Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) claimed credit for last week’s deadly suicide assault on the Justice Ministry in Baghdad that killed 22 Iraqis. Seven Iraqi policemen and 15 civilians were killed in the March 14 attack.
AQI claimed the “storming” operation, as it refers to such offensives, in a statement that was released yesterday on jihadist Internet forums. The statement was obtained and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.
The operation began with “storming the main entrance of the ministry with an explosives-laden vehicle driven by” a suicide bomber. Al Qaeda in Iraq claimed that the attack disoriented and disabled the Iraqi security forces guarding the compound, allowing the main assault team of four heavily armed fighters to attack a secondary gate, breach the defenses, and enter the ministry.
“Three martyrdom-seekers wearing their explosive belts stormed the ministry building from the second gate after they parked their explosives-laden vehicle, carrying automatic rifles, hand grenades and silenced weapons,” the statement said. “Then, they liquidated everyone they met from the security forces, and one of them detonated his belt in their main gathering to open the way for his two brothers who stormed the ministry building simultaneously with the explosion of the second vehicle ….”
Al Qaeda in Iraq’s version of the events that followed matches eyewitness accounts from Iraqi security personnel who fought the suicide team that day. The three fighters entered the ministry and fought security personnel on several floors before being killed by Iraqi guards. Al Qaeda claimed more than 60 people were killed, while press reports indicate that 22 Iraqis who worked in or guarded the building were killed.
Al Qaeda in Iraq said that the attack was part of the “blessed invasion in the series of special operations in retaliation for the free Sunni women in the prisons of the apostates.” This is a reference to the contentious issue of female Sunni prisoners held by (Shia-dominated) government forces (“prisons of the apostates”), as well as al Qaeda’s “Destroying the Walls” campaign, which was announced at the end of July 2012 by Abu Du’a, the Islamic State of Iraq’s emir. In that statement, Abu Du’a said that emphasis would be placed on efforts “to release the Muslim prisoners everywhere.”
The ministry building was described by al Qaeda in Iraq as “the new headquarters of the Safavid,” or Iranian, “Ministry of Justice.” AQI often claims that the Shia-led government is an arm of the Iranians, in an effort to stir up sectarian tensions between Shia and Sunni Iraqis. In early 2012, AQI’s spokesman indicated that the terror group is seeking to revive sectarian tensions, and it is now attempting to capitalize on the recent political crisis as Sunni clerics, citizens, and political leaders have staged massive protests against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government since December of last year [see Threat Matrix reports, Al Qaeda in Iraq rails at Shias, claims deadly attacks and Al Qaeda in Iraq launches suicide assault in Baghdad].
Al Qaeda in Iraq has regenerated significant capability since US forces withdrew from the country at the end of 2011. While the terror group does not openly control territory as it did in 2007, before US and Iraqi forces drove it from strongholds throughout the country, AQI can still organize and execute complex, large-scale attacks, such as a raid on Iraqi policemen in Haditha in March 2012, or an attack on Syrian troops escorted by Iraqi soldiers in Anbar earlier this month. The group has also launched coordinated attacks in multiple cities throughout the country.
In addition to regenerating its forces in Iraq, al Qaeda has launched the Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant in Syria, the most effective and dangerous fighting force in the neighboring civil war. The Al Nusrah Front is estimated to have more than 10,000 fighters and has taken control of cities, towns, and military bases throughout Syria.