Al Qaeda in Iraq’s attack upon Abu Ghraib prison on July 21, 2013 constitutes a significant campaign victory for the extremist group. The emir of AQI announced that this attack was the culmination of the “Breaking the Walls” campaign that he launched in July 2012. This attack demonstrates not only the tactical capabilities of AQI, but also its ability to plan, resource, and execute a year-long campaign that has significantly increased the operational depth of the organization. Al Qaeda in Iraq is now setting the terms of battle in Iraq for the first time since 2006, before the Surge.
The “Breaking the Walls” Campaign
On July 21, 2012, the emir of Al Qaeda in Iraq Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the start of a new campaign, which he named “Breaking the Walls.” In an online speech, he described its purpose as “refueling” his operations with additional manpower. He outlined two campaign objectives, namely, to secure the release of prisoners and to regain control of lost territory in Iraq. The 12-month campaign that ensued was characterized by 20 waves of simultaneous vehicle-borne explosive attacks, eight major prison attacks, and visible territorial consolidation within regions formerly controlled by al Qaeda. Each VBIED wave that we have tracked consisted of eight or more explosions on the same day. These waves became more frequent and lethal in the spring of 2013, with waves now occurring twice weekly in some cases. Total casualty levels for the month of July 2013 are already higher than in any other month since May 2008.
The 2013 phase of the “Breaking the Walls” campaign has been particularly focused upon attacks against Shi’a civilians in Baghdad in an apparent effort to stoke sectarian violence. This last phase has coincided with regional sectarian mobilization as al Qaeda affiliates and Iranian sponsored Shi’a militant groups have overtly demonstrated their involvement in the Syrian war. But the primary purpose of the “Breaking the Walls” campaign never departed from its original goal of generating more manpower in Iraq through prison breaks. Al Qaeda in Iraq declared campaign victory this week with the release of 500 prisoners from Abu Ghraib.
At 9:30 pm local time on Sunday evening, July 21, 2013, al Qaida in Iraq (AQI) launched a complex attack upon the Abu Ghraib prison, west of Baghdad. The main attack involved multiple vehicle borne explosive devices (VBIED), suicide bombers (SVEST), and rocket-propelled grenades (RPG) targeting the hardened perimeter of the compound, the 24th Muthanna Brigade and other Iraqi Security Force reinforcements defending the area, and finally the cellblocks of the prison. Conservative estimates hold that more than 500 prisoners escaped from Abu Ghraib prison as a result. The Minister of Justice confirmed that 68 ISF personnel died in defense of the facility, and it is unclear how many prisoners died in the exchange of fire. On July 23, 2013, al Qaeda in Iraq claimed credit for the attack under the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Major General Nasser al-Ghanam, Commander of the 17th Iraqi Army Division in charge of Abu Ghraib and the southern Baghdad Belts, announced his resignation prior to the attack, citing wrong policies and poor decisions by senior military leaders, likely in response to escalated violence in Iraq before this incident.
AQI executed a series of complementary attacks before and during the assault on Abu Ghraib prison. An ISF installation at Taji, which houses the national military depot along with another large prison, was also attacked with VBIEDs and RPGs. The perimeter was not breached, and no prisoners escaped, though ISF did incur casualties. It is possible that the attack on Taji was part of a concerted effort to divert ISF attention and resources from the principal target, Abu Ghraib prison. It is also possible that Taji was part of the main objective, but unsuccessfully prosecuted, most likely because Taji is a much harder target than Abu Ghraib. AQI had likewise attacked Taji unsuccessfully with a combination of VBIEDs, SVESTs, and RPGs on August 1, 2012 and February 5, 2013.
AQI conducted other attacks in the days before and after the July prison break, concentrating them in the vicinity of Baghdad on July 20, 21, and 22 as depicted on the maps below. Most significantly, AQI conducted an out-of-cycle VBIED wave on Saturday, July 20, 2013. This VBIED wave, typified by the simultaneous detonation of eight VBIEDs targeting neighborhoods across Baghdad, occurred on a Saturday. Main effort attacks by AQI throughout the past 12 months have consistently taken place on Sundays and Mondays, which suggests that this July 20 VBIED wave was not an independent main effort. Instead, this complex attack, along with several other isolated attacks, was more likely part of an orchestrated diversion to mask preparations for the attacks upon the Abu Ghraib and Taji prisons on the following day. The purpose of a diversion of this magnitude would be to soften the primary target. AQI may have achieved this objective by occupying the attention and resources of Baghdad-based ISF units that otherwise might have been more responsive to early indicators of the impending jailbreak.
A plan demonstrating this degree of preparation and logistics would likely also involve an exit strategy, including where to divert the fugitives to prevent recapture, how to transport them there, and how to sustain them. The map below identifies several possible holding sites for escaped prisoners returning to AQI from Abu Ghraib. All were AQI staging areas in 2006-2007, and all are in the Baghdad Belts, the cogent system of towns and ring roads around Baghdad that were the focus of a series of operations by Multi-National Force-Iraq during the Surge to oust al Qaeda. These villages all exist in close proximity to Abu Ghraib prison, and they are connected to the rest of western Iraq through a micro-road networkthat gives advantages to the dispersing AQI fighters and hinders the more cumbersome ISF. Once seeded within the Baghdad Belts, AQI can transit around the capital to most areas of the country.
