x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Al Qaeda gathers strength in northern Iraqi city of Mosul

Al Qaeda's Iraq arm is gathering strength in the northern city of Mosul, ramping up its fund-raising through gangland-style shakedowns and feeding off anti-government anger as it increasingly carries out attacks with impunity, residents and officials say.

BAGHDAD // Al Qaeda's Iraq arm is gathering strength in the northern city of Mosul, ramping up its fund-raising through gangland-style shakedowns and feeding off anti-government anger as it increasingly carries out attacks with impunity, according to residents and officials

It is a disturbing development for Iraq's third-largest city, one of the country's main gateways to Syria, as Al Qaeda in Iraq makes a push to establish itself as a dominant force among the rebels fighting to topple the Syrian regime.

The show of force comes as Mosul residents vote in local elections that have been marred by intimidation by militants. Al Qaeda's muscle-flexing is evident in dollar terms too, with one Iraqi official estimating that militants are netting more than US$1 million (Dh3.67m) a month in the city through criminal business enterprises.

Mosul and the surrounding countryside have emerged as major flashpoints in a wave of bloodshed that has killed nearly 2,000 Iraqis since the start of April - the country's deadliest outbreak of violence in five years. Gun battles have broken out between militants and security forces, and several candidates have been assassinated.

Just since the start of last week, attackers in and around the city have unleashed a rapid-fire wave of five car bombs, tried to assassinate the provincial governor and killed another local politician and four other people in a suicide bombing.

Other Sunni militant groups, including Ansar Al Islam and the Army of the Men of the Naqshabandi Order, are also active in Ninevah. Mosul is the capital of the Sunni-dominated province.

Al Qaeda's rise is particularly worrying because it is thought to be behind the bulk of the bombings across Iraq and because it is trying to assert itself as a player in neighbouring Syria's civil war. The head of Al Qaeda's Iraq arm last week defied the terror network's central command by insisting that his unit would continue to lay claim to Al Qaeda operations in Syria, too.

"We're definitely concerned about it," said a US diplomat about the deteriorating security situation in Mosul. The diplomat, who wasn't authorised to speak on the record, said Al Qaeda's Iraq arm sees an opportunity to try to build support in the area and is "out blowing things up to show that the government can't protect and serve the people."

Voters in Ninevah and in neighbouring Anbar province, another predominantly Sunni area bordering Syria, cast ballots for provincial council members yesterday. Iraqis elsewhere went to the polls in April, but the Baghdad government postponed voting in Ninevah and Anbar, citing security concerns.

Al Qaeda's growing strength in Mosul is painfully clear to businessman Safwan Al Moussili. Traders like him say they are once again facing demands from militants to pay protection money or face grave consequences. Merchants say that practice had largely disappeared by the time American troops left in December 2011.

"They tell us: 'Pay this amount.' And if it's higher than before, they say something like: 'You recently went to China and you imported these materials and you made such and such profits,"' he said. "It seems they know everything about us."

Small-scale shop owners, goldsmiths, supermarkets, gas stations and pharmacies are all being hit up for money these days.

Mr Al Moussili and his fellow businessmen feel they have little choice but to pay up. About two months ago, he recalls, one businessman refused to pay, and insurgents planted a bomb inside his shop that killed the man.

"That forced everybody to pay, because we don't see the security forces doing anything to end this situation," he said.

A Mosul food wholesaler, who referred to himself only by the nickname Abu Younis out of concern for his security, said he and other traders resumed paying $200-a-month kickbacks to Al Qaeda three months ago after finding threatening letters in the market hall where they operate.

Michael Knights, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who closely follows regional security issues, said Al Qaeda in Iraq has long generated cash from businesses such as trucking and real estate, and through extortion of large firms such as mobile phone companies.

"If they're extending their extortion back out to local traders, that indicates they've got better street control," he said. "It just shows they're able to operate in the urban neighbourhoods and don't see a security force retaliation like they did two years ago. And they don't fear informants identifying them."

Abdul-Rahim Al Shimmari, a member of the Ninevah provincial council, agreed that extortion is making a comeback.

He blamed rising political and sectarian tensions fuelled in part by the civil war in nearby Syria, where mostly Sunni rebels are trying to topple President Bashar Assad, whose Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Al Qaeda is also enjoying increased sympathy in Mosul because of what Al-Shimmari called the central government's "brutal and irresponsible" handling of Sunni protests that have raged for months against the Shiite-led administration in Baghdad.