq’s Prison Break – Not Good!

This past week, al Qaeda in Iraq (a.k.a the Islamic State of Iraq – ISI) sprung several hundred of its members and probably a large handful of associated criminals from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The prison break occurred simultaneously with another attempted prison break in Taji and an attack in Mosul.

Reuters reports:

Monday’s attacks came exactly a year after the leader of al Qaeda’s Iraqi branch, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, launched a “Breaking the Walls” campaign that made freeing its imprisoned members a top priority, the group said in a statement.

Well, at least we didn’t see this coming.

So this is bad in a lot of different ways.

  • The planning and coordination conducted for a series of attacks over such a large area really speaks to the freedom of movement AQI has in the Sunni areas. This seems to signal that the central government doesn’t really have much control over

The official added that the level of coordination of the prison raids suggested former military officers had been involved in planning, if not executing them.

  • Collusion – I saw other articles that suggested that Abu Ghraib prison had an internal riot kick off at the same time as the prison attack. Not surprising, but troubling.
  • AQI’s/ISI’s rise is apparent - The number and pace of their attacks have increased rapidly over the past 6 months. With Baghdadi’s announcement of the merger of al Nusra and AQI to form the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, I’ll be interested to know what role the alleged new rush of foreign fighters played in the prison raid.
  • But is AQI really focused on the U.S.?  – The Islamic State of Iraq (AQI) is really focused on sectarian conflict against the Iraqi government. I’m sure they are also against the U.S. and the West. But in general, should the U.S. worry excessively about a threat that isn’t really targeting the U.S. at this point? I understand the U.S. can’t let the threat of a resurgent AQI go entirely. A threat unaddressed today is often a strong threat over the long term. However, I do worry about overreach in counterterrorism. How long can the U.S. afford to chase every potential “Al Qaeda” named threat especially when their motives appear to be fairly Iraq centric and sectarian focus? I’m undecided. Western papers tend to call this group “Al Qaeda in Iraq”, but going back to 2006 the group tried to emphasize its Iraqi focus by rebranding as the “Islamic State of Iraq”. We should restrain the fear induced by media use of the convenient term of “al Qaeda” when the organization has tried very hard to be the Islamic State of Iraq and has gone so far as to publicly rebut al Qaeda Central’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.  We should analyze this closely and really determine whether we are facing a global terror affiliate pursuing al Qaeda’s agenda or a local sectarian insurgent group that we conveniently label with an “al Qaeda” moniker.  This distinction is important.  If anything, I think we are seeing a two-front sectarian conflict with the ISI fighting the Shia and Kurd dominated government in Iraq and absorbing al Nusra to fight an Assad backed by Shia Iran & Hezballah in Syria. This looks very different from the global al Qaeda of 2001.
  • Prisons as incubators – Across the counterterrorism community, there has been a decade of discussion on how prisons provide a venue for indoctrination and recruitment to al Qaeda. Gregory Johnsen noted the critical role of prisons in propelling AQAP in Yemen. It was a prison break there that proved a seminal event in the reformation of AQAP after many years of being dormant. Will we see this same phenomena in Iraq?
  • Detention as a component of counterterrorism strategy – The bigger strategic issue rests with whether we should rely on our CT partners and their detention centers as a critical component of U.S. counterterrorism. The U.S. wants to close Guantanamo, the American public doesn’t want to use drones nor have terrorists tried and detained in the U.S., but there is no detention option aside from foreign partners – and this doesn’t seem to be working so well. As I discussed a year ago, “No Drones, No Detention, No Rendition”, what should we do if all our options are not good. If we can’t detain people at home, they are constantly freed from partner prisons and we choose not to use drones, how much capacity does the U.S. really have to interdict terror groups?

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