Iraq and Al Qaeda: Assessment and Outside Links
Prepared for Members and Committees of Congress
In explaining the decision to invade Iraq and oust Saddam Hussein from power, the
Administration asserted, among other justifications, that the regime of Saddam Hussein had a
working relationship with the Al Qaeda organization. The Administration assessed that the
relationship dated to the early 1990s, and was based on a common interest in confronting the
United States. The Administration assertions were derived from U.S. intelligence showing a
pattern of contacts with Al Qaeda when its key founder, Osama bin Laden, was based in Sudan in
the early to mid-1990s and continuing after he relocated to Afghanistan in 1996.
Critics maintain that subsequent research demonstrates that the relationship, if it existed, was not
“operational,” and that no hard data has come to light indicating the two entities conducted any
joint terrorist attacks. Some major hallmarks of an operational relationship were absent, and
several experts outside and within the U.S. government believe that contacts between Iraq and Al
Qaeda were sporadic, unclear, or subject to alternate explanations.
Another pillar of the Administration argument, which has applications for the current U.S. effort
to stabilize Iraq, rested on reports of contacts between Baghdad and an Islamist Al Qaeda affiliate
group, called Ansar al-Islam, based in northern Iraq in the late 1990s. Although the connections
between Ansar al-Islam and Saddam Hussein’s regime were subject to debate, the organization
evolved into what is now known as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQ-I). AQ-I has been a numerically small
but operationally major component of the Sunni Arab-led insurgency that frustrated U.S. efforts
to stabilize Iraq. Since mid-2007, in part facilitated by combat conducted by additional U.S.
forces sent to Iraq as part of a “troop surge,” the U.S. military has exploited differences between
AQ-I and Iraqi Sunni political, tribal, and insurgent leaders to virtually expel AQ-I from many of
its sanctuaries particularly in Baghdad and in Anbar Province. U.S. officials assess AQ-I to be
weakened almost to the point of outright defeat in Iraq, although they say it remains lethal and
has the potential to revive in Iraq. Attacks continue, primarily in north-central Iraq, that bear the
hallmarks of AQ-I tactics, and U.S. and Iraqi forces continue to conduct offensives targeting
suspected AQ-I leaders and hideouts.
As of mid-2008, there are indications that AQ-I leaders are relocating from Iraq to join Al Qaeda
leaders believed to be in remote areas of Pakistan, near the Afghanistan border. That perception, if
accurate, could suggest that AQ-I now perceives Afghanistan as more fertile ground than is Iraq
to attack U.S. forces. The relocation of AQ-I leaders to Pakistan could also accelerate the
perceived strengthening of the central Al Qaeda organization.
This report will be updated as warranted by developments. See also: CRS Report RL31339, Iraq:
Post-Saddam Governance and Security, by Kenneth Katzman.
Background on Saddam - Al Qaeda Links......................................................................................1
Major Themes in the Administration Argument........................................................................3
Links in Sudan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.........................................................................3
Ansar al-Islam Presence in Northern Iraq...........................................................................5
The September 11, 2001, Plot.............................................................................................6
Al Qaeda and the Iraq Insurgency...................................................................................................7
AQ-I Strategy and Role in the Insurgency................................................................................8
2007 Iraqi Sunni “Awakening” Movement/U.S. Operations and “Troop Surge”...................10
The “Awakening” Movement Against AQ-I......................................................................11
Current Status of AQ-I......................................................................................................13
Estimated Numbers of Foreign Fighters...........................................................................13
Linkages to Al Qaeda Central Leadership...............................................................................14
Author Contact Information..........................................................................................................16
Part of the debate over the Bush Administration decision to use military action to overthrow the
regime of Saddam Hussein centers on whether or not that regime was allied with Al Qaeda. In
building an argument that the United States needed to oust Saddam Hussein militarily, the
Administration asserted that Iraq constituted a gathering threat to the United States because it
continued to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that it could potentially transfer to
international terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda, with which Iraq was allied. This combination
produced the possibility of a catastrophic attack on the United States, according to the
The first pillar of the Administration argument for ousting Saddam Hussein—its continued active
development of WMD—has been researched extensively. After the fall of the regime in April
2003, U.S. forces and intelligence officers in an “Iraq Survey Group” (ISG) searched Iraq for
evidence of WMD stockpiles. A “comprehensive” September 2004 report of the Survey Group, 1
known as the “Duelfer report,” said that the ISG found no WMD stockpiles or production but
said that there was evidence that the regime retained the intention to reconstitute WMD programs 2
in the future. The formal U.S.-led WMD search ended December 2004, although U.S. forces 3
have found some chemical weapons caches left over from the Iran-Iraq war. The UNMOVIC
work remained formally active until U.N. Security Council Resolution 1762 terminated it on June
The second pillar of the Administration argument—that Saddam Hussein’s regime had links to Al
Qaeda—is relevant not only to assess justification for the invasion decision but also because an
Al Qaeda affiliate (Al Qaeda in Iraq, or AQ-I) became a key component of the post-Saddam
insurgency among Sunni Arabs in Iraq. The Administration has maintained that the Al Qaeda
presence in Iraq, fighting alongside Iraqi insurgents from the ousted ruling Baath Party, members
of former regime security forces, and other disaffected Iraqi Sunni Arabs, demonstrates that there
were pre-war linkages. On the other hand, most experts believe that Al Qaeda and other foreign
fighters entered Sunni-inhabited central Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, from the Kurdish
controlled north and from other Middle Eastern countries. These foreign fighters are motivated by
an anti-U.S. ideology and a target of opportunity provided by the presence of U.S. forces there,
rather than longstanding ties to the former Iraqi regime, according to this view.
On March 17, 2003, in a speech announcing a 48-hour deadline for Saddam Hussein and his sons
to leave Iraq in order to avoid war, President Bush said:
...the [Iraqi] regime has a history of reckless aggression in the Middle East. It has a deep
hatred of America and our friends. And it has aided, trained, and harbored terrorists, 4
including operatives of Al Qaeda.”
1 Duelfer report text is at http://news.findlaw.com/hdocs/docs/iraq/cia93004wmdrpt.html. The report is named for
Charles Duelfer, the last head of the WMD search as part of the Iraq Survey Group. The first such head was Dr. David
2 For analysis of the former regime’s WMD and other abuses, see CRS Report RL32379, Iraq: Former Regime
Weapons Programs, Human Rights Violations, and U.S. Policy, by Kenneth Katzman.
