- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 7, 2014

The northern Iraqi town at the center of this week’s renewed surge by Islamist extremists has for years been caught in the crossfire of al Qaeda-inspired militancy in nation.

Counterterrorism analysts and intelligence sources say that American forces began carefully eyeing the region surrounding Sinjar — roughly 50 miles west of the city of Mosul — along shortly after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

But it was not until the late 2000s that Sinjar and other towns in the area, including the Rabiah border crossing with Syria just to the north, became viewed as an integral link in the evolving al Qaeda narrative in Iraq.

In October of 2007, some 16 months after an airstrike had killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born leader of what was then known as al Qaeda in Iraq, a team of operatives from the U.S. coalition of forces in Iraq came across an eye-opening find during a raid near Sinjar.

The forces found a vast trove of documents detailing the identities and hometowns of more than 700 foreign nationals who had entered Iraq between August 2006 and August 2007.

The story of those documents, which the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point later dubbed the “Sinjar Records,” has hung like an ugly backdrop of recent history this week amid reports that tens of thousands of Iraqi minorities are trapped on nearby Mt. Sinjar, which is now surrounded by fighters of the militant Islamic State group.

SEE ALSO: Iraq’s largest Christian city falls to ISIL; Kurdish forces retreat from Qaraqosh

“Sinjar and its surrounding villages have long been a focal point for extremist fighters both Iraqi and foreigners since shortly after the U.S. invasion, when al Qaeda began focusing resources in northern Iraq in 2004,” said Bill Roggio, who edits The Long War Journal at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.

The Combatting Terrorism Center made an analysis of the Sinjar Records public in January 2007, providing an unprecedented look inside the operations of al Qaeda in Iraq.

Chief among the findings was the sobering reality that — despite efforts by al Qaeda in Iraq operatives at the time to publicly identify the group as being “Iraqi” in nature — the largest contingent of al Qaeda in Iraq fighters had been born in Saudi Arabia. The next biggest group was from Libya, with Syria providing the third largest group of fighters.

If nothing else, the Sinjar Records exposed a level sophistication within al Qaeda’s operations that has — in hindsight — laid bare the deep foundation from which the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, now known as the Islamic State, have risen.

Since Islamic State fighters seized the city of Mosul in early June, U.S. intelligence sources said the group can field only a few thousand fighters, whose strength has been augmented by support from more secular Sunni Muslim militants in the region who are angry with policies of Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government.

But with the extremists engaged this week in a renewed surge that has included the seizure of Iraq’s largest dam, new questions have been swirling in Washington about just how strong the Islamic State may become.

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