Friday, May 13, 2011

In Light Of Bin Laden’s Death Al Qaeda In Iraq Pledges Allegiance To His No. 2 Ayman Zawahiri

On May 9, 2011 the Al Qaeda in Iraq umbrella organization the Islamic State of Iraq posted a statement on an Islamist website stating its loyalty to Osama bin Laden’s deputy Ayman Zawahiri. Four days before it carried out a suicide car bomb attack upon a police station in Hillah, Babil that killed 24 and wounded 72, which it said was in retaliation for bin Laden’s death. The Islamic State was the first organization to pledge allegiance to Zawahiri. It and Al Qaeda have had a long and difficult relationship, which has pointed out the problems with the Islamists’ ideology.
Al Qaeda in Iraq has pledged allegiance to Zawhiri (right) seen here with bin Laden (left) (Reuters)
Al Qaeda in Iraq was actually started by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as a rival to bin Laden’s organization. Zarqawi, real name Ahmad Fadhil Nazal al-Khalaylah, was a Jordanian Islamist who was exposed to radical jihadist ideas in a Palestinian refugee camp in his home country while he was growing up. In 1989 he left for Afghanistan to fight against the Soviets, and in 1991, he and fellow countryman Mohammad al-Maqdisi formed Bayat al-Imam to foment an Islamist revolution in Jordan. The two were arrested for their activities in 1994, and Zarqawi was eventually released as part of an amnesty program. He then traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan where he eventually met Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden offered assistance to Zarqawi to create his own terrorist camp in Afghanistan, but the two maintained different ideologies and separate organizations. Zarqawi’s was called Tawhid wal Jihad, Unity and Holy War. In Mid-2002 Zarqawi entered Iraq to set up terrorist cells to resist the impending American onslaught on Saddam Hussein. After the U.S. invasion, Zarqawi’s organization was responsible for some of the first and deadliest terrorist attacks in the country, which would led him to become the world’s most infamous terrorist at the time, eclipsing even bin Laden.

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 was eventually killed by the Americans in 2006, leading to new leadership and a closer alignment with Al Qaeda. Zarqawi was replaced by Abu Ayub al-Masri, real name Abu Hamza al-Muhajir. Masri was an Egyptian who was formerly a member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and a follower of fellow countryman Zawahiri. Masri came to Iraq in 2002 to set up terrorist cells just like Zarqawi had done. Masri forged closer ties with Al Qaeda, and tried to implement Zawahiri’s suggestions. This caused problems with Zarqawi’s lieutenants, leading to a split within the organization. Masri eventually formed the Mutayibeen Coalition as an umbrella insurgent group. Zawahiri had asked Zarqawi to form such an organization back in 2005 so that Al Qaeda could claim leadership of the militants in Iraq, but Zarqawi ignored him. That was followed by the Islamic State of Iraq being announced in October 2006. It was allegedly led by Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, who claimed to be a relative of the Prophet Mohammed, and was promoted as the first Iraqi leader of the organization. Baghdadi turned out to be an actor who just recorded tapes, while Masri maintained the leadership position.
Zarqawi's successor as head of Al Qaeda in Iraq Masri (Long War Journal)
Zarqawi’s death ended up leading to the precipitous decline of Al Qaeda in Iraq. First, he was successful in starting a sectarian war with the country’s Shiites, but that backfired. Al Qaeda was not capable of protecting Sunnis from Shiite led security units and militias. Instead of rallying Sunnis to his cause, they turned against him as they were overwhelmed and forced out of many areas in central Iraq. It also rallied neighboring Sunni led governments to aid the insurgency, rather than spread instability around the region as he planned. Second, Masri lacked the charisma and leadership capabilities of Zarqawi. Third, the formation of first the Mutayibeen Coalition and then the Islamic State of Iraq turned the majority of the insurgency against Al Qaeda. Before, Al Qaeda posed itself as foreign assistance to the Iraqi resistance to the Americans and the new government. By trying to form umbrella organizations, it was trying to claim leadership of the militants and force its ideology upon them. Eventually outright fighting broke out between different insurgent groups and Al Qaeda, and many Sunnis ended up joining the U.S. formed Sons of Iraq to resist them.

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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Ramzi, Kholoud, “bin laden reaction in iraq: militants taking different tack,” Niqash, 5/10/11

Reid, Robert, “U.S. planes, tanks batter insurgent stronghold,” San Francisco Chronicle, 10/18/04

Roggio, Bill, “Dear Zarqawi: A Letter from Zawahiri, and a Constitutional Compromise,” Long War, 10/12/05
- “Divisions in al Qaeda in Iraq,” Long War, 10/13/06
- “Letters from Al Qaeda leaders show Iraqi effort is in disarray,” Long War, 9/11/08
- “al Qaeda’s Grand Coalition in Anbar,” Long War, 10/12/06
- “US Military denies al Qaeda leader al Masri is in custody,” Long War, 5/9/08

Scheuer, Michael, “Al-Qaeda in Iraq: Still Striving to Undo al-Zarqawi’s Damage to Mujahideen Unity,” Terrorism Focus, Jamestown Foundation, 4/30/08

Ware, Michael, “Meet The New Jihad,” Time, 7/5/04

Yousafzai, Sami, Moreau, Ron and Hirsh, Michael, “Bin Laden’s Iraq Plans,” Newsweek, 12/15/03

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