3 Pincus, Walter. “Munitions Found in Iraq Renew Debate.” Washington Post, July 1, 2006.
4 Transcript: Bush Gives Saddam Hussein and Sons 48 Hours to Leave Iraq. Department of State, Washington File.
The Administration argument for an Iraq-Al Qaeda linkage had a few major themes: (1) that there
were contacts between Iraqi intelligence and Al Qaeda in Sudan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan dating
from the early 1990s, including Iraq’s assistance to Al Qaeda in deployment of chemical
weapons; (2) that an Islamist faction called Ansar al-Islam (The Partisans of Islam) in northern
Iraq, had ties to Iraq’s regime; and (3) that Iraq might have been involved in the September 11,
2001 plot itself. Of these themes, the September 11 allegations are the most widely disputed by
outside experts and by some officials within the Administration itself. Some Administration
officials, including President Bush, have virtually ruled out Iraqi involvement in the September
Secretary of State Powell presented the Administration view in greater public detail than any
other official when he briefed the United Nations Security Council on Iraq on February 5, 2003,
although most of that presentation was devoted to Iraq’s alleged violations of U.N. requirements
that it dismantle its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs. According to the 6
Iraq and terrorism go back decades.... But what I want to bring to your attention today is the
potentially more sinister nexus between Iraq and the Al Qaeda terrorist network, a nexus that
combines classic terrorist organizations and modern methods of murder. Iraq today harbors a
deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of
Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda lieutenants. Going back to the early and mid-1990s,
when bin Laden was based in Sudan, an Al Qaeda source tells us that Saddam and bin Laden
reached an understanding that Al Qaeda would no longer support activities against
Baghdad.... We know members of both organizations met repeatedly and have met at least
eight times at very senior levels since the early 1990s.... Iraqis continued to visit bin Laden in
his new home in Afghanistan [after bin Laden moved there in mid-1996].... From the late
1990s until 2001, the Iraqi embassy in Pakistan played the role of liaison to the Al Qaeda
organization ... Ambition and hatred are enough to bring Iraq and Al Qaeda together, enough
so Al Qaeda could learn how to build more sophisticated bombs and learn how to forge
documents, and enough so that Al Qaeda could turn to Iraq for help in acquiring expertise on
weapons of mass destruction.
Secretary Powell did not include in his February 5, 2003, briefing the assertion that Iraq was
involved in the September 11 plot. Some analysts suggest the omission indicates a lack of
consensus within the Administration on the strength of that evidence. In a January 2004 press
interview, Secretary Powell said that his U.N. briefing had been meticulously prepared and
reviewed, saying “Anything that we did not feel was solid and multi-sourced, we did not use in 7
that speech.” Additional details of the Administration’s argument, as well as criticisms, are
Post-Saddam analysis of the issue has tended to refute the Administration argument on Saddam-
Al Qaeda linkages, although this issue is still debated. The report of the 9/11 Commission found
March 17, 2003.
5 Priest, Dana and Glenn Kessler. “Iraq, 9/11 Still Linked By Cheney.” Washington Post, September 29, 2003.
6 Secretary of State Addresses the U.N. Security Council. Transcript, February 5, 2003.
7 Powell Affirms Confidence in Decision to Wage Iraq War. U.S. Department of State, Washington File. January 8,
no evidence of a “collaborative operational linkage” between Iraq and Al Qaeda.8 In his book “At
the Center of the Storm” in May 2007 (Harper Collins Press, pp. 341-358), former CIA Director
George Tenet indicated that the CIA view was that contacts between Saddam’s regime and Al
Qaeda were likely for the purpose of taking the measure of each other or take advantage of each
other, rather than collaborating. Others note, however, that some of Tenet’s pre-war testimony
before Congress was in line with the prevailing Administration view on this question, contrasting
with the views in his book. In March 2008, a study by the Institute for Defense Analyses, written
for the U.S. Joint Forces Command, and based on 600,000 documents captured in post-Saddam
Iraq, found that Iraq during the early to mid-1990s actively supported Egyptian Islamic Jihad,
which in 1998 formally merged with Al Qaeda, but that the documents do not reveal “direct 9
coordination and assistance between Saddam Hussein’s regime and Al Qaeda.”
Some of the intelligence information that the Bush Administration relied on to judge linkages
between Iraq and Al Qaeda was publicized not only in Secretary of State Powell’s February 5,
Weekly Standard. Vice President Cheney has been quoted as saying the article represents the 11
“best source of [open] information” on the issue. The article contains excerpts from a
memorandum, dated October 27, 2003, from Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith
to Senators Pat Roberts and Jay Rockefeller, the then chairman and vice chairman of the Senate
Intelligence Committee. The memorandum reportedly was based on research and analysis of
intelligence and other information by the “Office of Special Plans,” an Iraq policy planning unit
within the Department of Defense set up in early 2002 but disbanded in the fall of 2002. The
following sections analyze details of the major themes in the Administration argument.
The “DOD memorandum,” as well as other accounts,12 include assertions that Iraqi intelligence
developed a relationship with Al Qaeda in the early 1990s, brokered by the Islamist leaders of
Sudan. At the time, Osama bin Laden was in Sudan. He remained there until Sudan expelled him
in mid-1996, after which he went to Afghanistan. According to the purported memo, the Iraq-Al
Qaeda relationship included an agreement by Al Qaeda not to seek to undermine Saddam’s
regime, and for Iraq to provide Al Qaeda with conventional weapons and WMD. The
Administration view is that Iraq was highly isolated in the Arab world in the early 1990s, just
after its invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, and that it might have sought a relationship with Al
Qaeda as a means of gaining leverage over the United States and a common enemy, the regime of
Saudi Arabia. From this perspective, the relationship served the interests of both, even though
8 9/11 Commission Report, p. 66.
9 Iraqi Perspectives Project: Saddam and Terrorism: Emerging Insights from Captured Iraqi Documents.
10 Hayes, Stephen. “Case Closed.” The Weekly Standard, November 24, 2003. Online at
11 Milbank, Dana. “Bush Hails Al Qaeda Arrest in Iraq; President Defends U.S. Intelligence.” Washington Post,
January 27, 2004.
12 Goldberg, Jeffrey. “The Unknown. The CIA and the Pentagon take Another Look at Al Qaeda and Iraq.” The New
Yorker, February 10, 2003.
Saddam was a secular leader while Al Qaeda sought to replace regional secular leaders with
The purported DOD memorandum includes names and approximate dates on which Iraqi
intelligence officers visited bin Laden’s camp outside Khartoum and discussions of cooperation in
manufacturing explosive devices. It reportedly discusses subsequent meetings between Iraqi
intelligence officers and bin Laden and his aides in Afghanistan and Pakistan, continuing until at
least the late 1990s. The memorandum cites intelligence reports that Al Qaeda operatives were
instructed to travel to Iraq to obtain training in the making and deployment of chemical weapons.