Several events in Karma, including the assassination of a New Sahwa leader and a firefight between armed gunmen and ISF and Sahwa, point particularly to this town as an area where AQI is likely operating again. Likewise, the historic AQI safe haven in the vicinity of Thar Thar provides distance from both hostile Anbari tribes and ISF while offering freedom of movement into the Jazeera and northern Salah ad Din. We will therefore watch these locations for burgeoning AQI operations following this prison break.
This series of complex attacks may not be over yet, and AQI may be heading for the southern belt. A VBIED and several IEDs also detonated in Dora neighborhood, south of Baghdad, two days after the Abu Ghraib prison break. A direct connection to the jailbreak or to fugitives is unlikely, but it is possible that AQI will seek to deny ISF freedom of movement from Dora south to Mahmudiyah in the coming weeks in order to move to these historical safe havens.
Isolated reports have alluded to convoys of vehicles organized to support the escape of the Abu Ghraib prisoners. This mode of transportation is unlikely for the first leg of the escape. It is more likely that the prisoners escaped on foot to rally points, which limits the possible radius of initial travel. It is likely that the network inside the prison knew the plan well in advance. One Anbari citizen indicated that the local population also had early warning. If true, this reflection more likely indicates a campaign to intimidate the public than its willing collusion with AQI. Advanced notice to prisoners could have involved communicating the optimal route and dispersion, rally points, secondary transportation, and ultimate destinations. Regardless of whether the plan was optimal or well-executed, ISF does not appear to have pursued the fugitives into any of these named areas of interest, instead establishing curfews, neighborhood raids, checkpoints, and conducting mass arrests. Rather than containing al Qaeda, these measures are more likely to alienate the local population and further isolate them from Maliki’s government.
Al Qaeda in Iraq in Prison
AQI attacks upon Iraqi prisons serve as a reminder that Iraq’s prisons still house a sizeable remnant of the hardcore veteran AQI network. Coalition Forces and Iraqi Security Forces vigorously pursued al Qaeda in Iraq in 2006-2008. A significant portion of the network was captured or killed in that time. Detention operations conducted under the auspices of UNSCR 1790 were critical to consolidating security gains. Reconciliation programs within Coalition Forces detention facilities were essential to support the counterinsurgency campaign. Coalition Forces sought to identify moderates within prisons, encourage good behavior, and separate reconcilable individuals from extremists. Irreconcilables were also identified and segregated, and within this population, leaders were separated from fighters. These segregation procedures and detainee records were instrumental to the transition of detainee operations to Iraqi authorities.
The U.S./Iraq Strategic Framework Agreementthat went into effect on January 1, 2009 detailed conditions for the transfer of authority of the detention facilities to the Iraqi judicial system. The essential tenet of Article 22 of this agreement was that all permanent detainees would remain in Iraqi prisons only if convicted under Iraqi law. Reconcilable detainees identified by Coalition Forces were released from prison through formal release boards. Members of the Awakening movement, which occurred inside prisons as well as outside, were released.
Coalition Forces meanwhile put forth evidence on detainees from AQI and Shi’a militia groups whom they proposed for permanent confinement. Iraqi courts issued warrants to designate detainees to be considered for future trial. Although this report will not attempt to evaluate the veracity or timeliness of the Iraqi judicial system, this history underscores that the prison populations which Coalition Forces transferred to Iraqi control were uniformly irreconcilable and implicated by evidence of their crimes. It is therefore important to regard the al Qaeda contingent within Iraq’s prisons as extremely dangerous.
Maliki’s political rivals, Sunni protestors, and Shi’a militant groups have all expressed grievances about Iraqi judicial process and prison conditions. However, each of these groups is treating the Abu Ghraib jailbreak on July 21, 2013 as a grave danger. Reflections of Sahwa leaving their homes for fear of al Qaeda’s resurgence is the most telling sign that this prison break represents a direct threat to Sunni Arab Iraqis as well as other constituencies.
Moreover, al Qaeda networks have historically reconstituted and grown stronger inside prisons. Imprisoned networks are able to take advantage of ideological incubation, group dynamics, rivalries, and intimidation in order to maximize radicalization and indoctrination. Networks inside prisons often maintain contact with elements on the outside, exchanging propaganda, news of outside network activities, and in some cases preparing for upcoming operations. It is therefore likely that the al Qaeda in Iraq elements captured by Coalition Forces and subsisting in prisons have grown in strength and number on the inside.
The Mother Prison
Abu Ghraib has been the site of one of the largest detention facilities in Iraq since the Saddam era. Consequently, it housed the majority of Coalition Forces detainees during the early years of Operation Iraqi Freedom. After the 2004 detainee abuse scandal, and additionally for physical security reasons, Coalition Forces transferred all detainees from Abu Ghraib in 2006 and returned the Abu Ghraib facility to Iraqi authority. Other facilities that continued to house detainees for several years included Camp Bucca in southern Iraq, Camp Taji north of Baghdad, and Camp Cropper inside the Baghdad International Airport compound. All of these facilities were transferred to Iraqi control by July 2010. Camp Cropper, having contained the upper echelon of high value targets captured by Coalition Forces, was the last to transfer.
