Exodus and Ascent

As the Iraqi government continues their attempts to pull the leaders of the Sunni led insurgency from the battlefield and into the political spectrum, the insurgency continues to lose the power to influence the future of Iraq via violence. Robert F. Worth of the New York Times reports Sheik Harith al-Dari, “a leading spokesman for Iraq’s disaffected Sunni Arabs” and leader of the Sunni Muslim Scholars Association is negotiating with the government to bring in Sunni fighters. The Muslim Scholars Association has openly supported the insurgency and has called for the boycott of the January election. While al-Dari’s demands are unrealistic, his willingness to openly consult with a government he previously declared as illegitimate speaks volumes on his outlook of the insurgency. If and when the local element of the insurgency lay down their arms, the radical Islamists and foreign terrorists will lose their ability to operate effectively and influence the prospects for democracy.

While there has been much contention in the debates to appoint the new leaders of the Iraqi government, Austin Bay properly states the cries of political quagmires are another example of the “minutes versus months” mentality – the inability to see the forest through the trees. As the Sunni, secular Shiites, religious Shiites and Kurds negotiate and struggle to chose there leaders, they are learning the arts of negotiation and compromise, and the ability to resolve differences in the political sphere. It has been a mere two years since the liberation of Iraq from a brutal and dictatorial tyrant. Americans forget seven years passed between America’s freedom from the British Crown and the ratification of a Constitution. Fierce debates raged between our founding fathers, and the aborted experiment of the Articles of Confederation prior to signing the Constitution in 1789.

The future and direction of al Qaeda in Iraq has been in question since the organization’s failure to derail the January election. While Iraq has been a military and political failure for al Qaeda, ABC News’ terrorism analyst Alexis Debat looks at the signs that al Qaeda in Iraq’s commander, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, is growing in stature among al Qaeda’s leadership and may become the successor to Osama bin Laden. Zarqawi is also believed to be directing his efforts away from Iraq and towards the Gulf states. Reasons given are Osama’s recent letter of support and the pledge of fealty made by the leader of al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. Mr. Debat also smashes the myths of the ‘newness’ of Jund al-Sham and Zarqawi’s lack of ties to al Qaeda prior to the Iraq War:

Although the group said that this was its first statement, Jund al-Sham is the same name as a group started by the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Intelligence officials believe it may be a sign that Zarqawi is beginning to attack targets outside Iraq, and may, in fact, be emerging as a replacement to Osama bin Laden as the operational leader of the global jihad. Analysts are concerned that Zarqawi may now begin to redeploy his cadre of militants who, having gained important combat experience in Iraq, are capable of carrying out deadly missions elsewhere

According to Jordanian government sources and European intelligence documents, Zarqawi first set up Jund al-Sham in Afghanistan in late 1999 with $200,000 in startup money from bin Laden. The group’s objective was to operate in a geographical area known as the “Levant,” which encompasses Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan where al Qaeda’s presence was deemed too weak. Headed by Zarqawi, Jund al-Sham federated about 150 jihadis, including Jordanian Islamic militants exiled by the Jordanian government earlier that year, as well as various recruits from Syria (some holdouts of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood), and Lebanon (mostly Palestinian refugees of the movement “Asbat al Ansar”). These militants were trained in explosive, guerrilla warfare and chemical weapons techniques at a training facility (“Al Matar Training Camp”) operated by Zarqawi near the Afghan city of Herat, close to the Iranian border.

There can be little doubt that al Qaeda fighters – the ones who have evaded capture or worse – have gained valuable battlefield experience, much as the core of Arab mujahedeen who fought in Soviet era Afghanistan and eventually formed al Qaeda. But a major difference is Soviet Afghanistan was a clear victory for the Islamists. They proved their ability to eject a superpower from Muslim Lands. The same cannot be said about al Qaeda in Iraq and Afghanistan of the Taliban. Iraq has been an abject failure, and America has proved the myth of the paper tiger to be just that, a myth. And the enemy is not the only one honing his battelfield skills. A new and lethal bread of American soldiers, intelligence operatives and special forces have seeded their respective services with the knowledge of their contact with the enemy.

Yet despite al Qaeda’s defeat in Iraq, Zarqawi is rising in the ranks of al Qaeda. Why is this so? There are several likely answers. Zarqawi is one of the few high level operatives that have survived the American led assault on its leadership. He is one of the few high profile leaders in the Muslim world outside of those under “protection” in Iran, and he has shown a propensity for brutality and the ability to conduct high casualty assaults. Also, as reported by Mr. Debat and a host of others, Zarqawi has an extensive network outside of the Middle East. His influence and contacts extends from Afghanistan through Africa and Europe, an area spanning four theaters of the war (Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa). Zarqawi is a global leader along the lines of captured commanders Abu Zubaydah, Hambali and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed or the deceased Mohammed Atef. Few have risen in the ranks to replace these highly experienced operatives with decades of experiences and vast worldwide contacts.

The nations of the Gulf, the wider Middle East and Europe are right to fear Zarqawi’s redirection of focus from Iraq. It has been reported Zarqawi is planning a chemical attack in Europe, as he has done in the past. Spain caved after the Madrid bombings so there is a question of how much violence Europe is wiling to absorb. But Al Qaeda should consider the effects of further attacks will have on the intended targets, particularly in the Middle East. The Iraqis have tired of the abject violence of al Qaeda. Once the rest of the Arab Street is exposed to it, will the popularity of al Qaeda rise after its immediate successes on 9-11, or fall as they have done in Iraq and Afghanistan? Good bets are on the latter.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Enigma says:

    having gained important combat experience in Iraq
    Perhaps this is true, but you have to figure there is minimal institutional memory in an organization that relies heavily upon suicide bombings.
    If indeed Zarqawi is replacing bin Laden, how much of a prize is that really? Seems to me that would be like taking over as captain of the Titanic. Al Qaeda may be spreading to the Gulf States, but that’s simply a mark of their failure in Iraq, which is a good thing. Europe, however, beware!

  • GK says:

    I am surprised that the US has not been able to capture or kill Zarqawi. I can understand why we do not have Bin Laden or Zawahiri, as they are in Pakistan and we cannot send troops on Pakistani soil.
    But why has Zarqawi evaded us? If we could capture Saddam and kill Uday/Qusay, why can’t we get to Zarqawi?
    What are your thoughts?

  • Justin B says:

    There does seem to be a shortage of suicide bombers with “EXPERIENCE”.

    WANTED: Iraqi or Saudi suicide bomber. No Experience Necessary. Will Train. Disabled and Retarded are welcome.

    I joined the Navy, got my training and the GI Bill. I guess it saves on the rising cost of retiree healthcare and benefits for the insurgents.

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  • Bill Roggio says:

    Enigma & Justin,
    Agreed that those who execute the suicide bombings are no longer valuable to al Qaeda, but the commanders, bombmakers, recruiters and such do retain the experience. That said, so do we.
    Zarqawi’s elusiveness is what makes him such a valuable leader. There are several possibilities: he may not be operating inside Iraq on a full time basis (there has been suspicions he has been operating in Iran and Syria at times). Also, while the Left discounts his ties with Saddam’s regime, a relationship with the Baathist security and military establishments would go a long way in explaining how he is able to maintain numerous safe houses. This is why an important key in capturing Zarqawi would be to turn elements of the insurgency into the political process. Zarqawi would make a nice bargaining chip indeed for anyone wanting to get in the good graces of the Iraqi government.

  • Wounded Z, Revisited

    An al Qaeda website asks for prayers for Zarqawi, who is beleived to have been seriously wounded in Operation Matador.


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