Secretary of State Powell, in his February 5, 2003, U.N. briefing, citing an Al Qaeda operative
captured in Afghanistan, stated that Iraq had received Al Qaeda operatives “several times between
According to press accounts, some Administration evaluations of the available intelligence,
including a reported draft national intelligence estimate (NIE) circulated in October 2002,
interpreted the information as inconclusive, and as evidence of sporadic but not necessarily 13
ongoing or high-level contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda. Some CIA experts reportedly
asserted that the ideological differences between Iraq and Al Qaeda were too large to be bridged 14
permanently. For example, bin Laden reportedly sought to raise an Islamic army to fight to
expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait following the Iraqi invasion in August 1990, suggesting that bin
Laden might have viewed Iraq as an enemy rather than an ally. According to some accounts, the
Saudi royal family rebuffed bin Laden’s idea as unworkable, deciding instead to invite in U.S.
forces to combat the Iraqi invasion. The rebuff prompted an open split between bin Laden and the 15
Saudi leadership, and bin Laden left the Kingdom for Sudan in 1991. Ideological differences
between Iraq and Al Qaeda were evident in a February 12, 2003, bin Laden statement referring to
Saddam Hussein’s regime—dominated by his secular Arab nationalist Baath Party—as “socialist
and infidel,” although the statement also gave some support to the Administration argument when 16
bin Laden exhorted the Iraqi people to resist impending U.S. military action.
As noted above, Iraq had an embassy in Pakistan that the Administration asserts was its link to the
Taliban regime of Afghanistan. However, skeptics of a Saddam-Al Qaeda link note that Iraq did
not recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan when the Taliban was in
power during 1996-2001. It was during the period of Taliban rule that Al Qaeda enjoyed
safehaven in Afghanistan. Of the 12 Al Qaeda leaders identified by the U.S. government in 2003 17
as either “executive leaders” or “senior planners and coordinators,” none was an Iraqi national.
This suggests that the Iraqi nationals did not have the sanction of Saddam Hussein to join Al
Qaeda when he was in power. An alternate explanation is that very few Iraqis had the opportunity
to join Al Qaeda during its key formative years - the years of the anti-Soviet “jihad” in
Afghanistan (1979-1989). Young Iraqis who might have been attracted to volunteer in
Afghanistan were serving in Iraqi units during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, and were not available
to participate in regional causes.
13 Pincus, Walter. “Report Cast Doubt on Iraq-Al Qaeda Connection.” Washington Post, June 22, 2003.
14 Goldberg, Jeffrey. “The Unknown. The CIA and the Pentagon Take Another Look at Al Qaeda and Iraq.” The New
Yorker, February 10, 2003.
15 Gunaratna, Rohan. Inside Al Qaeda. New York, Columbia University Press, 2002. Pp. 27-29.
16 Text of an audio message purported to be from Osama bin Laden. BBC News, February 12, 2003.
17 “Al Qaeda High Value Targets.” Defense Intelligence Agency chart (unclassified). September 12, 2003.
Another major theme in the Administration assertions was the presence in Iraq of a group called
Ansar al-Islam (Partisans of Islam). This aspect of the Administration’s argument factored
prominently in Secretary of State Powell’s U.N. presentation, and is the most directly relevant to
analysis of the Al Qaeda presence in Iraq today. Ansar al-Islam is considered the forerunner of Al
Qaeda in Iraq (AQ-I).
Ansar al-Islam formed in 1998 as a breakaway faction of Islamist Kurds, splitting off from a
group, the Islamic Movement of Iraqi Kurdistan (IMIK). Both Ansar and the IMIK were initially
composed almost exclusively of Kurds. U.S. concerns about Ansar grew following the U.S. defeat
of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan in late 2001, when some Al Qaeda activists, mostly
Arabs, fled to Iraq and associated there with the Ansar movement. At the peak, about 600 Arab 18
fighters lived in the Ansar al-Islam enclave, near the town of Khurmal. Ansar fighters clashed
with Kurdish fighters from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two mainstream
Iraqi Kurdish parties, around Halabja in December 2002. Ansar gunmen were allegedly
responsible for an assassination attempt against PUK “prime minister” of the Kurdish region
Barham Salih (now a deputy Prime Minister of Iraq) in April 2002.
The leader of the Arab contingent within Ansar al-Islam was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an Arab of
Jordanian origin who reputedly fought in Afghanistan. Although more recent assessments indicate
Zarqawi commanded Arab volunteers in Afghanistan separate from those recruited by bin Laden,
Zarqawi was linked to purported Al Qaeda plots in the 1990s and early 2000s. He allegedly was
behind foiled bombings in Jordan during the December 1999 millennium celebration, to the
assassination in Jordan of U.S. diplomat Lawrence Foley (2002), and to reported attempts in 2002 19
to spread chemical agents in Russia, Western Europe, and the United States.
In explaining why the United States needed to confront Saddam Hussein’s regime militarily, U.S.
officials maintained that Baghdad was connected to Ansar al-Islam. In his U.N. presentation,
Secretary of State Powell said:
Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an associate
and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda lieutenants.... Baghdad has an agent
in the most senior levels of the radical organization, Ansar al-Islam, that controls this corner
of Iraq.... Zarqawi’s activities are not confined to this small corner of northeastern Iraq. He
traveled to Baghdad in May 2002 for medical treatment, staying in the capital for two
months while he recuperated to fight another day. During this stay, nearly two dozen
extremists converged on Baghdad and established a base of operations there.... From his
terrorist network in Iraq, Zarqawi can direct his network in the Middle East and beyond.
However, some accounts question the extent of links, if any, between Baghdad and Ansar al-
Islam. Baghdad did not control northern Iraq even before Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), and it is
questionable whether Zarqawi, were he tied closely to Saddam Hussein’s regime, would have 20
located his group in territory controlled by Saddam’s Kurdish opponents. The Administration
18 Chivers, C.J. Repulsing Attack By Islamic Militants, “Iraqi Kurds Tell of Atrocities.” New York Times, December 6,
U.S. Department of State. Patterns of Global Terrorism, 2002. April 2003. p. 79.
20 “U.S. Uncertain About Northern Iraq Group’s Link to Al Qaida.” Dow Jones Newswire, March 18, 2002.
view on this point is that Saddam saw Ansar as a means of pressuring Saddam Hussein’s Kurdish
opponents in northern Iraq.
