Sunday, October 17, 2010

Al Qaeda’s Ideology Betrayed Itself In Iraq

Many theories have been given for why Iraqis turned on Al Qaeda in Iraq. Much has been written about the Islamists use of violence against the tribes in Anbar and other insurgent groups across the country as a deciding factor. Others have pointed to Al Qaeda’s attempt to take over friendly tribes’ illegal businesses. Dr. Andrew Phillips, a lecturer at the University of Queensland, Australia presented a paper in 2008 arguing that Al Qaeda’s ideology was the major factor.

According to Phillips, the root of the problem for Al Qaeda was its world revolutionary outlook, and exclusionary vision of Islam. Al Qaeda mixes two popular jihadist beliefs. One is an idea that the Muslim world has become corrupt, and they are the only true believers, who need to renew the roots of the religion. Another is that the West is responsible for this decline. Some Islamists decided to respond to this perceived threat by struggling against their own governments that they saw as godless and pro-Western. Others felt that the United States was the root of the problem, and therefore needed to be confronted. Al Qaeda took the latter route, arguing the need to fight the U.S. in order to start the regeneration of their faith.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi
Source: AP
Al Qaeda in Iraq was created by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi was born Ahmad Fadhil Nazal al-Khalaylah in Zarqa, Jordan in 1966. He was exposed to Islamist ideas early on in life, and that led to his departure to fight the Russians in Afghanistan in 1989. At the time, many jihadists believed that the Soviet Union’s secular communist ideas were as bad as the West’s, and their invasion of a Muslim country had to be opposed. After the Afghan war Zarqawi met Muhammad al-Maqdisi, aka Issam al-Barqawi, a well-known radical Islamist and Jordanian. Together the two decided to go back to their homeland and start an Islamic revolution. They were arrested in the 1990s for their activities, but Zarqawi was later released under an amnesty program, and ended up back in Afghanistan. There he met Osama bin Laden, and asked for and received assistance to create his own camp where he would train fighters to overthrow the Jordanian government. While there Zarqawi expanded his ideas to a worldwide Islamist fight against Israel, Jews, and the West. This came together in his new group, Tawhid wal Jihad, Unity and Holy War that eventually built up a network throughout Afghanistan, Iran, Jordan, Syria, and Europe, and launched plots to bomb Israel, and attack Jews in Germany. Zarqawi’s activities showed the mixing of various jihadist ideas. At first, he was caught up in expelling the Soviets from a Muslim country, Afghanistan, which was an early radicalizing event for Islamists. He then decided to focus upon his home country, Jordan, to start an Islamic revolution. When he went back to Afghanistan in the 1990s he came into contact with Al Qaeda and other radicals that made him expand his ideas to the need for a worldwide struggle against Israel and the West. It was this ideology that led him to travel to Iraq next.

When it became apparent that the United States would overthrow Saddam Hussein, Zarqawi began focusing upon Iraq. He went there in March 2002, and set up networks in Syria, Iran, Baghdad, the Sunni triangle, and allied with the Kurdish group, Ansar al-Islam. In March 2003 he also met with Al Qaeda’s military head, Muhammad Ibrahim Makawi, aka Saif al-Adel, in Iran. The two agreed to facilitate the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq to attack the Americans. When the insurgency started Zarqawi played a crucial role in providing money, men, and logistics, as well as carrying out the first mass casualty attacks such as the bombings of the United Nations headquarters and Jordanian embassy in Baghdad, and the headquarters of the Italian carabineri in Nasiriyah. His group also attracted the support of Iraqi jihadists, who had been growing in number since the Gulf War in 1991. Zarqawi thus established himself as a leader in the insurgency quickly. He later renamed his group Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia in 2004, and pledged his allegiance to Osama bin Laden. The U.S. invasion of Iraq thus turned out to be a boon for Zarqawi. He was able to become a world famous jihadist, expand the power and influence of his organization, and finally take the fight to the West. His name began to rival that of bin Laden, and the later alignment with him was another way to increase Zarqawi’s standing and tap into the foreign funding that Al Qaeda had available.

