x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Regional unrest gives Al Qaeda in Iraq new life

Al Qaeda bombers and the masterminds behind them are few, but they can alter the debate with their bombs. They cannot however win the war of ideas.

It's possible to lose count of how many times Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has been declared dead, only to re-emerge in another murderous attack. In 2006, western analysts predicted the end of the group after Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the Jordanian credited as its founder, was killed by a US air strike. Nearly every year since has brought a new chorus of high-ranking US or Iraqi officials predicting the end in much the same way. And yet, the killings continue.

Iraq's problems are just a microcosm of the region's. Amid the instability that has been a by-product of the Arab uprisings of the past year and a half - in Syria, in Yemen and in North Africa - Al Qaeda and related groups have clawed back. In stable societies (even, to a degree, in stability enforced by a strongman) people tend to reject the extremists' murderous bile.

But Iraqis have disproportionately borne the brunt for too long. This week's suicide attack on a Shia funeral procession in the Iraqi city of Baquba is a reminder that AQI remains a deadly, if weakened, force. Each month since the withdrawal of US forces in December has seen new Al Qaeda-linked violence. One of the deadliest attacks came on June 13, when car bombings across Iraq killed 70 Shia pilgrims and police. Monday's strike, which Iraqi officials have attributed to the terror group, killed 15 and wounded over 40.

The question is not only how to stop the violence - Iraqi security forces are well-trained and able - but rather how to resist the sectarian bloodletting that Al Qaeda in all of its incarnations works to inspire. Across the region, extremists are trying to provoke further violence. Al Qaeda isn't the only force that is willing to sacrifice civilian lives to achieve its misguided goals. But the franchise, now loosely united under Ayman Al Zawahiri, understands - indeed, admits - that its success depends on stoking more violence and an over-reaction from its targets.

Iraq's sectarian-tinged politics have fed this resurgence. Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki has pushed non-Shiites (as well as many Shiites, it should be noted) out of government. Marginalising Sunnis in Baghdad only builds misguided support for Al Qaeda.

As Syria's unrest boils over the border, Iraq can ill afford to inflame its own sectarian fault lines. In uncertain times every country in the region must remember that extremists, including Al Qaeda, have only one strategy: to incite further violence. Because of their murderous tactics, terrorists exert an influence far beyond their numbers or the value of their ideas. It's impossible to completely stamp out a group like Al Qaeda through military means, but at the same time, such groups will always lose the war of ideas.