The reputed DOD memorandum reportedly includes allegations of contacts between lead
September 11 hijacker Mohammad Atta and Iraq intelligence, including as many as four meetings
between Atta and Iraq’s intelligence chief in Prague, Ahmad Samir al-Ani. The DOD memo says
that al-Ani agreed to provide Atta with funds at one of the meetings. The memo asserts that the
CIA confirmed two Atta visits to Prague—October 26, 1999, and April 9, 2001—but did not
confirm that he met with Iraqi intelligence during those visits. The DOD memo reportedly also
contains reports indicating that Iraqi intelligence officers attended or facilitated meetings with Al
Qaeda operatives in southeast Asia (Kuala Lumpur) in early 2000. In the course of these
meetings, the Al Qaeda activists were said to be planning the October 12, 2000, attack on the
U.S.S. Cole docked in Aden, Yemen, and possibly the September 11 plot as well.
As noted above, Secretary of State Powell reportedly considered the information too uncertain to 21
include in his February 5, 2003, briefing on Iraq to the U.N. Security Council. President Bush
did not mention this allegation in his January 29, 2003, State of the Union message, delivered one
week before the Powell presentation to the U.N. Security Council. President Bush said on
September 16, 2003, that there was no evidence Saddam Hussein’s regime was involved in the
September 11 plot; he made the statement in response to a journalist’s question about statements a
few days earlier by Vice President Cheney suggesting that the issue of Iraq’s complicity in 22
September 11 is still open.
There is dispute within Czech intelligence that provided the information on the meetings, that the
Iraq-Atta discussions took place at all, particularly the April 2001 meeting. In November 2001,
Czech Interior Minister Stanislav Gross said that Atta and al-Ani had met, but Czech Prime
Minister Milos Zeman subsequently told U.S. officials that the two had discussed an attack aimed 23
at silencing anti-Saddam broadcasts from Prague. Since 1998, Prague has been the headquarters
of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a U.S.-funded radio service that was highly critical of
Saddam Hussein’s regime. In December 2001, Czech President Vaclav Havel said that there was a
“70% chance” the meeting took place. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) eventually concluded, based on records of Atta’s movements
within the United States in April 2001, that the meeting probably did not take place and that there 24
was no hard evidence of Iraqi regime involvement in the September 11 attacks. Some press
reports say the FBI is more confident than is the CIA in the judgment that the April 2001 meeting 25
did not occur. Al Ani himself, captured by U.S. forces in 2003, reportedly denied to U.S. 26
interrogators that the meeting ever happened.
21 Priest, Dana and Glenn Kessler. “Iraq, 9/11 Still Linked By Cheney.” Washington Post, September 29, 2003.
22 Hosenball, Mark, Michael Isikoff and Evan Thomas. Cheney’s Long Path to War. Newsweek, November 17, 2003.
23 Priest, Dana and Glenn Kessler. “Iraq, 9/11 Still Linked By Cheney.” Washington Post, September 29, 2003.
24 Risen, James. “Iraqi Agent Denies He Met 9/11 Hijacker in Prague Before Attacks on the U.S.” New York Times,
December 13, 2003.
25 Gertz, Bill. “September 11 Report Alludes to Iraq-Al Qaeda Meeting.” Washington Times, July 30, 2003.
26 Risen, James. “Iraqi Agent Denies He Met 9/11 Hijacker in Prague Before Attacks on U.S.” New York Times,
December 13, 2003.
Whether or not Al Qaeda leaders and Saddam Hussein had a relationship, a major issue facing the
United States is the degree to which Al Qaeda elements are threatening the U.S. effort to stabilize
post-Saddam Iraq. Commenting on the Iraq insurgency in its early stages, President Bush said in
a speech on September 8, 2003, that “We have carried the fight to the enemy.... We are rolling
back the terrorist threat to civilization, not on the fringes of its influence but at the heart of its 27
power.” In his January 20, 2004, State of the Union message, President Bush said, “These 28
killers [Iraq insurgents], joined by foreign terrorists, are a serious, continuing danger.” Similar
statements followed in subsequent years as the Administration sought to assert that Iraq had
become the “central front” in the broader post-September 11 “war on terrorism,” and that it is
preferable to combat Al Qaeda in Iraq rather than allow it to congregate elsewhere in the region 29
and hatch plots inside the United States itself. In a January 10, 2007, major speech announcing
the U.S. “troop surge,” President Bush made similar points:
... we will continue to pursue al Qaeda and foreign fighters. Al Qaeda is still active in Iraq.
Its home base is Anbar Province. Al Qaeda has helped make Anbar the most violent area of
Iraq outside the capital. A captured al Qaeda document describes the terrorists’ plan to
infiltrate and seize control of the province. This would bring al Qaeda closer to its goals of
taking down Iraq’s democracy, building a radical Islamic empire, and launching new attacks
on the United States at home and abroad.
In a July 24, 2007, speech specifically on the issue, 30 President Bush said:
... Our troops are....opposing ruthless enemies, and no enemy is more ruthless in Iraq than al
Qaeda. They send suicide bombers into crowded markets; they behead innocent captives and
they murder American troops. They want to bring down Iraq’s democracy so they can use
that nation as a terrorist safe haven for attacks against our country....
Critics of this view maintain that Al Qaeda or pro-Al Qaeda elements were motivated by the U.S.
invasion to enter Iraq to fight the United States there. According to this argument, the U.S.
presence in Iraq has generated new Al Qaeda followers—both inside and outside Iraq—who
might not have become active against the United States had the war against Iraq not occurred.
This view draws some support from the unclassified “key judgments” of a July 2007 National
Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that said:
...we assess that [Al Qaeda central leadership’s] association with AQ-I helps Al Qaeda to
energize the broader Sunni extremist community, raise resources, and to recruit and 31
indoctrinate operatives, including for homeland attacks.
28 State of the Union Message by President Bush. January 20, 2004. Text contained in New York Times, January 21,
Miller, Greg. Iraq-Terrorism Link Continues to Be Problematic. Los Angeles Times, September 9, 2003.
30 President Bush Discusses War on Terror in South Carolina. http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2007/07/print/
31 “‘Key Judgments’ on Terrorist Threat To U.S.” New York Times, July 18, 2007.
Other critics maintain that the Administration has emphasized an “Al Qaeda” component of the
insurgency as a means of bolstering U.S. public support for the war effort in Iraq. According to
this view, the Administration has repeatedly attempted to link in the public consciousness the Iraq
war to the September 11 attacks in part because of consistent public support for a military
component of the overall war on terrorism.
