The U.S. recently reported that, in the last few months, American and Iraqi forces had killed or captured 34 of the 42 most senior al Qaeda leaders in Iraq. American intelligence has discovered that this huge loss has paralyzed al Qaeda in Iraq, which is now unable to find volunteers to replace all the lost leaders. The losses have also cut communications with other al Qaeda groups, especially the senior leadership in Pakistan. The large loss of leaders also led to an unprecedented capture of documents and al Qaeda leaders willing to talk. Many family members of these leaders were also willing to discuss their experiences. For example, the widow of slain (in April) al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Ayyub al-Masri revealed that she and her husband (they are both Egyptian) came to Iraq in 2002, having been offered sanctuary by Saddam Hussein. Many other al Qaeda were found to be terrorists hiding out in Iraq, under Saddam's protection, and having nowhere to run after 2003. While many of the terrorist leaders were Iraqis who used to work for Saddam (and also had nowhere to run, given their known crimes), there were hundreds of foreigners. Few of them are left, outside of prison and graveyards.
This devastation began two years ago. Between mid-March and mid-April, 2008, al Qaeda suffered major losses in Iraq. American and Iraqi troops killed or captured 53 al Qaeda leaders. These included men in charge of entire cities (or portions of large cities like Mosul or Baghdad), as well as men in charge of various aspects of terror operations (making bombs, placing them or minding the bombers). Most important, nine of the ten most senior men involved, were captured, and interrogated. This led to locating more al Qaeda staff, and assets. Hundreds of weapons and explosives caches have been discovered this year, as a result of interrogating captured terrorists. The result was a sharp fall in suicide bomber attacks, and the ones still carried out are against soft targets (civilians). This was part of an al Qaeda campaign to force Sunni Arabs to switch sides again and support terrorism. But these attacks have the opposite effect, causing more hatred for al Qaeda.
Within months of this 2008 debacle, Al Qaeda web sites began making a lot of noise about "why we lost in Iraq." Western intelligence agencies were fascinated by the statistics being posted in several of these Arab language sites. Not the kind of stuff you read about in the Western media. According to al Qaeda, their collapse in Iraq was steep and catastrophic. According to their stats, in late 2006, al Qaeda was responsible for 60 percent of the terrorist attacks, and nearly all the ones that involved killing a lot of civilians. The rest of the violence was carried out by Iraqi Sunni Arab groups, who were trying in vain to scare the Americans out of the country, and the Iraqi Shias out of power.
By 2008, al Qaeda was shattered, with most of its leadership and foot soldiers dead, captured or moved from Iraq. As a result, al Qaeda attacks have declined more than 90 percent. Worse, most of their Iraqi Sunni Arab allies have turned on them, or simply quit. This "betrayal" is handled carefully on the terrorist web sites, for it is seen as both shameful, and perhaps recoverable. This left al Qaeda as the major remaining terrorist organization, even in its diminished state.
This defeat was not as sudden as it appeared to be, and some Islamic terrorist web sites had been discussing the problem for several years. The primary cause has been Moslems killed as a side effect of attacks on infidel troops, Iraqi security forces and non-Sunnis. Al Qaeda played down the impact of this, calling the Moslem victims "involuntary martyrs." But that was a minority opinion. Most Moslems, and many other Islamic terrorists, saw this as a surefire way to turn the Moslem population against the Islamic radicals. That's what happened earlier in Algeria, Afghanistan, Egypt and many other places. It's really got nothing to do with religion. The phenomenon hits non-Islamic terrorists as well (like the Irish IRA and the Basque ETA).
The senior al Qaeda leadership saw the problem, and tried to convince the "Al Qaeda In Iraq" leadership to cool it. That didn't work. As early as 2004, some Sunni Arabs were turning on al Qaeda because of the "involuntary martyrs" problem. The many dead Shia Arab civilians led to a major terror campaign by the Shia majority. They controlled the government, had the Americans covering their backs, and soon half the Sunni Arab population were refugees.
Meanwhile, the "Al Qaeda In Iraq" leadership was out of control. Most of these guys were really out there, at least in terms of fanaticism and extremism. This led to another fatal error. They declared the establishment of the "Islamic State of Iraq" in late 2006. This was an act of bravado, and touted as the first step in the re-establishment of the caliphate (a global Islamic state, ruled over by God's representative on earth, the caliph.) The caliphate has been a fiction for over a thousand years. Early on, the Islamic world was split by ethnic and national differences, and the first caliphate fell apart for good after a few centuries. Various rulers have claimed the title since then, but after 1924, when the Turks gave it up (after four centuries), no one of any stature has taken it up. So when al Qaeda "elected" a nobody as the emir of the "Islamic State of Iraq", and talked about this being the foundation of the new caliphate, even many pro-al Qaeda Moslems were aghast. When al Qaeda could not, in 2007, exercise any real control over the parts of Iraq they claimed as part of the new Islamic State, it was the last straw. The key supporters, battered by increasingly effective American and Iraqi attacks, dropped their support for al Qaeda, and the terrorist organization got stomped to bits by the "surge offensive" of last year. The final insult was delivered by the former Iraqi Sunni Arab allies, who quickly switched sides, and sometimes even worked with the Americans (more so than the Shia dominated Iraqi security forces) to hunt down and kill al Qaeda operators.
If you can read Arabic, you can easily find these pro-terrorism sites, and see for yourself how al Qaeda tried to explain its own destruction to its remaining supporters. While it's common to assume the Information War has been going against the West, this was not the case when you checked with what was going on inside the enemy camp. Meanwhile, Iraqi police are resigned to dealing with some Islamic terrorism for another 5-10 years. There are a lot of Islamic radicals left in Iraq, and some of them are still determined to become voluntary martyrs.