During a press briefing on Wednesday, Oct. 30, a “senior administration official” updated reporters on recent meetings between an Iraqi delegation, headed by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, and their American counterparts, including Vice President Joe Biden. The official’s main focus was the “reemergence” of al Qaeda in the region, especially under the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham, or Levant (ISIS).
ISIS is now “really a transnational threat network,” the official warned. “This is really a major and increasing threat to Iraq’s stability, it’s [an] increasing threat to our regional partners, and it’s an increasing threat to us,” the official continued.
Earlier this month, a senior Republican congressman offered a similar assessment. Al Qaeda’s affiliates inside Syria are “talking about conducting external operations, which is exactly what happened in Afghanistan, which led to 9/11,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee.
“The only thing we think is stopping it now is the fact that there is this struggle between al Qaeda core leadership saying, ‘hold off, don’t do it yet’,” Rogers said at the 2013 Foreign Policy Initiative Forum in Washington. Rogers also said that there are more than 10,000 “committed” al Qaeda fighters in eastern Syria alone.
Rogers’ comments indicated that al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliates, the Al Nusrah Front and ISIS, are anxious to lash out at the West, while al Qaeda’s senior leadership has been more focused on consolidating the terror network’s territorial gains.
European counterterrorism officials have repeatedly worried out loud about the possibility of jihadist recruits fighting for al Qaeda or affiliated groups in Syria and then returning to their home countries to commit terrorist attacks.
Iraqi government outgunned in west
The senior Obama administration official also warned about the deteriorating environment in western Iraq, once home to the Awakening, which, along with American support, turned back al Qaeda’s advances during the so-called surge.
Prime Minister Maliki “recently met with the Governor of Anbar province to discuss some efforts in terms of counterterrorism and trying to isolate the increasingly strengthening al Qaeda networks in Anbar province,” the official explained.
It “is a fact now that al Qaeda has a presence in western Iraq, and it has a presence in terms of camps and training facilities and staging areas that the Iraqi forces are unable to target effectively,” the official continued. “Now, that’s just a fact that goes to their capabilities.”
The Iraqis are unable to effectively target al Qaeda’s presence in western Iraq. Some of the “al Qaeda networks that are coming in from Syria and that are based in Iraq now really have heavy weapons.” Al Qaeda is targeting “Iraqi unarmored helicopters” with “PKC machine guns.”
“Iraqi helicopter pilots [whom] we have trained have been killed by, again, heavy machine gun weaponry,” the official said. “And so they’re trying to take this threat – take on this threat with equipment that isn’t really geared towards doing it effectively.”
The senior administration also offered a stunning statistic. In “just last month alone we had … 38 suicide bombers,” the official explained. “Nearly all these suicide bombers – actually, all of them – we think come from the Islamic State of the Iraq [and] in the Levant network.”