In analyzing the debate over Al Qaeda involvement in Iraq, a major question is the degree to
which AQ-I has driven the insurgency against U.S. forces and the government of Iraq. Few
dispute that there has been, from almost the inception of the insurgency in mid-2003, a “foreign
fighter” component. In November 2003, early in the insurgency, one senior U.S. commander in nd
Iraq (82 Airborne Division commander Maj. Gen. Charles Swannack) said, in response to
reports that foreign fighters were key to the insurgency: “I want to underscore that most of the 32
attacks on our forces are by former regime loyalists and other Iraqis, not foreign forces.” At that
time, other commanders emphasized the foreign fighter role in the insurgency by asserting that
the high profile suicide bombings that occurred were having a significant impact in undermining
U.S. and international confidence in the U.S. ability to stabilize post-Saddam Iraq. As examples
of such attacks that caused doubt in the U.S. ability to stabilize Iraq, commanders cited the
August 19, 2003 bombing of U.N. headquarters in Baghdad and the August 29, 2003, bombing of
a major mosque complex in Najaf that killed the leader of the large Shiite faction Supreme
Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Mohammad Baqr Al Hakim. (The group renamed itself
in June 2007 as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, ISCI).
As a result, the United States has consistently focused on combatting Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, his
foreign fighter network in Iraq, and his successors. On March 15, 2004, his Ansar al-Islam group
was named as “Foreign Terrorist Organization” under the Immigration and Nationality Act. On
October 15, 2004, the State Department named the “Monotheism and Jihad Group”—the
successor to Ansar al-Islam—as an FTO. The designation said that the Monotheism group 33
“was...responsible for the U.N. headquarters bombing in Baghdad.” Later that month, perhaps in
response to that designation, Zarqawi changed the name of his organization to “Al Qaeda Jihad
Organization in the Land of Two Rivers (Mesopotamia - Iraq)—commonly known now as Al
Qaeda in Iraq, or AQ-I. The FTO designation was applied to the new name.
Along with the designations came stepped up U.S. military efforts to find and capture or kill 34
Zarqawi. There were several reported “near misses,” according to press reports. However, on
June 7, 2006, U.S. forces were able to track Zarqawi to a safe house in Hibhib, near the city of
Baqubah, in the mixed Sunni-Shiite province of Diyala, and an airstrike by one U.S. F-16
mortally wounded him.
A related group is Ansar al-Sunna, an offshoot of the Zarqawi network that was operating in
northern Iraq, including the Kurdish areas and areas of Arab Iraq around Mosul. It was named as
an FTO as an alias of Ansar al-Islam when the latter group was designated in March 2004, and
Ansar al-Sunna remains on the FTO list. Ansar al-Sunna changed its name back to Ansar al-Islam
32 Brinkley, Joel. Few Signs of Infiltration By Foreign Fighters in Iraq. New York Times, November 19, 2003.
33 Zarqawi Group Formally Designated Terrorists by State Department. Usinfo.state.gov., October 15, 2004.
34 Bazzi, Mohammad. “Another Near Miss” Long Island Newsday, May 20, 2005.
in November 2007; however, the group has always maintained some distance from AQ-I. For
example, it did not join the AQ-I umbrella group called the “Islamic State of Iraq.”
In its most significant attack, the group claimed responsibility for February 1, 2004, twin suicide
attacks in Irbil, northern Iraq, which killed over 100 Kurds, including some senior Kurdish 35
officials. Another major attack—attributed to Ansar al-Sunna by the State Department “Country
Reports on Terrorism: 2006” (released April 2007 by the State Department Office of the
Coordinator for Counterterrorism)—was the December 2004 suicide bombing of a U.S. military
dining facility at Camp Marez in the northern city of Mosul, which killed 13 U.S. soldiers. The
State Department terrorism report for 2007 said that Ansar al-Sunna/Islam “continues to conduct
attacks against a wide range of targets including Coalition Forces, the Iraqi government and
security forces, and Kurdish and Shia figures.”
Before his death, Zarqawi had largely set AQ-I’s strategy as an effort to provoke all out civil war
between the newly dominant Shiite Arabs and the formerly pre-eminent Sunni Arabs. In this
strategy, Zarqawi apparently calculated that provoking civil war could, at the very least,
undermine Shiite efforts to consolidate their political control of post-Saddam Iraq. If fully
successful, the strategy could compel U.S. forces to leave Iraq by undermining U.S. public
support for the war effort, and thereby leaving the Shiite government vulnerable to continued AQ-
I and Sunni insurgent attack. The strategy might have been controversial among Al Qaeda circles,
as evidenced by a purported letter (if genuine) from the number two Al Qaeda leader, Ayman al-
Zawahiri, to Zarqawi, in July 2005. In that letter, Zawahiri questioned Zarqawi’s strategy in Iraq
by arguing that committing violence against Shiite civilians and religious establishments would 36
undermine the support of the Iraqi people for AQ-I and the Sunni “resistance” more broadly.
To implement its strategy, AQ-I under Zarqawi focused primarily on spectacular suicide
bombings intended to cause mass Shiite casualties or to destroy sites sacred to Shiites. Several
suicide bombings were conducted in 2005 against Shiite celebrations, causing mass casualties.
The most significant attack the February 22, 2006, bombing of the Shiite “Golden Mosque” in
Sunni-inhabited Samarra (Salahuddin Province), widely attributed to AQ-I. The attack largely
destroyed the golden dome of the mosque. It touched off widespread Shiite reprisals against
Sunnis nationwide and is widely considered to have started the “civil war” that raged from the
time of the bombing until late 2007, when it began to abate. On several occasions, President Bush
has said that Zarqawi largely succeeded in his strategy, although he and other senior
Administration officials did not, even at the height of the violence in late 2006, characterize the
Iraq as in a state of “civil war.” AQ-I’s most lethal attack, and the single deadliest attack of the
war to date, was the August 2007 truck bombings of Yazidi villages near Sinjar, in northern Iraq,
killing an estimated 500 persons, mostly Yazidis.
By the end of 2006 and in early 2007, most senior U.S. officials were identifying AQ-I as a
driving force, or even the driving force, of the insurgency. In his “threat assessment” testimony
before the Senate Armed Services Committee on February 27, 2007, Director of the Defense
Intelligence Agency Gen. Michael Maples called AQ-I “the largest and most active of the Iraq-
based terrorist groups.” On April 26, 2007, at a press briefing, the overall U.S. commander in
35 Al Qaeda Linked Islamist Group Claims Deadly Arbil Attacks in Iraq. Agence France Presse, February 4, 2004.
Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, called AQ-I “probably public enemy number one” in Iraq. On July 12,
2007, US. military spokesman in Iraq, Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner, said that AQ-I was responsible
for 80 to 90% of the suicide bombings in Iraq, and that defeating it was a main focus of U.S.
operations. Some U.S. commanders said that, while most foreign fighters going to Iraq become
suicide bombers, others are contributing to the overall insurgency as snipers, logisticians, and 37
financiers. However, other U.S. commanders noted—and continue to note—that these major
bombings constituted a small percentage of overall attacks in Iraq (which in early 2007 numbered
about 175 per day), and that most of the U.S. combat deaths came from roadside bombs and
direct or indirect munitions fire likely wielded by Iraqi Sunni insurgent fighters.
