Skip to main content

Al Qaeda commander: How I planned Iraq attacks

By Jomana Karadsheh, CNN
Click to play
The state of al Qaeda
  • Captured al Qaeda in Iraq commander Munaf al-Rawi peaks exclusively to CNN
  • Al-Rawi says he planned last year's bombings against government buildings
  • Hundreds died in wave of attacks targeting ministries, hotels, embassies
  • Al-Rawi, 34, was arrested at a Baghdad checkpoint in March
  • Al Qaeda in Iraq
  • Iraq
  • Terrorism

Baghdad, Iraq (CNN) -- A man who oversaw suicide attacks that devastated the Iraqi government said he got an order to target four ministries in the strikes, which killed and injured hundreds of citizens last year.

Munaf al-Rawi identified himself as al Qaeda in Iraq's top commander in Baghdad during an exclusive interview with CNN. He said it took about six weeks to plan and carry out the August 19 twin suicide bombings that hit the ministries of finance and foreign affairs.

More attacks in October targeted the Baghdad governorate and the ministry of justice.

In his interview with CNN's Fred Pleitgen Tuesday, al-Rawi explained how the network planned and carried out large-scale attacks in Baghdad.

Pleitgen was the first Western television journalist to interview the recently-captured al-Rawi. The Iraqi government made him available to CNN and Arabic-language media to show its strides in the fight against terrorism.

Al-Rawi was captured in March at a checkpoint in Baghdad while riding in a taxi, according to Iraqi officials.

U.S. military officials say al-Rawi is an example of a senior al Qaeda in Iraq leader whose arrest and interrogation resulted in "good raids."

Military commanders have said information gathered from interrogating al-Rawi, combined with documents seized from raids on houses linked to al Qaeda in Iraq, led to the killing of the organization's two top leaders in a raid last month.

Al-Rawi said the order to execute attacks "specified four ministries: foreign, justice, the finance and the Baghdad governorate."

After receiving the written orders via courier from al Qaeda in Iraq's top leadership, he said he met with his "military commander" in Baghdad and asked him to carry out a reconnaissance mission on the specified sites.

After that was established, al-Rawi said, he asked for support.

"We needed the financial support, and the people who will carry out the attacks, we did not have them in Baghdad, so I wrote the needs and obstacles facing us," he said.

"Then they sent me about $120,000, we bought the cars and then we got the suicide attackers from Mosul, we prepared for the operation and we executed it."

There's little doubt that the large scale bombings that have struck Baghdad since August have been the work of al Qaeda in Iraq. The organization has claimed responsibility for striking several key installations in the heart of the capital, leaving residents of Baghdad questioning their government's ability to protect them.

Hundreds of Iraqis died in multiple suicide car bombings in August, October, December, January and April, which targeted ministries, government buildings, hotels and most recently embassies.

Al-Rawi, 34, said he joined al Qaeda in 2003 to fight the American occupation. He said took part in the first battle of Falluja in April 2004, one of the fiercest U.S. military offensives.

Soon after, he was held in U.S. detention for more than three years, he said. A year after his 2007 release, al-Rawi said, he got a leadership position.

At the height of its power, al Qaeda in Iraq controlled many towns in key parts of the country, but its brutality and intimidation of locals soon turned the tide against the group. Former allies became foes, and the organization lost many strongholds.

The U.S. military believes the rejection of al Qaeda by Iraqis was one of the key factors that weakened the group.

"The population has not embraced this ideology of al Qaeda and that's significant because it has really hindered their ability to conduct operations here in this country and also the population has failed to support them," Maj. Gen. Steve Lanza, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said earlier this month.

Al-Rawi said it has become harder for the organization to operate in Iraq as it did in the past.

"It is 80 to 100 percent harder to operate for al Qaeda these days ... before we could prepare a car bomb anywhere, there was no opposition. Now you can't do that. Even the place you prepare a car bomb will be discovered," he said. "The borders and the entry of the fighters, and entry of materials became difficult, not like the past when the borders were semi-open, now the borders are very difficult."

"Now the Iraqi security forces are in control and our movements are not like before ... our movement from one area to another is extremely difficult, many things have become difficult," al-Rawi added.

Although al Qaeda in Iraq has been dealt severe blows in recent months, the organization is far from defeated.

Last week, a wave of deadly attacks nationwide killed and wounded hundreds of Iraqis. They included a series of coordinated bombings and shootings that U.S. and Iraqi officials believe were the work of al Qaeda in Iraq.

Despite being dealt major blows, al Qaeda in Iraq has proven its resilience in the past by regrouping and fomenting sectarian violence.

U.S. officials say they have reduced the capabilities of the organization, but believe it will continue its operations. The group's attacks in past weeks "are limited in scale and scope," but challenges remain, Lanza said.

"But the overall ability of this network to operate with sustained large high profile attacks in Iraq right now I think has been severely affected," Lanza said.

The U.S. military is scheduled to draw down its troops to about 50,000 by the end of the summer. A security agreement between both countries calls for a complete pull out by the end of next year.

Al-Rawi said even after the pullout, the Iraqi government will remain the organization's top enemy.

He said he regrets civilian casualties, but still believes in the legitimacy of the "Jihad," or holy war, against Americans.

Al-Rawi said that unlike the early years of the war, when the organization had many foreign Jihadis within its ranks, they now make up only a small percentage of the Iraqi-dominated group.

Standing 1.96m (6-foot-5), al-Rawi said he did not consider becoming a suicide bomber and justifies using others to carry out the attacks he planned.

"I didn't force anyone to do it -- a suicide bomber will come from the borders and get into Iraq to do it," he said. "I didn't force anyone to ride a car and conduct a suicide attack."