The Military & Propaganda Messages in Zarqawi’s Tape

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s 34 minute long video tape not only includes numerous political messages, as Dr. Walid Phares explains; but also contains information on al Qaeda in Iraq’s propaganda and military capabilities. Several of the military and propaganda aspects are covered below:

1) MANPADS. First and foremost, as Evan Kohlmann has noted, some of the terrorists standing guard during the scene in the desert are brandishing shoulder-fired surface to air missiles (MANPADS). While this indicates al Qaeda in Iraq has this capability, very few Coalition aircraft have been shot down in Iraq. The likelihood here is Zarqawi’s ‘command element’ has top priority in fielding these weapons systems.

2) Zarqawi and company are confident. There are a large number of al Qaeda gathered in the desert, perhaps fifty to one hundred. Also a flat bed truck is pictured with a machine gun mounted on the back (this weapon system is known as a ‘technical’). The location of the desert is unknown, but he is very likely operating far from Coalition forces. The location could be in any desert in Iraq, or possibly Syria, Jordan or Saudi Arabia. al Qaeda in Iraq certainly was confident U.S. warplanes and surveillance platforms were not in the area.

3) Zarqawi’s personal weapons. In each of the three different segments of the tape (speech, planning session, desert) Zarqawi is seen with three different weapons. All of the weapons look either new or well kept. The rifle next to Zarqawi in first scene is an AKSU-74 5.54mm assault rifle used by Russian Spetsnaz, paratroopers, tankers, and helicopter crews. This is the same rifle Osama bin Laden is seen with in his video tapes, and provides additional evidence that Zarqawi is modeling his insurgency after Osama bin Laden’s glory days in Soviet Afghanistan, as Dr. Phares and Mr. Kohlmann have stated.

In second scene Zarqawi brandishes a U.S. made M4 (the carbine version of the M16 assault rifle) with an M203 grenade launcher and what appears to be a night scope (I was unable to identify it). He has two magazines taped back-to-back for fast reload. Also, a standard M16 is in the same footage.

The two different weapons raises some questions: What happened to the ASKU? Does he switch between weapons often? Was the tape taken during the same time period, or over a longer period of time?

The ‘vest’ Zarqawi is wearing appears to be an ammunition belt, not a suicide vest. There are no visible wires, explosives or a trigger device. The vest Zarqawi is wearing is identical in all scenes. If he is not wearing a suicide vest but really wearing an ammo pouch, is he switching out his magazines from the 5.54mm for the AKSU to the 5.56mm rounds for the M4? Where does he store his grenades for the grenade launcher on the M4?

In the final scene in the desert, Zarqawi shoots an M249 SAW (Squad Automatic Weapon), which is “a lightweight 5.56mm machine gun carried by infantry squads.” It appears he is using the 200 round drum magazine. Zarqawi does not appear particularly comfortable firing the weapon.

Zarqawi is clearly using the weapons as props in his propaganda film. He wants the audience to believe the weapons were seized from U.S. soldiers and Marines, and are carried as war trophies, just as the ancient Greeks sought to bear the arms of their enemies conquered in battle.

al Qaeda in Iraq could have purchased the U.S. weapons on the black market. Iraq is awash with illicit weapons. While I was in country, the Master Gunnery Sargent from Regimental Combat Team – 2, 2nd Marine Division showed me numerous exotic weapons the Marines in RCT-2 captured from insurgents. One weapon was a 1938 Mauser with an original swastika stamped on the barrel, and was worth tens of thousands of dollars. There were British Stens, Belgian pistols from the late 19th Century, and a host of other treasures.

4) The ‘rockets’ launched in the desert, which are shown throughout the film, are crude weapons at best. They are fuse-lit, point, fire and forget weapons with little capacity for guidance. Mortars would have a greater effect. An anonymous military source provides more detail on the rockets:

The pencil [rocket] that was shown in the Zarqawi footage caught me by surprise. [You] are correct about its capabilities its a strange weapon. It was known as the Alazan 5 a former Soviet weather rocket in which the Chechen’s modified as a surface to surface missile. Attached is an old picture of the rocket. I noted the launch rail was different but that was indeed the Alazan 5. There were many missing from Moldova and we had reports of five warheads that were modified as RDDs also missing.

5) The briefing. Zarqawi goes a long way to show he is the military planner and tactical commander. He pours over maps with four other masked terrorists. In one section of the tape, he appears to be pointing at the region around the city of Kirkuk. But remember that this scene, as all the others, were planned through in advance. Zarqawi knows U.S. intelligence will be thoroughly dissecting this tape, and may want to throw the Coalition off of his scent.

6) Zarqawi is shown leading the planning session, but there is no video of him actually leading and conducting a strike. If he is leading from the front, the footage was left on the cutting floor.

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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