In January 2007, President Bush articulated a new counter-insurgency strategy developed by Gen.
Petraeus and others, based on assessments within the Administration and outside, that U.S. policy
was failing to produce stability. The deterioration in the previous U.S. strategy was attributed, in
part, to the burgeoning sectarian violence that AQ-I had helped set off. The cornerstone of the
new strategy was to increase the number of U.S. troops in Baghdad and in Anbar Province in
order to be able to protect the civilian population rather than conduct combat operations against
militants. The U.S. “troop surge” reached full strength in June 2007.
The U.S. troop surge was intended to try to take advantage of a growing rift within the broad
insurgency that was being observed by U.S. commanders in Iraq as early as mid-2005. The
Zarqawi strategy of attempting to provoke civil war, and some of its ideology and practices in the
Sunni areas, were not universally popular among Iraq’s Sunnis, even among some Sunni
insurgent groups. Strategically, Iraqi Sunnis have discernible political goals in Iraq, and some
AQ-I tactics, such as attacks on Shiite civilians, were perceived as preventing future power
sharing compromise with the Shiites. AQ-I fighters have broader goals, such as defeating the
United States and establishing a Sunni-led Islamic state in Iraq that could expand throughout the
region. Iraqi Sunni insurgents believed that attacks should be confined to “combatant” targets—
Iraqi government forces, most of which are Shiite, Iraqi government representatives, and U.S. and
other coalition forces.
Other Iraqi Sunnis resented AQ-I practices in the regions where AQ-I fighters congregated,
including reported enforcement of strict Islamic law, segregation by sex, forcing males to wear
beards, and banning all alcohol sales and consumption. In some cases, according to a variety of
press reports, AQ-I fighters killed Iraqi Sunnis who violated these strictures. Other Sunnis,
particularly tribal leaders involved in trade and commerce, believed that the constant fighting
provoked by AQ-I was depriving Iraqi Sunnis of their livelihoods. Others believe that the strains
between AQ-I and Iraqi Sunni insurgent fighters were a competition for power and control over
the insurgency. According to this view, Iraqi Sunni leaders no more wanted to be dominated by
foreign Sunnis than they did by Iraqi Shiites or U.S. soldiers. During 2003-2006 these strains
were mostly muted as Iraqi Sunnis cooperated with AQ-I toward the broader goal of overturning
the Shiite-dominated, U.S.-backed power structure in Iraq.
37 “U.S. Officials Voice Frustrations With Saudis, Citing Role in Iraq.” New York Times, July 27, 2007.
The first evidence of strains between AQ-I and Iraqi Sunni insurgents emerged in May 2005 in
the form of a reported battle between AQ-I fighters and Iraqi Sunni tribal militiamen in the
western town of Husaybah. Still, U.S. commanders had not, at this point, articulated or developed
a successful strategy to exploit this rift. Meanwhile, Zarqawi was attempting to counter the strains
developing between AQ-I and Iraqi Sunni political and insurgent structures. In January 2006, AQ-
I announced formation of the “Mujahidin Shura Council”—an umbrella organization of six
groups including AQ-I and five Iraqi Sunni insurgent groups, mostly those with an Islamist
ideology. Forming the Shura Council appeared to many to be an attempt by AQ-I to demonstrate
that it was working cooperatively with its Iraqi Sunni hosts and not seeking their subordination.
To further this impression, in April 2006, the Council announced that an Iraqi, Abdullah Rashid
(aka Abu Umar) al-Baghdadi, had been appointed its leader, although there were doubts as to
Baghdadi’s true identity. (In July 2007, a captured AQ-I operative said Baghdadi does not exist at 38
all, but was a propaganda tool to disguise AQ-I’s large role in the insurgency.) Iraqi Sunni
insurgent groups dominated by ex-Baath Party and ex-Saddam era military members apparently
did not join the Mujahidin Shura. AQ-I continued to operate under the Mujahidin Shura umbrella
at least until Zarqawi’s death.
The shift to increased integration with Iraqi Sunni insurgents continued after Zarqawi’s demise.
After his death, Abu Ayub al-Masri (an Egyptian, also known as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir) was
formally named leader of the Mujahidin Shura Council (and therefore leader of AQ-I). According
to the State Department terrorism report for 2006, al-Masri “continued [Zarqawi’s] strategy of
targeting Coalition forces and Shi’a civilians in an attempt to foment sectarian strife.” In October
2006, al-Masri declared the “Islamic State of Iraq” (ISI) organization under which AQ-I and its
allied groups now claim their attacks. ISI appeared to be a replacement for the Mujahidin Shura
Council. In April 2007, the ISI named a “cabinet” consisting of a minister of war (al-Masri), the
head of the cabinet (al-Baghdadi), and seven other “ministers.”
The AQ-I efforts to improve cooperation with the Iraqi insurgents did not satisfy the entire Sunni
community, even though that community remained resentful of the Shiite-dominated government
of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and its perceived monopoly on power. In August 2006, U.S.
commanders began to receive overtures from Iraqi Sunni tribal and other community leaders in
Anbar Province to cooperate with U.S. efforts to expel AQ-I and secure the cities and towns of
the province. This became known as the “Awakening” (As Sahawa). In September 2006, 23
Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar, led by a tribal sub-leader named Abd al-Sattar Al Rishawi, formed
an “Anbar Salvation Council.” The Council initially recruited about 13,000 young Sunnis from
the province to help secure Ramadi, Fallujah, and other Anbar cities. The Council survived the
September 13, 2007 killing of Rishawi by a suicide bomber believed to belong to AQ-I. Rishawi’s
brother (Shaykh Ahmad al-Rishawi) later took over the group and, along with the governor
(Mamoun Rashid al-Awani) and other tribal figures from Anbar, visited Washington D.C. in
November 2007 and in June 2008 to discuss the security progress in their province.
