BAGHDAD, (AP) – Al-Qaeda in Iraq has begun offering cash to lure back former Sunni allies angry over the government’s failure to give them jobs and pay their salaries on time, according to Sunni tribesmen and Iraqi officials.
The recruitment drive adds to worries that the terror network is attempting a comeback after the deaths of its two top leaders in April and is taking advantage of a summer of uncertainty. The political stalemate in Baghdad is entering its sixth month after inconclusive elections, just as the U.S. military is rapidly drawing down its forces.
Al-Qaeda’s strategy is to provoke the Shiite majority into launching revenge attacks — a development that could re-ignite open warfare, split the Iraqi security forces along sectarian lines and cement al-Qaeda’s leadership role among Sunnis.
But if the extremists are unable to win back their former Sunni allies, it would be difficult for them to rebound as a significant threat — though al-Qaeda could continue to be a deadly nuisance for years to come.
Al-Qaeda’s overtures in recent weeks are notable because its militants have killed hundreds of former allies over the past two years, setting off blood vendettas between the Sunni extremist group and others in the Iraqi Sunni community. Many former insurgents also disliked al-Qaeda’s imposition of a strict interpretation of Islam in areas under its control.
But tribesmen said the need for cash to feed their families is pushing some lower-ranking former al-Qaeda in Iraq members to rejoin the terror group — and that al-Qaeda’s presence is growing in Anbar province west of the capital.
“The government must help us counter the resurrection of al-Qaeda in Anbar,” warned Mahmoud Shaker, an influential tribesman from the province’s Habbaniyah district.
Others warned that the recruitment could help al-Qaeda gain ground elsewhere in Iraq.
“I expect that if salaries continue to be paid late, Sahwa members will themselves seek to rejoin al-Qaeda,” said Rafia Adel, referring to the Sunni tribesmen who turned against al-Qaeda and sided with the U.S. military and the government. Adel is a senior Sahwa leader from the city of Beiji in Salaheddin province.
Al-Qaeda is also exploiting continuing resentment by the Sunnis over their second-class status in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein — particularly in Baghdad, which had been a Sunni-dominated city for 1,000 years.
The 2006 and 2007 revolt by Sunni tribesmen against al-Qaeda dramatically changed the course of the war. Former insurgents were organized into Awakening Councils, or Sahwa, to help U.S. and Iraqi troops fight al-Qaeda.
The U.S. military initially supervised and paid the salaries of the Sahwa fighters, whose numbers peaked to about 100,000 in 2008. The Iraqi government took over the Sahwa from the Americans last year, agreeing to give at least 20 percent of the fighters police and government jobs and to pay the rest to maintain security in Sunni areas. Other fighters simply returned to their old jobs.
Nowadays, the government pays the salaries of its estimated 650,000-strong police and army on time, including the estimated 20,000 Sahwa fighters who have been assimilated into the security forces.
But the remaining fighters on the government payroll go without their checks, in some cases for as long as three months. The government cites lack of funds or bureaucratic snags for the delays.
Another Sahwa complaint is that the government detained scores of its leaders on terrorism charges last year. Although most detainees were released — often because of U.S. pressure — the arrests were seen as a humiliation.
Exploiting these grievances, al-Qaeda operatives are approaching disgruntled Sahwa members with cash offers and telling them the government’s repeated failure to pay their wages on time is helping al-Qaeda’s recruitment drive, according to four senior Sahwa leaders — two in the Baghdad area and two in the mainly Sunni provinces of Anbar and Salaheddin.
They said al-Qaeda was in most cases offering to top by $100 or more the average monthly salary of a Sahwa member, which ranges between $250 and $300.
“Al-Qaeda is spending a great deal of money to win back members of the Sahwa,” Adel said.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq is thought to fund itself through private donations from sympathetic businessmen and charities in the Arab world and, increasingly, the robbery of banks, money changers and jewelry stores in Iraq. It is also rumored to be involved in kidnap-for-ransom operations.
U.S. officials believe al-Qaeda in Iraq no longer has ties to the overall al-Qaeda leadership, believed to be in Pakistan.
A senior Iraqi security official said he was aware of al-Qaeda’s overtures to Sahwa members, adding that cash offers came in letters and messages sent through intermediaries to tribal chiefs in charge of Sahwa groups across Iraq. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
A Sahwa leader in southern Baghdad said al-Qaeda carefully chooses the time it approaches Sahwa members with cash offers, often targeting groups owed months of back pay to exploit their anger and need for money.
“It is during those times that we as leaders offer our men money to help them until their back pay arrives,” said the leader from Dora, a former al-Qaida stronghold. He spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety.
It is unclear to what extent al-Qaida’s drive has been successful so far, but it appears that the extremists have had some luck in luring low-ranking, cash-starved fighters — as well as those nursing other grudges against the Shiite-led government — but not, for the most part, influential tribal chiefs.
Ironically, some fighters may be drawn to al-Qaida simply because the government has failed to protect them from their attacks. And in some cases, al-Qaida is suspected of targeting the very people it is trying to recruit — as in a July 18 bombing that killed dozens of Sahwa members gathered to collect back pay outside an army base in Radwaniya, a Sunni suburb of Baghdad.
For now, analysts say al-Qaida’s strength in Iraq is limited.
“The group is still more akin to a terrorist outfit than the vanguard of a broad-based popular insurgency,” said Michael W. Hanna of the Century Foundation in New York.
Peter Harling, of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, said that while al-Qaida has shown an enduring capacity to stage spectacular attacks, it remains a “fringe movement.”
“Its real strength, during its heyday, derived from its prominent position within a much wider insurgency,” he said.