Al Qaeda 2nd in Command Ayman Zawahiri
Source: Long War Journal
Zarqawi and Al Qaeda would prove to have a rocky relationship. The two sides disagreed about tactics and strategy. Bin Laden’s number two, Ayman Zawahiri argued that jihadists should first kick the Americans out of Iraq, and then establish a Caliphate there. Zarqawi believed that the way to achieve that was by starting a sectarian civil war that would pull the country into chaos and make the U.S. leave. He thought that this civil war would spread to the rest of the Middle East, weakening other governments, and opening up the way for a global jihad. Al Qaeda in Iraq then began focusing upon attacking Shiites to provoke their retaliation. Al Qaeda central never believed in this strategy, and Zawahiri would later unsuccessfully call on Zarqawi to stop his campaign against the Shiites. The dispute between the two groups showed that Islamism was not a monolithic movement, and that Al Qaeda in Iraq was its own group at the time, following its own vision of jihad. At the same time, the two did have ties, which neither was willing to give up because both benefited from being seen as fighting against the Americans in Iraq. Zarqawi’s rift with Al Qaeda was the harbinger of a larger problem he would have with Iraq’s militants.

From 2004-2007 Al Qaeda in Iraq and the country’s Sunnis split. Zarqawi wanted leadership of the insurgency, and used a variety of methods to achieve it. He killed tribal sheikhs and other militants to impose his will. He attempted to marry Al Qaeda fighters with Iraqi women to connect his organization with local communities. He tried to appropriate businesses, like the smuggling tribes in Anbar carried out, to monopolize the funding of the insurgency. Zarqawi tried to impose his form of Islam upon Iraqis. In 2005, many tribes and insurgents also decided to participate in the December vote for parliament to gain some kind of Sunni representation. Al Qaeda rejected any role in the new Iraq. Finally, in October 2006 Al Qaeda declared the Islamic State of Iraq in Anbar as an umbrella organization that was supposed to unite all the militant groups under its leadership. All of these tactics, along with Al Qaeda’s inability to protect Sunnis during the civil war, caused resentment amongst Iraqis, which eventually led them to break from the group. First the tribes in Anbar began fighting against Zarqawi in 2005. In 2006 they gained American support, and then in 2007 the U.S. began playing on the differences between Iraqis and Al Qaeda across northern and central Iraq, which led to the formation of the Sons of Iraq. Eventually, the majority of Sunnis rejected Al Qaeda’s ideas, and this has led to its current isolation and loss of support within the country.

By 2007 the U.S. exploited the divisions between Al Qaeda and insurgents to create the Sons of Iraq
Source: Al Jazeera

At the heart of the matter was the fact that Al Qaeda’s ideology ended up alienating Iraqis. Zarqawi overestimated the appeal of jihadist ideas in Iraq, ignored local concerns, and believed that he could impose his will. He was fooled at first, by his initial success. Al Qaeda was able to humiliate the U.S. in Iraq, energized international support for the fight there, and did start a sectarian civil war. That was the apex of his vision however. There was no way he could create a caliphate in Iraq because the Baathists and nationalists within the insurgency always outnumbered the Islamists and foreign fighters. The latter were more concerned about bringing back Sunni or Baathist rule rather than putting Zarqawi in power. Attacking tribes and other insurgents, marrying into families, taking over local businesses, and starting a sectarian war all backfired, and pushed Iraqis away from Al Qaeda. This happened before in other situations, such as in Bosnia, Chechnya, and Kashmir. There, foreign jihadists were eventually rejected as well because they acted superior, ignored indigenous concerns, and used violence against those that refused to follow their lead. That points to the Islamist ideology as a root problem for their failures rather than local circumstances.

Al Qaeda was never going to succeed in Iraq. It was always a small group within the insurgency, but its spectacular attacks gave it a larger profile and more media attention than other militants. Its ideology failed to win over many converts, as few were willing to follow Zarqawi as an Islamist revolutionary vanguard. In fact its ideas led to tactics and strategies that ended up alienating many Sunnis, and that allowed the U.S. to exploit the differences in a divide and conquer strategy. Even after Zarqawi was killed in 2006, and replaced with Abu Ayub al-Masri who was more in line with Al Qaeda in Pakistan, the group failed to improve its situation. Masri was later killed in April 2010, and Al Qaeda in Iraq is now led by a third wave of leaders who are still committed to targeting Shiites, the government, and the Awakening/Sons of Iraq. That shows despite the change in leadership, the organization’s core ideas remain. On the other hand, Al Qaeda in Iraq is still operating, and will probably continue to do so for several more years. In fact, it may have gained more breathing space with the withdrawal of U.S. forces, the on-going political deadlock over forming a new government, and Baghdad’s unwillingness to fully integrate the Sons of Iraq. Al Qaeda can’t win in Iraq, but it also can only be defeated through a combined military and political strategy by the Iraqi government. Unfortunately Baghdad is so divided it doesn’t appear capable of doing that right now, which is giving the Islamists extra life.


