In an audio recording released recently, Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the second-in-command in al-Qaeda after Osama Bin Laden, mourned the death of the leader of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq, Abu Umar Al-Baghdadi and his war minister, Abu Hamza Al-Muhajir. Both were killed in an Iraqi intelligence operation carried out last April in western Iraq with assistance from US forces.
Despite the fact that Al-Zawahiri called on those whom he described as the "lions of the Islamic State of Iraq" to continue their jihad against the enemies in anticipation of "the imminent victory by Allah's permission" few are convinced that what is occurring in Iraq can be considered a form of jihad. Fewer believe that the "victory" that Al-Zawahiri talks about could possibly ever happen.
There is substantial evidence indicating that the branch of al-Qaeda in Iraq is nearing complete disintegration and will become a small marginal group incapable of anything other than launching minor strikes here and there, without having any fundamental impact on the course of events in the country.
This will continue to be so, unless major developments take place inside Iraq itself (such as the repercussions of the failure to form a new government to the satisfaction of a wide section of the population and the political establishment), or in the stances of the neighbouring countries that are able to complicate or calm the situation in Iraq.
Following are some evidence that led to the above conclusions:
First, the death of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and his minister of war, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, was not the result of a random strike against the branch of al-Qaeda in Iraq. It was part of a series of successful operations in recent years carried out by the Iraqi security agencies with assistance from US forces.
Al-Qaeda began to lose ground in late 2005 when the policies and tactics of its former leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi were criticised from within the leadership of al-Qaeda inside Iraq and abroad. When the Americans killed him in 2006, al-Zarqawi's tactics had already turned a large section of the Iraqi people against al-Qaeda – the indiscriminate bombings, the beheadings, and the targeting of Shias based on their religious identity and the expansion of the fighting beyond Iraq's borders.
Al-Zarqawi's successor, an Egyptian from Yemen, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir (Abu Ayyub al-Masri), was unable to recruit new blood into the branch of al-Qaeda in Iraq despite the fact that he agreed to pursue what al-Zarqawi started – apparently under pressure from the leadership of al-Qaeda – which was to transfer the command of the jihad inside Iraq to Iraqis instead of being commanded by foreigners who are not well-acquainted with the sensitivities of the Iraqi people. Al-Zarqawi was a Jordanian national, and most of his field commanders were from his country or from Syria, Palestine and Lebanon, and even from North Africa and the Gulf.
Abu Hamza Al-Muhajir turned the branch of al-Qaeda in Iraq - which used to be known in early 2006 as Shura Al-Mujahideen (the Consultative Council of the Jihadis) – into a part of the Islamic State of Iraq, which was founded in October 2006, with the Iraqi Abu Omar al-Baghdadi as its Emir.
It was clear to many at the time that the appointment of al-Baghdadi to this position was meant to counter criticism that the jihad was being run by foreigners who are unfamiliar with the Iraqi population and that the final decision remained in the hands of al-Qaeda, whose representative Abu Hamza al-Muhajir occupied the post of minister of war in the so called "Government of the Islamic State."
But al-Baghdadi and al-Muhajir were unable to stem al-Qaeda's decline. Dozens of groups which operated under the banner of the so-called "resistance groups" revolted against al-Qaeda and began to fight against it in the context of what was known as the Sahwa (Awakenings).
Perhaps even more significant than the stance of the Sahwa was the success of the American tactic of adding thousands of troops in order to clean up entire regions of al-Qaeda, and staying there until the regular Iraqi forces take charge of security there.
In the beginning, this mission faced wide scepticism regarding its success. However, it passed the test with flying colours as Iraqi forces took charge of security in most parts of the country. They now stand ready for the withdrawal of US forces by the end of 2011.
With the deployment of Iraqi forces in various cities, security agencies are having greater success in establishing a network of agents and informants who work for the interests of their country and not for the Americans or others. This has led to the discovery of many al-Qaeda hideouts which forced it to constantly change locations as security operations grew stronger.
Al-Qaeda has also lost the regions it once controlled in Anbar in western Iraq because of the Sahwa revolt against it and in Baghdad following deployment of security forces in its former strongholds in Sunni neighbourhoods. The organisation was compelled to move to the largest city in the north, Mosul in Ninawa province. However, the Iraqi and American forces followed it there, and its elements were forced to hide in regions far away from the large cities in the provinces of Diyala and Salah al-Din (where al-Bahgdadi and al-Muhajir were killed).
Secondly, al-Qaeda in Iraq has lost, as a result of what has been detailed in the previous point, a significant amount of the support that it used to have from jihadis in the Arab and Islamic worlds.
Initially, the success of al-Qaeda in Iraq was largely because of its ability to attract hundreds of Arab youths who wanted to take part in what they considered a jihad against the Americans in Iraq. Many of the youths who poured into Iraq in 2003 joined the branch of al-Qaeda led by Al-Zarqawi. A significant number of them volunteered to take part in what they considered martyrdom operations. The organisation was able to execute a series of simultaneous suicide attacks against multiple targets.
However, this outpouring of jihadis arriving mostly via Syria started to dry up after al-Zarqawi's death. Since then, the zeal of these Arab youths to take part in the events happening in Iraq started to die down, especially with major jihadis questioning whether what was going on in Iraq was really jihad. They pointed out that it had turned into indiscriminate violence.
Thirdly, the slowdown in the flow of jihadis into Iraq was accompanied by a change in the positions of the neighbouring countries, particularly Syria, which was the main crossing point for them into Iraq.
A series of clashes and bombings took place in Syria, carried out by jihadis linked with al-Qaeda in Iraq (and Lebanon). This could have been the motivation behind the change by the Syrian authorities, who adopted a strict policy toward Arab youths arriving in the country whose final destination was suspected to be Iraq. The measures taken by the Syrians apparently helped to cut the lifeblood of al-Qaeda inside Iraq, leading to its further isolation.
Despite this, Iraqi authorities have complained that radicals operating from inside Syria were responsible for a series of bombings that took place a few months ago, which is still a point of contention between the governments of Syria and Iraq.
Fourthly, the Iraqi government succeeded in establishing state institutions to replace those that collapsed and disintegrated completely following the invasion and the overthrow of Former President Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003.
The most recent Iraqi government success was its handling of parliamentary elections in March 2010. These elections were widely praised for their fairness, despite the fact that they did not come out with a clear winner.
These elections witnessed greater participation by Sunnis in the political process, many of whom felt marginalised after the demise of the previous regime. Now they have successfully affirmed their presence by their alliance with the Al-Iraqiya List, headed by Ayad Allawi, which finished first in the elections with a minor advantage over the list led by current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
No matter how long the dispute between the Iraqi factions persists with regard to the formation of the next government, the last elections showed that Iraq is on a path towards building independent institutions, which will hopefully be able to take charge of the country completely when the last American soldier withdraws.
Because of all these reasons, it seems that al-Qaeda in Iraq is in an unenviable position. The appointment of two new leaders, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Husseini al-Qurashi, who has been sworn in as the Emir of the Believers in the Islamic State of Iraq, and Abu Abdullah al-Hassani al-Qurashi as Prime Minister and vice-emir, could be postponement of a certain fate, which is that this "state" is down to its last breath.