The U.S. “troop surge” included the addition of 4,000 U.S. Marines in Anbar Province. This
additional force apparently emboldened the Anbar Salvation Council to continue recruiting Sunni
volunteers to secure the province and purportedly convinced Anbar residents to increase their
cooperation with U.S. forces to prevent violence. U.S. commanders emboldened this cooperation
38 Gordon, Michael. “U.S. Says Insurgent Leader It Couldn’t Find Never Was.” New York Times, July 19, 2007.
by offering funds ($350 per month per fighter) and training, although no U.S. weapons, to locally
recruited Sunni security forces. These volunteers are now referred to as “Sons of Iraq” – there are
about 103,000, of which about 80% are Sunnis. The 20% who are Shiites are opposed to Shiite
extremist groups such as that of Moqtada Al Sadr. To retain the loyalty of the Sons of Iraq, U.S.
officials are trying to fold them into the official Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), which would then pay
their salaries. However, the Shiite-dominated Maliki government fears that the Sunni fighters are
trying to burrow into the ISF with the intent of regaining power in Iraq, and have only agreed to
accept about 35,000 Sons of Iraq fighters onto the ISF payrolls, not all of which are Sunni. U.S.
commanders say that this hesitation by the Maliki government risks driving the Sunnis back into
insurgent ranks and back into cooperation with AQ-I. Some Sons of Iraq have already abandoned
their positions out of frustration, particularly in Diyala Province, although they have not
necessarily resumed insurgent activity.
By June 2007, at the height of the U.S. troop surge, Gen. Petraeus called security improvements
in Anbar “breathtaking” and said that security incidents in the province had declined by about
in downtown Ramadi, a city that had been a major battleground only months earlier and which
U.S. military intelligence experts reportedly had given up as “lost” in late 2006. General Petraeus
testified in April 2008 that he estimates that Anbar Province could be turned over to Provincial
Iraqi Control by July 2008, although the handover has been delayed by a power struggle between
the Awakening tribal figures and the more urban, established Iraqi Sunni parties such as the Iraqi
Islamic Party (IIP).
The positive trends observed in Anbar encouraged other anti-AQ-I Sunnis to join the Awakening
movement. In May 2007, a Diyala Salvation Council was formed in Diyala Province of tribal
leaders who wanted to stabilize that restive province. In early 2007, Amiriyah was highly violent,
but was stabilized by the emergence of former Sunni insurgents now cooperating with U.S. forces
as a force called the “Amiriyah Freedom Fighters.” Other Baghdad neighborhoods, including
Saddam stronghold Adhamiyah, began to undergo similar transformations. In Baghdad, the U.S.
military established supported this trend in the course of the Baghdad Security Plan (“troop
surge”) by establishing about 100 combat outposts, including 33 “Joint Security Stations” in
partnership with the ISF, to clear neighborhoods of AQ-I and to encourage the population to come
forward with information about AQ-I hideouts. Prime Minister Maliki said on February 16, 2008
that AQ-I had been largely driven out of Baghdad, and assessment that has not been subsequently
contradicted by U.S. officials.
Gen. Petraeus attempted to increase the momentum of the Awakening Movement and the Sons of 39
Iraq program with extensive U.S.-led combat against AQ-I and its sanctuaries. The large scale
operations included those related to the troop surge in Baghdad, and two other large operations—
Phantom Thunder and Phantom Strike. Operation Phantom Thunder (June 2007), was intended to
clear AQ-I sanctuaries in the “belts” of towns and villages within a 30 mile radius around
Baghdad. Part of the operation reportedly involved surrounded Baquba, the capital city of Diyala
Province, to prevent the escape of AQ-I from the U.S. clearing operations in the city. A related
offensive, Operation Phantom Strike, was conducted in August 2007 to prevent AQ-I from
establishing any new sanctuaries.To maintain pressure on AQ-I, in January 2008, the U.S.
39 For a detailed description of U.S. anti- AQ-I battles in 2007, see Kagan, Kimberly. “How They Did It.” Weekly
Standard, November 19, 2007.
military conducted Operation Iron Harvest and Operation Iron Reaper to disrupt AQ-I in northern
General Petraeus appeared before four Committees of Congress during April 8-9, 2008 to discuss 40
progress in Iraq. He testified that the assistance from the Sons of Iraq, coupled with “relentless
pursuit” of AQ-I by U.S. forces, had “reduced substantially” the threat posed by AQ-I. On May
10, 2008, CIA Director Michael Hayden said Al Qaeda is on “the verge of a strategic defeat in
Iraq” because of its reduced presence and activity in large parts of Iraq. On August 10, 2008, Gen.
James Conway, Commandant of the Marine Corps, told journalists that AQ-I had permanently
lost its foothold in large parts of Iraq, that it is no longer welcomed by Sunni populations in Iraq,
and theat AQ-I fighters had begun to shift their focus to Afghanistan where their efforts against
the United States might be more effective. In late July 2008, a reputed AQ-I leader in Anbar told
the Washington Post that AQ-I leader Abu Ayyub al-Masri had left Iraq to go to Afghanistan, or to
the border areas of Pakistan where Al Qaeda leaders are believed to be hiding.
On the other hand, General Petraeus testified and has said in other settings that AQ-I remains
highly active in and around Mosul, and views Mosul as key to its survival in Iraq, because it is
astride the entry routes from Syria. He testified that AQ-I is “still capable of lethal attacks” and
that the United States must “maintain relentless pressure on the organization, on the networks
outside Iraq that support it, and on the resource flows that sustain it.” He also testified that Al
Qaeda’s senior leaders ...”still view Iraq as the central front in their global strategy” and “send
funding, direction, and foreign fighters to Iraq.” On August 12, 2008, the U.S. National
Intelligence Officer for Transnational Threats, Ted Gistaro, in prepared remarks, told a
Washington, D.C. research institute (Washington Institute for Near East Policy) that
Despite setbacks in Iraq, AQ-I remains Al Qaeda’s most prominent and lethal regional
affiliate. While Al Qaeda leaders likely see the declining effectiveness of AQ-I as a
vulnerability to their global recruiting and fundraising efforts, they likely continue to see the
fight in Iraq as important to their battle with the United States. [Osama] bin Laden and [Al
Qaeda deputy leader Ayman ] al-Zawahiri since late 2007 have issued eight statements to
rally supporters, donors, and prospective fighters by publicly portraying the Iraq jihad as part
of a wider regional cause to “liberate” Jerusalem.
Although there have been differences among commanders about the contribution of the foreign
fighters to the overall violence in Iraq, estimates of the numbers of foreign fighters have remained
fairly consistent over time, at least as a percentage of the overall insurgency. As early as October 41
2003, U.S. officials estimated that as many as 3,000 might be non-Iraqi, although, suggesting
uncertainty in the estimate, Gen. Abizaid said on January 29, 2004, that the number of foreign
40 The quotes in this paragraph are from the testimony of Gen. David Petraeus before the House Foreign Affairs
Committee, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the House Armed Services Committee, and the Senate Armed
Services Committee. April 8-9, 2008.
