An al Qaeda in Iraq suicide assault team attacked an Iraqi police headquarters in the northern flashpoint city of Kirkuk today. The tactic is being employed with increasing frequency by al Qaeda and its affiliates and allies in all of the major theaters of the Long War.
The attack began when a suicide bomber drove a car packed with explosives into the main gate of a police headquarters in Kirkuk. After the blast breached the entrance, a small team of fighters wearing police uniforms and armed with suicide vests, assault rifles, and hand grenades attempted to storm the compound.
Iraqi forces then engaged and killed the al Qaeda assault team, which was thought to be made of up two or three fighters, before they could reach the main building. Estimates of casualties from the assault have varied, from between 16 to 33 people killed, including four policemen, and dozens wounded, including a police brigadier. Many civilians were killed in the initial blast, which also heavily damaged the surrounding area.
Iraqi military officers told AFP that they believe the assault team was attempting to free al Qaeda prisoners being held at the facility. Al Qaeda in Iraq has attacked multiple prisons and freed scores of prisoners as part of its “Destroying the Walls” campaign, which was announced by the group’s emir, Sheikh Mujahid Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, on July 21, 2012.
Kirkuk is in an area where ethnic tensions persist between Sunnis, Kurds, and Turkmen. The Kurdish Regional Government wants to annex Kirkuk into its semiautonomous state, but the central Iraqi government has resisted such moves. Al Qaeda in Iraq has exploited these fault lines by conducting attacks such as the one today.
Security in Iraq has slowly deteriorated after the withdrawal of the US military at the end of 2011. While al Qaeda in Iraq does not openly control territory as it did in 2007, before US and Iraqi forces drove it from strongholds throughout the country, the terror group can still organize and execute large-scale attacks, such as a March 2012 raid in Haditha that killed 27 Iraqi policemen, including two commanders. The group has also launched a number of coordinated attacks, including large-scale bombings, in multiple cities throughout Iraq. Furthermore, al Qaeda has been empowered by recent unrest in Syria, regenerating under a new banner, that of the Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, one of the most prominent rebel groups fighting the regime of Bashar al Assad.
The suicide assault is a common jihadist tactic
Today’s suicide assault is the latest in a series of similar attacks in the theaters of the Long War by al Qaeda and its affiliates and allies operating in South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.
The Taliban and the Haqqani Network frequently use the tactic to strike at Coalition and Afghan bases, ministries, police and military headquarters, and other high-value targets such as hotels. In one of the most successful attacks, in September 2012, a suicide assault team attacked Camp Bastion in Helmand province. The 15-man Taliban team penetrated the perimeter at the airbase, destroyed six USMC Harriers and damaged two more, and killed the squadron commander and a sergeant. In the course of the assault, 14 of the 15 members of the assault team were killed, while the last was wounded and captured. Camp Bastion is a sprawling military base shared by US Marines and British troops that is located in the middle of the Dashti Margo desert in Helmand province.
Jihadists have also conducted multiple suicide assaults in Pakistan. Just yesterday, a suicide assault team overran a military outpost in Lakki Marwat, killing 13 soldiers and 10 civilians. In one of the most brazen attacks, in October 2009, a suicide assault team stormed the Pakistani Army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi, taking control of several buildings and killing two senior officers before being killed.
In India, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, an al Qaeda-linked group that is backed by the Pakistani military and its intelligence branch, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, shut down the city of Mumbai for three days in 2008 as a suicide assault team fanned out across the city and attacked hotels, a train station, a Jewish center, and other targets. One hundred and seventy-six people were killed during the 60-hour-long battle.
In Syria, the Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, al Qaeda in Iraq’s affiliate, has launched multiple suicide assaults on military and intelligence headquarters in Damascus and elsewhere, including one in late January, in which five suicide bombers attacked a base near the Golan Heights.
In the Egyptian Sinai, jihadists launched a complex attack at night on a border crossing between Israel, Egypt, and the Gaza Strip in August 2012. The terrorists killed 16 Egyptian soldiers and overran their base, seized two Egyptian armored personnel carriers, attacked the border checkpoint, and penetrated more than a half mile into Israeli territory. Israeli soldiers and the Israeli air force engaged and killed the terrorists who had entered the country. Additionally, a jihadist group attacked the Multinational Force & Observers base in the Gora region in September 2012.
And last month in Algeria, a suicide assault team from the al-Mua’qi’oon Biddam, or Those who sign with Blood Brigade, took control of a natural gas facility at In Amenas, killing 38 foreigners during the several-day-long battle. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the leader of the group, claimed the attack in al Qaeda’s name. Belmokhtar has longstanding ties to al Qaeda and its affiliate in North Africa, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.