The full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 and spillover from the civil war in neighboring Syria has again presented al Qaeda with the prospect of erecting a safe haven in Iraq, experts said on Wednesday.
The complete pullout of American forces created a vacuum that al Qaeda has now begun to fill, the experts said at the Heritage Foundation. Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, has also exacerbated sectarian tensions by alienating Sunni politicians and citizens, they added.
Levels of violence and civilian deaths last year were the highest since 2008.
Douglas Streusand, professor and historian at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, said President Barack Obama’s administration must recognize the significance of Iraq as part of the region’s broader security.
"A haven in Iraq would be of far greater importance to the al Qaeda network than Somalia, Sudan, or Afghanistan, both because of historical significance and because of resources potentially available to them," he said. "This has happened on the watch of the current administration and the current administration has yet to demonstrate that it has either the will or the capacity to deal with it."
Iraq has a much larger economy than other al Qaeda targets due to its oil resources, Streusand said. And al Qaeda insurgents, who he said espouse a "totalitarian Islamist" ideology, view Iraq as a crucial power center in their efforts to reestablish the historical Caliphate of Muslim rule in the Middle East.
However, he said the Obama administration still does not understand the threat of al Qaeda or its goals. He called the group a "network with multiple nodes that cooperate and compete."
The president again stated during his State of the Union address Tuesday night that al Qaeda’s core leadership is "on a path to defeat."
"If MARSOC [Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command] destroyed the al Qaeda core completely it would be a great victory," Streusand said. "But it would not end the conflict in any great way, shape, or form."
"The affiliates are carrying on without the core and capable of operations beyond their regional bases," he added.
Iraq’s increasingly porous western border with Syria has enabled al Qaeda’s Iraq affiliate to morph into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), extending its influence in both countries.
Jessica Lewis, research director at the Institute for the Study of War and a former Army intelligence officer in Iraq and Afghanistan, said ISIS and other jihadist groups fighting President Bashar al-Assad in Syria have attracted thousands of foreign fighters, many from Europe, who have received training and could now return to their home countries to commit attacks.
"The Syrian front in part has become a magnet for foreign fighters and has been for years," she said. "These foreign fighters are learning tradecraft, and they are inclined to export it. I would frame that as a rising threat."
While the United States has resumed its funneling of small arms to relatively moderate factions of the Syrian opposition to combat both al Qaeda and Assad, Lewis said aiding Iraq in its fight against al Qaeda presents additional problems.
Maliki, who has ties to Iran as a Shiite, has marginalized his Sunni opposition. He arrested his Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, just after U.S. troops withdrew in 2011, and he has directed raids by Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) on protest camps that have killed or wounded dozens of civilians.
Maliki’s cool relations with Sunnis have strained his attempts to reach out to Sunni tribes in the western Anbar province, currently the locus of fighting, and convince them to partner with the ISF, Lewis said. Those tribes are also calculating what they should fear more—al Qaeda control or a more active ISF, she added.
Pentagon officials announced plans on Monday to sell 24 Apache attack helicopters and 480 Hellfire missiles to the ISF to aid in its fight with al Qaeda. Lawmakers can still raise objections to the planned sale, and some have previously expressed concerns that the ISF could also use the weapons to attack political opponents.
Lewis called the weapons aid "vulnerable."
"I am afraid that our message to Maliki—the fact that the political divide with the Sunnis is perilous—is not getting enough traction," she said.
Still, the United States must attempt to pressure Maliki into sponsoring another "awakening" of Sunni tribesmen that benefited the U.S. surge in Iraq in 2007, said Gen. James Conway, former commander of the Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq.
"I have some level of hope that the tribes will once again be the savior of Iraq," he said.