Iraqi insurgents forced underground
But even in hiding, Al Qaeda in Iraq can carry out high-profile attacks and has infiltrated security forces.
When the Iraqi Army caught Abdul al-Wasit, a mid-level operative for Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), he was working undercover as a shepherd in a rural area. It was a far cry from his earlier days in a village 65 miles south, where he used to extort locals and openly execute rivals.Skip to next paragraph
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The once seemingly untouchable insurgent had been reduced to hiding on the fringes of society. Many of his fellow operatives had joined him, and they continued to plan operations while supposedly trading sheep.
Facing a local population that has grown intolerant of AQI's indiscriminate acts of violence, many operatives like Mr. Wasit have gone underground – some have even formed sleeper cells in the Iraqi security forces. Members now only emerge from hiding to conduct high-profile attacks. Though this strategic shift has created an apparently less active AQI, the group has not given up the fight in Iraq and will likely remain a threat here for years.
"It's good to think of them [AQI] as formerly an insurgent group that's now more of a terrorist operation," says a senior US military official. "What you see is no longer a vibrant network, but a number of smaller cells that, rather than having the support of the population, oftentimes lives in fear of the population, because the population has turned on them."
As recently as a year ago, the likes of Wasit openly roamed the streets. The AQI had offices in almost every major Iraqi city. Today, however, most remaining members have been forced into hiding due to the country's security improvements.
Community policing groups known as the Sons of Iraq (SOI), which formed largely with US support to stop AQI attacks on local citizens, played a key role in driving the terrorist group to the edges of society. The SOI and Iraqi forces began turning in AQI members or fighting them off themselves.
In addition, improved US counterinsurgency tactics, combined with a more capable Iraqi military, have allowed officials to target AQI operatives more effectively. Across Iraq, insurgent and terrorist activity has plummeted. In June 2007, there were 1,400 attacks of some kind every week against Iraqi civilians, Coalition Forces, or the Iraqi military. Today there are only 125 attacks a week, a 91 percent decrease.
Although AQI began as a homegrown organization, it soon developed ties with the larger Al Qaeda network headed by Osama bin Laden. Traditionally the group's top leadership has come from outside Iraq. Today, however, the flow of foreign fighters coming into Iraq has virtually trickled to a halt, as many would-be AQI recruits now choose to go to Afghanistan instead. A year ago, 40 to 60 foreign fighters entered Iraq each month. Now that number has fallen to approximately 20 per month, according the Brookings Institution's Iraq Index.
Many remaining operatives – who have not been killed or detained or fled the country – have relocated to rural areas or suburbs where they are unknown to the locals. Like Wasit, they tend to occupy innocuous jobs as fishermen, herders, and farmers, say Iraqi military officials. With populations spread across large swaths of land, it's hard for security forces to patrol these areas and find the AQI members.