Ashour, Omar, “Al-Qaeda in Iraq: Eliminating Leaders Will Not Necessarily Cut Lifelines,” Arab Reform Bulletin, 6/30/10

Eisenstadt, Lieutenant Colonel Michael, “Iraq Tribal engagement Lessons Learned,” Military Review, September-October 2007

Gambill, Gary, “Abu Musaib Al-Zarqawi: A Biographical Sketch,” Terrorism Monitor, Jamestown Foundation, 12/16/04

Hendawi, Hamza, “Al-Qaida in Iraq offers cash to lure former allies,” Associated Press, 8/6/10

Kagan, Kimberly, “The Anbar Awakening: Displacing al Qaeda from Its Stronghold in Western Iraq,” Institute For The Study of War and, 8/21/06-3/30/07

Kilcullen, Dave, “Anatomy of a Tribal Revolt,” Small Wars Journal: SWJ Blog, 8/29/07

Kukis, Mark, “Turning Iraq’s Tribes Against Al-Qaeda,” Time, 12/26/06

McEvers, Kelly, “Analysts Speculate Al-Qaida In Iraq Has Regrouped,” Morning Edition, NPR, 10/6/10

Phillips, Dr. Andrew, “How Al Qaeda Lost Iraq,” Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Associated, 8/28-31/08

Ridolfo, Kathleen, “Iraq: Al-Qaeda Tactics Lead To Splits Among Insurgents,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 4/17/07

Roggio, Bill, “Dear Zarqawi: A Letter from Zawahiri, and a Constitutional Compromise,” Long War, 10/12/05

Symon, Fiona, “The devil America knows,” Financial Times, 9/24/04

Whitlock, Craig, “Al-Zarqawi’s Biography,” Washington Post, 6/8/06


AndrewSshi said...

I've noted that there was an article in the NY Times this morning about some Awakening fighters being wooed by AQI. Like you've noted, even with Awakening defectors they don't really have the power to overthrow the government (especially since, you know, the government has their home addresses, retinal scans, etc. on file), but they can probably make things miserable in western Baghdad and Diyala.

Joel Wing said...

Yeah. I read that article as well. I think more important than any defections, which I cant actually think have been many since AQI has been trying to kill so many of them over the last 3 years, is that hundreds have walked off the job because they haven't gotten paid or jobs as promised. I believe those reports much more and that would have a direct affect in loosening up security and providing room for insurgents to work.

Don Cox said...

I think these defectors are much more likely to go into organised crime than into jihad.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article. But I disagree that Al Qaeda have not succeeded. I doubt that they ever expected to set up an Islamic state upon their ideologies.
In my opinion their leaders were more concerned about the new Shiite ideological influence than the American presence, and Irans special groups being the main antagonists to them in terms of trying to increase Shiite influence. With that in mind, they did succeed in triggering a civil war that has completely changed the political landscape in Iraq and set Sunni and Shiite in conflict, and it remains to be seen whether the country can fully get past this. The antagonisation may very well spread (in fact it already has) to the rest of the middle east, particularly causing confrontation between Iran and Sunni countries, which no doubt they want. I prefer to think of Al Qaeda as an ideology introduced into Iraq, not a group of foreigners and as such it cannot be eliminated by force.

Joel Wing said...


I would disagree with your view. Zarqawi was definitely a Sunni chauvinist who saw Shiites as apostates, hence his attacks upon them, but fighting Shiites was not part of his ideology. His main goal was fighting the West, and starting the sectarian civil war in Iraq was part of that larger strategy to make the American effort in the country a failure.

Also remember that Al Qaeda and the insurgents didn't start fighting Sadr/Badr/Special Groups until 2005, and that Zarqawi had been operating in Iran since the 1990s.

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