One of the officials estimated that al-Qaeda now has at least 3,000 trained fighters in Iraq alone, including about 100 volunteers awaiting orders to carry out suicide missions.
Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to disclose intelligence information.
A study released this month by the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said al-Qaeda in Iraq has emerged as “an extremely vigorous, resilient and capable organization” that can operate as far south as Iraq’s Persian Gulf port of Basra.
The group “has reconstituted as a professional military force capable of planning, training, resourcing and executing synchronized and complex attacks in Iraq,” author Jessica Lewis added.
The study found that al-Qaeda was able to carry out 24 separate attacks involving waves of six or more car bombs on a single day during a one-year period that coincided with the terror group’s “Breaking the Walls” campaign, which ended in July.
It carried out eight separate prison attacks over the same period, ending with the complex, military-style assaults on two Baghdad-area prisons on Jul. 21 that freed more than 500 inmates, many of them al-Qaeda members.
“It’s safe to assume a good percentage of them ... would flow back into the ranks,” boosting the group’s manpower, Floyd said.
US troops and Iraqi forces, including Sunni militiamen opposed to the group’s extremist ideology, beat back al-Qaeda after the US launched its surge strategy in 2007.
That policy shift deployed additional US troops to Iraq and shifted the focus of the war effort toward enhancing security for Iraqis and winning their trust.
By 2009, al-Qaeda and other Sunni extremist groups were “reduced to a few small cells struggling to survive and unable to mount more than token attacks,” Kenneth Pollack, a Clinton administration official who is now a Middle East analyst at the Brookings Institution, said in a report earlier this year.
Now there are fears that all the hard work is coming undone.
Iraqis, both Sunni and Shiite, say they are losing faith in the government’s ability to keep the country safe.
“Al-Qaeda can blow up whatever number of car bombs they want whenever they choose,” said Ali Nasser, a Shiite government employee from Baghdad. “It seems like al-Qaeda is running the country, not the government in Baghdad.”
Many Sunnis, meanwhile, are unwilling to trust a government they feel has sidelined and neglected their sect.
Iraqi officials say that lack of trust has hampered intelligence-gathering efforts, with fewer Sunnis willing to pass along tips about suspected terrorist activities in their midst.
“During the surge, we helped build up the immune system of Iraq to deter these attacks. Now that immune system has been taken away,” said Emma Sky, a key civilian policy adviser for US Army General Ray Odierno when he was the top US military commander in Iraq.