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.
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.
Adding to the difficulty, a number of AQI members have joined the Iraqi Army, the police, and especially the SOI, US and Iraqi military officials say. Its leaders encouraged operatives to enlist in these security forces as spies when popular attitudes toward the group began to turn. Many other low-level members of the AQI, who'd been motivated to wotk with insurgents for financial reasons, joined the SOI because it offered a regular paycheck.
Now as Iraqi Army Lt. Col. Walid Nouri Motlib tries to purge sleeper cells from the ranks of his unit in Anbar Province, he says he would not be surprised if one of his soldiers became a suicide bomber. "Generally when we talk about the strategy of Al Qaeda, they've lost control of their territory," he says. "Now their main activity is targeting the leaders of security troops and SOI with suicide bombers."
With greater difficulty in carrying out operations, AQI now tends to reserve its combat power for high-profile targets – such as top-ranking security or government officials – though it still detonates bombs in public places, which kill indiscriminately, Iraqi and US military officials agree. Between Jan. 1 and July 28 this year, an average of 11 Iraqis died every day as a result of suicide attacks or car bombings, according to figures from the Iraq Body Count, independent project that monitors civilian causalities in Iraq.
Even though AQI's freedom of operation has been clipped by the loss of popular support, AQI is unlikely to do more than restructure the group. Its extreme ideology makes it doubtful it'll be able to reconnect with the population.
"If [AQI members] were smart, they would say this requires kind of a strategic rethink and we need to be a more touchy-feely Al Qaeda in the future. I think there's been some very mild evidence that Al Qaeda in Iraq has done that, but not enough to really bring it back to the position where it was in 2006," says Peter Bergen, a prominent Al Qaeda expert and senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a nonprofit public policy institute in Washington.
It's rare, however, for Sunni insurgent groups to adopt the kind of social programs that Shiite groups like Lebanon's Hezbollah and, most recently, the Mahdi Army in Iraq have used. The group will most likely struggle to create a convincing "hearts and minds" program, if it even tries one at all, says Mr. Bergen.
"Its ideology gets in the way of it making real-world, political accommodation," he says, explaining that they reject the majority of the world's Muslims as true believers.
Indeed, AQI's core principles played a large part in alienating the local population. Even in the predominately Sunni Anbar province the group's ultraconservative interpretation of Islam disenchanted locals."They started killing by basing their ideology on religion. They should behave like their Prophet [Muhammad], but they do the opposite of what Muhammad did," says Sheikh Hatem Nouri, an SOI leader in Anbar Province. "It's a very bad ideology, and Islam has nothing to do with these people."