While there are substantial and important differences between Al Qaeda’s presence in various areas, a close look at how AQI operates in Mosul (and the linkages of this region to the wider AQ efforts) provides great insight into the global “modus operandi” of AQ. Before we can put recent events into context, it’s important to understand how AQI is structured and how they attempt to gain control over a specific city/region/province. AQI tends to organize along similar lines in most areas (with certain tweaks made to adjust for local conditions). Their structure, as shown above, gives us insight into how they operate. When attempting to influence, control, and eventually dominate an area, AQI roughly follows this methodology:
1) Establish intelligence/security apparatus: gain understanding of the area, identify targets and key individuals to influence, develop intelligence source network, intimidate/assassinate uncooperative elements, counter-intel efforts against CF informants, extortion and criminal activity
2) Establish administrative and finance nodes: lay foundation for command and control (C2), recruiting, and logistical support of military cells and other support structure
3) Establish sharia network: begin building relationships with local religious leaders, start recruiting efforts, begin initial information operations (anti-CF and pro-jihadist), bless off on targets
4) Establish media/information capability: Develop capacity to track/record attacks, develop ability to send to higher elements for production, eventually create own production capability
5) Establish military cells and conduct attacks: last step completed after all other elements are ready to support, rely heavily on security to choose targets, admin to pay and track personnel, sharia to recruit and justify attacks, and media to gain local populace support
Note that this is often not a rigid step-by-step process, but is usually very fluid and can often waver back and forth between different phases across different areas based on local conditions. They key takeaways to keep in mind are: 1) Every military attack conducted requires significant support and planning efforts; 2) Just because we fail to see traditional military attacks in an area doesn’t mean that AQI doesn’t still maintain a significant presence in an area in terms of security/admin/media; and 3) AQI is often capable of quickly escalating and moving from a lower-level assassination and intimidation campaign to a military (sometimes even conventional) campaign; then they can quickly “go underground” and de-escalate.
Recent media reporting (often based on poor and/or overly optimistic assessments from CF in the area) has repeatedly highlighted the decrease in attacks conducted by AQI, arguing that the organization has been severely weakened or even defeated. Recently, even GEN Petraeus declared that, "There is no question that Al Qaeda in Iraq has been significantly reduced in its capability and capacity." (Reuters) We must be careful, however, that we don’t count AQI out and let up the pressure on them that we’ve so effectively applied through precision lethal targeting of the network across all of its operational lines (military, admin, sharia, finance, media).
A recent Reuters story (read it here) does just this, declaring that the increase in “[d]rive-by shootings, murders and extortion” represents a, “weakened insurgency in Mosul.” I would argue that although we’ve made significant progress against AQI in Mosul, they still retain the capability to conduct large scale attacks that feed the still-strong sense of insecurity in Mosul and de-legitimize the local/provincial/national government and security forces. We saw this just the other day when a VBIED detonated at a police recruiting center on the eastern edge of Mosul (in Gogjali), killing two and wounding 18 (Reuters, 13 DEC). Even more worrisome is the almost delusional assessment provided by COL Gary Volesky (commander of 3/1 CAV who replaced 3 ACR in Mosul last year). He argues that, “[t]he insurgency has evolved from being ideologically-driven to organized crime looking for money.” Volesky’s boss (BG Vandal) goes even further, assessing that, “Because of their inability to do, in some instances, those high-profile attacks ... they're resorting to extortions, assassinations to continue to exert pressure on individuals.” I’m not sure where these guys are getting these ideas from, but they appear to be more politically motivated (to stay in line with the already announced drawdown of US forces) than based on ground truth.
What is actually occurring is that AQI has suffered some small setbacks in terms of interrupted finance and some key leaders being captured/killed, but they still clearly maintain the ability to influence the local populace. Although the military apparatus’ ability to conduct attacks is degraded, we see clear indicators that the security and media lines are operating at near full capacity. With these parts of the organization functioning, all AQI needs to do is continue to pick off effective government and security leaders (with assassination and intimidation) and conduct a slow but steady stream of spectacular attacks (which will then be effectively captured and distributed by various media products) to maintain their relevancy and delegitimize the Iraqi government. Additionally, we are likely to see an uptick in politically motivated attacks designed to target candidates for the 2010 national elections as inflame the already simmering Arab-Kurd tensions that form the underlying cause of insecurity and ineffectiveness in Mosul and N. Iraq.
If we’re not careful and we let up the pressure too quickly, we could easily see a return to what Mosul looked like when my unit assumed our battlespace on the East side of the Tigris River in January 2008 (foreign fighters were embedded in a multitude of military battalions across the city, multiple VBIED and catastrophic IED attacks every week, and AQI forces essentially controlling terrain in some parts of the city with the tacit support of almost the entire local populace). For more details on this, read the excellent report “The Fight for Mosul” from the Institute for the Study of War.
Looking beyond the current (and future) situation in Mosul, we must keep these lessons in mind elsewhere. Open-source reporting on a daily basis describes similar indicators of growing AQ security, admin, and media elements in multiple areas across the globe (including Somalia, Yemen, Northern Afghanistan, and potentially even the US?). Even though we have yet to see major attacks (or at least a regular stream of them), we must be conscious of the process by which AQ lays its roots and establishes a foundation for future military actions in a given area. If we are able to effectively identify these indicators, mobilize resources, and target these elements (ideally in partnership with host nation CT elements) we can potentially nip this growing AQ presence in the bud with fairly limited resources.