Conflicting reports of the status of al Qaeda commander in Iraq Abu Musab al-Zarqawi abound. Egyptian blogger Hammorabi reports Zarqawi is dead and his family in Jordan is preparing his funeral (note: Hammorabi has been accurate in the past, he led on the news of Zarqawi being wounded). Al Qaeda in Iraq claims all is well, and Zarqawi is fine, just fine, thank you.
Recently we’ve looked at the potential for internecine warfare between the various al Qaeda factions in Iraq as well as a few of the potential successors to Zarqawi’s throne. Questions remain about the impact Zarqawi’s loss would have on al Qaeda in Iraq. The Counterterrorism Blog links to a transcript of a pair of interviews with counterterror expert Steve Emerson on Fox News who addresses these issues. He reiterates several points we have made, that Zarqawi is a ‘fighting commander’, his death would have a noticeable impact on the organization and will potentially create a power struggle for ascension:
EMERSON: Well again, it’s hard to predict [the impact of Zarqawi’s death] . My feeling is that because he’s such an on-the-ground commander, and because he’s so control- oriented, that this could have a major, major effect in disrupting the insurgencies’ coordinations and their operations. I think that Zarqawi was really the glue that held the organization together. It was Zarqawi, Zarqawi, Zarqawi. Not like Bin Laden, who had a whole chain of command that he could rely on. Here, there’s really no one to replace him.
In fact, there’s been a whole series of denials today about who in fact is going to take his place. Denying, in fact, that one person would take his place, affirming that he would, and then denying that he would. So there’s really now a major fight for ascension. I think this could have a major disruptive effect on their ability to launch attacks with such pinpoint precision as they’ve done in the past.
Zarqawi is a key to the organization because of his contacts, stature and operational skill. He has established ties in the region over the course of years with the creation of Jamaat al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad, links to Ansar al-Islam and contacts with Saddam’s security services. He ran a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan and is an associate of Osama bin Laden (See Dan Darling’s full dossier on Zarqawi and his multifacited connections and skills). This is the ‘glue’ that holds together the various domestic and foreign factions of al Qaeda in Iraq. For these reasons, he will be very difficult to replace. Local Iraqi jihadis will not have the stature, contacts or trust that Zarqawi possessed. Al Qaeda’s leadership will look upon the Baathists converts skeptically. The indigenous Al Qaeda fighters may not trust foreign Al Qaeda members and will be resistant to foreigners taking control of the organization.
It is interesting to look at the potential heirs to al Qaeda in Iraq, as it can illustrate the degree of fractionalization within the organization. There is a power struggle between the domestic Iraqi members (both the Islamists and Baathists) and the foreign elements. The following is a list of the names being bandied about for Zarqawi’s successor (based on reports by Adnkronos International and Dan Darling, additional background links are inserted if available).
The Iraqi Princes:
· Abu Maysira al-Iraqi – The chief of media wing of al Qaeda in Iraq
· Abu Darda al-Iraqi – The chief of operations in Baghdad province.
· Abu Azzam al-Iraqi – A local commander in Anbar province and member of Zarqawi’s Jamaat al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad. He was responsible for murdering various leaders of the Anbar province last summer.
· Abu Sad al-Duleimi – A local commander in Anbar province.
· 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 Saddam’s Baathist Revolutionary Command Council. He swore fealty to Zarqawi last year and commands a significant element of the Baathist/al Qaeda converts. H has significant links in Syria and is an important source of funding for al Qaeda in Iraq.
The Foreign Princes:
· Suleiman Khalid Darwish – According to the Jamestown Foundation he is “a Syrian who is also known as Abud al-Ghadiya” and “was a companion of al-Zarqawi in the al Qaeda training camps al-Zarqawi ran in Herat” He is purportedly Zarqawi’s chief of Jamaat al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad in Syria. Update: Scratch Darwish, he has been killed on June 26th, 2005 in Qaim.
· Abud Hafs al-Qarni (al-Gerni) – A Saudi Arabian and purportedly a member of a clan that is know for cranking out Islamists.
We have already witnessed the struggle between Abu Maysira al-Iraqi and Abud Hafs al-Qarni, as the latter attempted to usurp command by issuing a statement via the web. It will be interesting to see how al-Douri makes a play for control. If this does indeed happen, there may be a serious bloodbath between the Baathists and jihadis.
So who are the likely successors to the throne? If I had to guess whom al Qaeda would appoint to lead the organization in Iraq, it would be Suleiman Khalid Darwish. His ties to Zarqawi and work in the training camps in Afghanistan would lend him a degree of trust from bin Laden and Company. The most important trait he possesses is command of al-Tawhid in Syria. He has regional ties, and as reports indicate the jihad is being directed mainly through Syria, he likely has the regional knowledge and contacts to maintain some degree of coordination with the internal and external supply lines across the Syrian border.
The backups would be Abu Maysira al-Iraqi and Abu Azzam al-Iraqi. Maysira is an Iraqi established in the chain of command with intimate knowledge of the organization. Running the media wing gives him a powerful platform and likely contacts with al Qaeda’s international organization. Azzam is a ‘domestic’ member of al Qaeda in Iraq, also a member of al-Tawhid, and has shown a penchant for brutality and cunning while operating in the Anbar province. Like Zarqawi, he is a fighting commander, and has likely earned the respect of his peers.
All of this is of course speculation until Zarqawi’s death is confirmed. It can be assured that Zarqawi’s death cannot be hidden for long. The senior leaders of al Qaeda in Iraq will quickly know of his absence, and will work to shore up their power base and assume command.
The longer it takes for a leader to emerge from the pack, the more assured we can be that there is a serious struggle for control is taking place. And infighting amongst jihadis is always a brutal process. The power of the sword is not held in reserve for their external enemies alone; internal enemies also fall under the knife when the time comes for it. All the better.
The assumptions made in this post are based on open source information only as well as readings on al Qaeda’s history. I am not an intelligence analyst, nor am I in the employ of any government or private organization. I do not have access to classified intelligence. There is very little information to go on with some of the al Qaeda in Iraq lieutenants, so I am basing the choice of Suleiman Khalid Darwish, and secondary choices Abu Maysira al-Iraqi and Abu Azzam al-Iraqi based on the profile of al Qaeda commanders in other theaters. Experience, contacts, leadership, fighting ability, field command, ruthlessness, cunning, trust and devotion to the cause are all valued traits, and each of these men appear to possess a measure these.