The good news for America’s Iraq policy stemming from the death of Osama bin Laden is that it probably won’t have much of an impact at all. Unfortunately, that’s also the bad news.
Al Qaeda in Iraq still exists and still continues to conduct lethal terrorist attacks. Most recently, an attack believed to have been perpetrated by AQI as it is still known, killed 7 people at an Iraqi security forces facility in the northern city of Mosul last week. Moreover, AQI continues to pull off the occasional high profile bombing in Baghdad itself, which keeps it in the public eye. But AQI is a shadow of its former self. Gone are the days when AQI could boast of being the “Islamic State of Iraq” and control large swathes of the country. Gone too are the days when large segments of Iraq’s Sunni tribal community filled its ranks or stood as its allies. Today, AQI is a small band of hunted men, scraping up killers and explosives to try to stay relevant to Iraqi politics. It is now more a lethal nuisance than a threat to Iraqi stability.
Indeed, one of the more interesting shifts in Iraq in recent years has been the emergence of other Sunni terrorist groups to supplant AQI, particularly the Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (The Men of the Army of al-Naqshbandia Order, the JRTN, or the “Naqshbandis” as they are more commonly known). Although the Naqshbandis spring from an obscure Sufi sect of Islam, in recent years they have taken on the mantle of a more mainstream Sunni nationalist movement in Iraq, that has the same goals as al Qaeda but with a more palatable Iraqi nationalist flavor. U.S. intelligence has indicated that the Naqshbandis have been receiving increasing support from Iraqi Sunni Arabs, although the Naqshbandis often then funnel the money back to AQI, which has greater operational capabilities than they do and allows the Naqshbandis to claim that they are not responsible for the deaths when they occur—something AQI is still all-too-happy to take credit for.
Bin Laden himself was never going to be the key to the resurgence or final demise of al Qaeda in Iraq. In Iraq, al Qaeda’s fate will be tied to the country’s politics, and in particular to whether Iraq’s Sunni tribal community believes that it is being accepted fully into Iraq’s political system by the Shi’ah and Kurds who have dominated that system since the United States toppled Saddam Husayn’s regime in 2003. Even the most vituperative Iraqi Sunni Arabs did not look to Bin Laden for inspiration, let alone leadership. They turned on al Qaeda in 2007 when AQI was threatening to usurp control over their community and when the United States promised to help them get their fair share of Iraq’s political power and economic wealth (as well as protection under Iraq’s laws). As long as they believe that they will get that fair share, AQI will have little prospect of resurrection, and may whither away altogether at some point. If, at some point, the Sunni community concludes that it will never be accorded their rightful place in Iraqi society and, especially, if they fear that Iraq’s Shi’i majority is determined to use its control of the government to oppress the Sunnis the same way that Saddam oppressed the Shi’ah during his reign, then the Sunnis may well revolt again, and will likely restore their alliance with al Qaeda in Iraq or any other radical Sunni terrorist group willing to fight with them against the Shi’ah.
Thus, Iraq’s internal political developments, not Bin Laden’s legacy, inspiration, leadership or anything else, will likely determine the future of al Qaeda and Salafi terrorism more generally in Iraq.