41 Bonner, Raymond and Joel Brinkley. Latest Attacks Underscore Differing Intelligence Estimates of Strength of
Foreign Guerrillas. New York Times, October 28, 2003.
fighters in Iraq was “low” and “in the hundreds.”42 A September 2005 study by the Center for
Strategic and International Studies estimated that there were about 3,000 non-Iraqi fighters in Iraq
- about 10% of the estimated total size of the insurgency. The State Department report on
terrorism for 2007 (Country Reports on Terrorism: 2007, released April 30, 2008) says AQ-I has a
“membership” estimated at 5,000 - 10,000, making it the largest Sunni extremist group in Iraq.
This estimate is somewhat higher than what many experts might expect in light of the official
U.S. command assessments of the weakening of AQ-I by U.S. operations and strategy.
Another issue is the rate of flow of foreign fighters into Iraq. U.S. commanders said in July 2007
that approximately 60-80 foreign fighters come across the border every month (primarily the 43
Iraq-Syria border) to participate in the Iraq insurgency. Press reports say that U.S. commanders
estimate that the flow slowed to about 40 in October 2007, in part because of a U.S. raid in
September 2007 on a desert camp at Sinjar, need the Syrian border, that was the hub of operations 44
to smuggle foreign fighters into Iraq. General Petraeus testified in April 2008 that about 50 - 70
foreign fighters were still coming across the Syrian border into Iraq, and that Syria “has taken
some steps to reduce the flow of foreign fighters through its territory, but not enough to shut
down the key network that supports AQ-I.” In June and July 2008, U.S. commanders estimate the
flow at about 20-30 fighters per month.
Another issue is the specific nationalities of the foreigners. One press report in July 2007, quoting 45
U.S. officials in Iraq, said that about 40% of the foreign fighters in Iraq are of Saudi origin. The
November 22, 2007 New York Times article, cited above, says that Saudi Arabia and Libya
accounted for 60% of the 700 foreign fighters who came into Iraq over the past year. That article
was consistent with the findings of a study produced by the Combating Terrorism Center of West
Point (Al Qa’ida’s Foreign Fighters in Iraq), based on records of 700 foreign nationals who had
entered Iraq, and whose papers were found in Iraq by U.S.-led forces near Sinjar, along the border 46
with Syria, published in February 2008. The Sinjar records indicated that, of the 595 records in
which a country of origin was stated, about 245 were of Saudi origin; about 110 were of Libyan
origin; about 48 were of Syrian origin; 47 were of Yemeni origin; 45 were of Algerian origin;
about 40 were of Moroccan origin and a similar amount were of Tunisian origin; about 20 were or
Jordanian origin; about 8 were of Egyptian origin; and 20 were “other.”
If the reports of significant AQ-I relocations to the Pakistan tribal areas bordering Afghanistan are
correct, this would suggest that the links are tightening between AQ-I and Al Qaeda’s central
leadership as represented by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Both Al Qaeda leaders are
widely believed to be hiding in areas of Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan, and many
assessments since 2007 say that Al Qaeda is enjoying increasing freedom of movement and action
in the border regions. If Al Qaeda’s ranks are now augmented by an influx of AQ-I fighters from
the Iraq battlefront, it could be argued that Al Qaeda’s overall capabilities to attack the U.S.
homeland, or to undermine U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan, have been increased. U.S.
42 Shanker, Thom. U.S. Commanders Surveys Challenges in Iraq Region. New York Times, January 30, 2004.
43 Parker, Ned. “Saudis’ Role in Iraq Insurgency Outlined.” Los Angeles Times, July 15, 2007.
44 Oppel, Richard. “Foreign Fighters in Iraq Are Tied to Allies of U.S.” New York Times, November 22, 2007.
45 “U.S. Officials Voice Frustrations With Saudis, Citing Role in Iraq.” Op.cit.
46 Al Qaida’s Foreign Fighters in Iraq. Harmony Project. Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
commanders in Afghanistan say they are seeing growing signs of Al Qaeda involvement in the
insurgency in Afghanistan, beyond financing and logistical facilitation, although it is not certain
whether any of this added assistance to the Afghan insurgency is coming from fighters recently
relocated from Iraq. The issue of how the United States is combatting the Afghan insurgency,
both in Afghanistan and increasingly through direct action on the Pakistani side of the border, is
discussed in CRS Report RL30588, Afghanistan: Post-War Governance, Security, and U.S.
Policy, by Kenneth Katzman. On the other hand, as noted above, the fact that AQ-I fighters and
leaders are leaving Iraq represents a blow to Al Qaeda and could weaken its ability to recruit new
The links between AQ-I and Al Qaeda’s central leadership might be tightening, but they are not
new. As discussed above, on July 24, 2007, President Bush devoted much of a speech to the
argument that AQ-I is closely related to Al Qaeda’s central leadership. The President noted the
following details, including:
• In 2004, Zarqawi formally joined Al Qaeda and pledged allegiance to bin Laden.
Bin Laden then publicly declared that Zarqawi was the “Prince of Al Qaeda in
Iraq.” President Bush stated that, according to U.S. intelligence, Zarqawi had met
both bin Laden and Zawahiri. He asserted later in the speech that, according to
U.S. intelligence, AQ-I is a “full member of the Al Qaeda terrorist network.”
• After Zarqawi’s death, bin Laden sent an aide named Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi to help
Zarqawi’s successor, al-Masri, but al-Iraqi was captured before reaching Iraq.
• That a captured AQ-I leader, an Iraqi named Khalid al-Mashhadani, had told U.S.
authorities that Baghdadi was fictitious. In July 2007, Brig. Gen. Bergner, a U.S.
military spokesman, told journalists that Mashhadani is an intermediary between
al-Masri and bin Laden and Zawahiri.
• That AQ-I is the only insurgent group in Iraq “with stated ambitions to make the
country a base for attacks outside Iraq.” Referring to the November 9, 2005,
terrorist attacks on hotels in Zarqawi’s native Jordan, President Bush said AQ-I
“dispatched terrorists who bombed a wedding reception in Jordan.” Referring to
an August 2005 incident, he said AQ-I “sent operatives to Jordan where they
attempted to launch a rocket attack on U.S. Navy ships” docked at the port of
Some experts believe that links between Al Qaeda’s central leadership and AQ-I have been
tenuous, and that the few operatives linking the two do not demonstrate an ongoing, substantial
relationship. Others point to the Zawahiri admonishment of Zarqawi, discussed above, as
evidence that there is not a close connection between the two. Still others have maintained that
there is little evidence that AQ-I seeks to attack broadly outside Iraq, and that those incidents that
have taken place have been in Jordan, where Zarqawi might have wanted to try to undermine
King Abdullah II, whom Zarqawi opposed as too close to the United States. Since the 2005
attacks noted above, there have not been any attacks outside Iraq that can be directly attributed to
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs