Al-Qa‘ida in Iraq (AQI), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and more recently the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), was established in April 2004 by long-time Sunni extremist Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi, who the same year pledged his group’s allegiance to Usama Bin Ladin. AQI targeted Coalition forces and civilians using tactics such as vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs), suicide bombers, and executions of hostages by beheading and other means, attempting to pressure countries and foreign companies to leave Iraq, push Iraqis to stop supporting the United States and the Iraqi Government, and attract additional cadre to its ranks.
Al-Zarqawi was killed in a US airstrike on 7 June 2006. The new leader of AQI, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, announced in October 2006 the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq, led by Iraqi national Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, in an attempt to politicize AQI’s terrorist activities and place an “Iraqi face” on their efforts.
In 2007 AQI’s continued targeting and repression of Sunni civilians caused a widespread backlash—known as the Sunni Awakening—against the group. The development of the Awakening
Councils—composed primarily of Sunni tribal and local community leaders—coincided with a surge in Coalition forces and Iraqi Government operations that denied AQI its safehavens, restricting the organization’s freedom of movement and resulting in a decreased attack tempo beginning in mid-2007.
High-profile attacks in 2009 and 2010 demonstrated not just the group’s relevance in the wake of the Coalition withdrawal from Iraqi cities in 2009, but also its efforts to posture itself to take advantage of the changing security environment. Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Umar al-Baghdadi were killed in April 2010, marking a significant loss for the organization.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became AQI’s next leader, and the group has continued conducting high-profile attacks in Iraq and has made efforts to expand within the region. Suicide bombers and car bombs during the first half of 2013 caused about 1,000 Iraqi deaths, the highest monthly violent death tolls since 2008. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in April 2013 declared the group was operating in Syria and changed its public name to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. When al-Baghdadi announced the creation of the ISIL, he claimed AQI had founded the al-Nusrah Front in Syria and that the groups were merging. Al-Nusrah Front, however, denied the merger and publicly pledged allegiance to al-Qa‘ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
AQI expanded its targeting outside of Iraq in August 2005 by attempting a rocket attack on a US Navy ship in the Port of Aqaba, Jordan, and in November 2005 with the bombing of three hotels in Amman that left 67 dead and more than 150 injured. The group’s official spokesperson and its leader in 2012 made vague threats against Americans everywhere. The arrests in May 2011 of two AQI-affiliated Iraqi refugees in Kentucky highlight the potential threat inside the United States from people associated with AQI.