The Iraqi Ministry of Justice re-opened the Abu Ghraib facility in 2009 in order to handle overflow from other prisons as the transition to Iraqi control required the redistribution of detainees and resources. The facility was refurbished, rebranded, and renamed the Baghdad Central Prisonin order to combat its tragic history. The Baghdad Central Prison reportedly contained 3,500-4,200 prisoners by 2010. The overflow population transferred to Abu Ghraib likely mirrored the distribution at other prisons, resulting in a mélange of al Qaeda operatives, Shi’a militants, and other prisoners. This distribution, if present, may have generated a predatory environment for unaffiliated prisoners, while primary factions, especially al Qaeda, vied for control of the prisoner population. It is unclear if factions were held in separate cellblocks at Abu Ghraib prison in an effort to mitigate this effect, as they had been from 2007-2009 while the U.S. conducted its counterinsurgency campaign.
Abu Ghraib is not just another prison. It is the most infamous prison in the country. Abu Ghraib’s horrific reputation among Iraqis significantly amplifies AQI’s ability to radicalize the prison population. Because of its history, it may also be the most gingerly and ambivalently supervised prison, which likely diminishes the overall physical security posture. Abu Ghraib was also assessed by Coalition Forces to be the least physically secure facility among the prisons during the counterinsurgency campaign. The primary reason given for transferring operations from Abu Ghraib to Camp Bucca was physical security, made clear by the complex AQI attack upon Abu Ghraib in April 2005, in which over 40 U.S. personnel died. The longstanding physical security concerns and increased likelihood of insider threats may explain why the attack on Abu Ghraib on July 21, 2013 was so successful. They also explain why AQI would consider this particular prison to be a high value target and appropriate crescendo to the “Breaking the Walls” campaign.
Al Qaeda in Iraq’s Reconstitution
AQI has demonstrated its ability to execute complex attacks in many overlapping ways since announcing the “Breaking the Walls” campaign. First, AQI has conducted a series of more than 20 VBIED waves that meticulously targeted ethno-sectarian fault-lines in Baghdad and northern Iraq. Second, AQI has begun to control and defend terrain, most visibly in Southern Kirkuk, Eastern Salah ad Din, and northern Diyala province. We assess that AQI will strengthen its presence now that the prisoners from Abu Ghraib have escaped. Third, AQI has conducted a careful and deliberate campaign of attacks against Iraqi prisons.
As the graphic below depicts, there have been eight prison attacks since the start of the “Breaking the Walls” campaign in July 2012. AQI claimed credit for three of the eight attacks, including the attacks upon Abu Ghraib and Taji prisons on July 21, 2013. All attacks involved a combination of VBIED, IED, SVEST, RPG, or small arms fire, underscoring the assessment that AQI was responsible for the entire set. In addition to this most recent attack, the attack upon Tikrit Tasfirat prison on September 27, 2012 was successful in securing the escape of a large prisoner population.
The pattern of attacks illustrated by this graphic indicates that AQI was capable of conducting a pair of complex prison attacks comfortably once every five months during the last year. It is important to note that Taji prison was struck three times, perhaps because it is most proximate to AQI’s 2012-2013 support zone, but more likely because Taji is intrinsically important. There may be particular persons of interest at the prison or simply another large contingent of al Qaeda operatives to harvest. Regardless of the reason, Taji prison is likely to sustain future attacks. It is important to note that this is one of several compounds in Iraq at which American contractors still live and operate. Taking heed of the elevated threat posed by so many al Qaeda operatives at large, Interpol issued a global alert on July 24, 2013. U.S. persons and interests in Iraq should now be on alert also.
AQI announced this weekend’s attack as the conclusion of the “Breaking the Walls” campaign. Precisely to the Gregorian day one year after announcing the start of the campaign, and during the month of Ramadan, AQI declared victory by breaking the walls of Abu Ghraib. It also declared the title of the final prison break operation, “Overthrowing the Tyrants.”
This symmetrical, scheduled, and securely executed campaign demonstrates the operational art of al Qaeda in Iraq. Al Qaeda in Iraq has not demonstrated this level of campaign organization and momentum since before the Surge. At the present time, AQI is dictating the terms of battle, and the Maliki government, Shi’a militias, and external actors are reacting to its initiative. This is an extremely dangerous posture. It has become necessary to ask what al Qaeda will plan to do next. When al Qaeda in Iraq last enjoyed this operational advantage, it chose to announce the birth of the Islamic and to appoint emirs and Shura councils in every province. This historical parallel places Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s recent announcements of his envisioned Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in the literal context of a deliberate campaign to establish governance over areas in Iraq and Syria. Regardless of what AQI means to do alongside Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, it is important to recognize that AQI also means to achieve its strategic objectives in Iraq and is now alarmingly well-positioned to advance toward this goal.
Jessica Lewisis Research Director at the Institute for the Study of War.