|Al Qaeda in Iraq has pledged allegiance to Zawhiri (right) seen here with bin Laden (left) (Reuters)|
Bin Laden and his deputy Ayman Zawahiri had their own plans for Iraq. In November 2003, Al Qaeda and Taliban commanders met in Afghanistan to discuss the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Al Qaeda decided that they were going to shift their focus from the Afghan war to the one in Iraq, and cut military support and funding to the Taliban as a result. Bin Laden believed that Iraq was the new field to confront the Americans, and that it would also give them reprieve in Afghanistan to re-organize and re-build. As a result, Al Qaeda began diverting some of its fighters and operatives to Iraq to try to organize and make connections with insurgent groups already there.
The journey to unite bin Laden and Zarqawi proved to be a difficult one. The two had different ideas about strategy and tactics, and Zarqawi was intent upon making a name for himself, not some other group and leader. Zawahiri for example, believed that Al Qaeda could kick the United States out of Iraq by working with locals, and then establish a Caliphate there, which would become a center of Islamist radicalism throughout the region. Zarqawi on the other hand believed that best way to expel the Americans was to start a sectarian war, which would rally the country’s Sunnis to his group. The fighting would then spread throughout the rest of the Middle East leading to a regional jihad led by him. These differences would initially keep the two sides apart.
Eventually Zarqawi and Al Qaeda were able to work out an agreement, but it took time. In January 2004, the U.S. found a letter from Zarqawi to Al Qaeda asking for aid in his plans. They allegedly turned him down. (1) Finally, in October 2004, Zarqawi issued an internet statement pledging his allegiance to bin Laden. In December, Al Jazeera also aired a tape of bin Laden saying that Zarqawi was his deputy in Iraq. That was when Zarqawi renamed his group Al Qaeda in Iraq. By doing so, Zarqawi gained the name recognition that came with Al Qaeda, while opening up new sources of funding. Bin Laden in turn, got a foothold in Iraq. Despite these statements, the relationship between the two remained rocky.
By the end 2005, the differences between the two became public. In October 2005, the United States released a letter they had captured from Zawahiri to Zarqawi. It said that Al Qaeda in Iraq needed popular support, and Zarqawi’s tactics were costing them that. Specifically, Zawahiri reprimanded Zarqawi for attacking Shiites, carrying out beheadings, bombing mosques, and not consulting with Al Qaeda about his plans. Al Qaeda would also criticize him for attacking other militant groups that refused to follow his lead. Zarqawi was his own man, and never stopped with his policies. In fact, in 2006 he released his first public video that showed him out in the field with a machine gun, symbolically comparing himself to bin laden and Zarqawi, and saying that he was fighting while they were in hiding.
|Zarqawi from his first public video (USA Today)|
|Zarqawi's successor as head of Al Qaeda in Iraq Masri (Long War Journal)|
By 2008, even Al Qaeda realized the problems in Iraq. That year it said that it was refocusing upon Afghanistan instead of Iraq. The U.S. found two letters between Zawahiri and Al Qaeda in Iraq, which criticized Masri for his lack of leadership. A captured Al Qaeda member also said that the group was running out of money and foreign fighters were hardly coming to the country anymore. Iraq had allowed Al Qaeda to move its operations hundreds of miles west from Central Asia to the Middle East. Its backing of Zarqawi and then Masri however discredited much of its ideology and image.
In the last year, Al Qaeda in Iraq has faced more setbacks. In April 2010, Masri and Baghdadi were both killed in a raid. Afterward a new person was appointed as the emir of the Islamic State, Abu Baqir al-Baghdadi, who had even less standing than Masri. Communications with Al Qaeda were also disrupted. This led to another decline in the organization.
Today, Al Qaeda has splintered. It is now reportedly based in Diyala with cells in other provinces such as Baghdad, Ninewa, and Anbar. In the last two years, around 150 of its leaders have been arrested, and others have been killed, and it has lost most of its standing in the country.
Al Qaeda in Iraq began as one of the bloodiest and most ruthless insurgent groups in the country. It stole headlines with its mass casualty bombings, and attacks upon Shiites. It was always its own organization under Zarqawi, and it took over two years to work out a relationship with bin Laden and Zawahiri. Even then, Zarqawi always followed his own lead, and rejected any leadership from Al Qaeda. After he was killed, Al Qaeda in Iraq moved much closer to bin Laden, but by then its tactics had backfired and the population was turning against it. It is now a shell of its former self. It’s only capable of carrying out large attacks about every other month, and those are largely aimed at gaining publicity. Its outside funding has been shattered, and now relies upon crime to get most of its money. More importantly, its ideology has been rejected by a large country in the Middle East. Its latest pledge of allegiance to Zawahiri will not change that situation, and only shows that they are living in the past.
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