The Struggle for Zarqawi's Throne
The Iraqi government seems to be reasonably convinced Zarqawi has been seriously wounded. If this is indeed the case, how will al Qaeda in Iraq handle the transition from Zarqawi to his successor? As Dan Darling astutely pointed out last night, it might get messy as various factions, from the foreign al Qaeda elements to the Baathist converts who have sworn fealty to Zarqawi, battle over control over the network. Dan postulates the main players in line for the crown are:
Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi (a senior al Qaeda leader who is reportedly Zarqawi's liaison to bin Laden), Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri (the former vice chairman of the Baathist Revolutionary Command Council who has since thrown in with Zarqawi) or one of his younger aides, and Abu Talha (a key leader in Ansar al-Islam operating out of northern Iraq).
Confirmation of the theorized spat over the succession manifests itself on an al Qaeda website. Three more names are thrown into the ring: Abu Maysara al-Iraqi (the commander of the Media Wing of al Qaeda in Iraq), Abu Hafs al-Gerni and Abu al-Dardaa. Note this dispute occurs on the same website. There is a struggle within the Media Wing of al Qaeda in Iraq to control the flow of information.
Wednesday's back-and-forth on the same website, known as a clearinghouse of Islamic militant material, could be a sign of confusion or competition within al Qaida of Iraq. It follows speculation about the Jordanian-born militant that has been unusual in size and scope
The first statement on Wednesday was signed in the name of Abu Doujanah al-Tunisi of the media committee of al Qaida in Iraq - an unfamiliar name from past statements. "The leaders met after the injury of our sheikh, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi ... and decided to appoint a deputy to take the lead until the return of our sheikh," it said in a posting on a militant website that two days earlier announced al-Zarqawi had been injured. The statement said the new leader would be Abu Hafs al-Gerni, "deputy of the holy warriors."
But a rival denial was posted a short time later, signed off by Abu Maysara al-Iraqi, the name usually associated with al-Qaida in Iraq postings when a name is indicated. "We deny all that has been said about appointing the so-called Abu Hafs or anyone by any other name," it said, reminding that al Qaida in the past has said to believe postings only in his name.
A respected pan-Arab newspaper reported today that several candidates were jockeying to succeed al-Zarqawi, none of whom it identified as Abu Hafs al-Gerni but one being Abu Maysara al-Iraqi - the man who issued Wednesday's denial that a deputy had been appointed.
Al Hayat newspaper quoted multiple unidentified sources for various names, saying that sources in Jordan close to al-Zarqawi, including a former Iraqi officer told the newspaper Abu Maysara al-Iraqi and Abu al-Dardaa al-Iraqi, an al Qaida operative in Baghdad, were two potential successors.
Wednesday's first statement said al-Gerni "was known for carrying out the hardest operations, and our sheikh would choose him and his group for the tough operations."
Abu Maysara al-Iraqi has shown weakness by losing temporary control of the flow of information. By attempting a digital coup, al-Tunisi, the man who advocated for the ascension of Abu Hafs al-Gerni, must have either sensed an opening or is overestimating his faction's powerbase. To restore a semblance of order, Abu Maysara al-Iraqi must act ruthlessly to put down the dissension if he wishes to succeed Zarqawi. Understanding, forgiveness, negotiations and cordial disagreements are not the strong suits of the Islamists.
The short knives appear to have been drawn. We may be witnessing a brutal power struggle for control of al Qaeda in Iraq. And this will get extremely interesting if and when Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri's Baathist convert faction joins the fray.
In Inside al Qaeda, Rohan Gunaratna documents Osama bin Laden's ruthless rise to power, which culminated in the assassination of Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, his trusted mentor and the spiritual founder of al Qaeda. Osama ruthlessly killed anyone who stood in his way in the wake of Azzam's death.