Bombings killed at least 56 in Baghdad on Tuesday, reminding Americans that Al Qaeda-linked insurgents remain a major threat in Iraq ten years after the initial U.S.-led invasion.
The United States launched a ground invasion of Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom in the early morning hours of March 20, 2003. The invasion had been justified in part by allegations that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had been linked to Al-Qaeda and possessed weapons of mass destruction.
It is widely known now that WMDs were never found in Iraq. However, while most Americans are aware that the intelligence supporting the WMD turned out to be false, many do not realize that the American invasion actually laid the groundwork for Al-Qaeda’s explosive growth in Iraq.
We know today that Hussein had no links with Al-Qaeda, although he did use terrorism against his own citizens. In fact, it was not until after the American invasion that Al-Qaeda was able to establish a firm foothold in Iraq.
The predecessor to Al-Qaeda in Iraq is largely believed to be Bayat Al-Imam, a group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi that was founded in Jordan in the 1990s. Zarqawi and his group actually relocated to Iraq "in anticipation of the U.S.-led invasion."
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, despite the fact that "Ahead of the 2003 invasion, U.S. officials made a case before the UN Security Council linking AQI with Osama bin Laden. But a number of experts say it wasn't until October 2004, when Zarqawi officially vowed obedience to the Al-Qaeda leader, that the groups became linked." While Zarqawi himself had contacts with Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden during the 1990s, it appears that their groups were not formally affiliated before October 2004 — a year and a half after the U.S. invasion.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq played a major role in the insurgency, exploiting local anger at the occupation and targeting Iraqis who collaborated with the U.S.-led transition. Today, experts generally agree that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq catalyzed Al-Qaeda’s growth in the country.
Since 2004, Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Iraq have seen their strength wax and wane, particularly in the wake of Zarqawi’s death in 2006. Additional events weakening the organization include the backlash against its brutal tactics in 2006 and the U.S. troop surge in 2007.
Today, the umbrella organization for Al-Qaeda affiliates in Iraq is called the Islamic State of Iraq. The Islamic State of Iraq’s attacks have increased precipitously since the withdrawal of U.S. forces at the end of 2011. In the last week alone, they have taken responsibility for attacks that have killed over 125 people across Iraq.
While Al-Qaeda does not have a safe haven in Iraq today like they did in Afghanistan under the Taliban, the Iraq War is certainly a cautionary tale for counterterrorism efforts. The U.S. invasion in 2003, designed to drive terrorism out of Iraq, ended up fueling it.