Whipping al-Qaeda into line in Iraq
By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - Family members of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda's leader in Iraq
killed by US forces last week, have begun a mourning period in his home town of
al-Zarka in Jordan.
They are performing rituals that they say are not condolences but a "wedding"
for Zarqawi, because he has been martyred and is going to heaven.
Be that as it may, in Iraq, Zarqawi's death has precipitated a hunt to find a
successor to lead the insurgency, which itself may
undergo a "softening" from the indiscriminate killing that Zarqawi favored.
On the weekend, al-Qaeda in Iraq posted a video on the Internet of the
beheading of three alleged members of Shi'ite death squads, claiming they had
been killed since Thursday's announcement of Zarqawi's death.
An accompanying statement, however, while vowing "major attacks", did not name
a successor to Zarqawi, only saying that the group's leadership "renews its
allegiance" to Osama bin Laden.
Three names have been circulated in the Arabic press as possible successors to
the "Prince of al-Qaeda". One of them, Iraq-based Egyptian terrorist Abu Ayyub
al-Masri, was also named by Major-General William Caldwell, the spokesman for
the US military in Baghdad, as Zarqawi's replacement.
The other two are an Iraqi named Abu Aseel and a Syrian named Abu al-Ghadia.
Other names have also been mentioned, as well as a possible council overseen by
bin Laden to unify and direct the insurgency.
Masri (reportedly the same age as Zarqawi, born in 1966) is believed to have
entered Iraq to join Zarqawi in 2002 and founded a cell for al-Qaeda in
Baghdad. Like many other commanders in al-Qaeda, Masri received his training at
military camps in Afghanistan during the Taliban rule (1996-2001) and met bin
Laden at the Farouk Camp, where Masri was working as an instructor to young
recruits. He is also reportedly close to Egyptian Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin
Laden's right-hand man.
Masri met Zarqawi in Afghanistan in 2001, after the US invasion of the country,
and went with him to Iraq in 2002. He is said to be an expert in creating
explosives and has recruited hundreds of troops into al-Qaeda from the Middle
East and North Africa.
He fled Fallujah during the battles that raged in that Iraqi city in November
2004, and since then the US government has placed a US$50,000 bounty on his
head - Zarqawi's was $25 million.
Abu Aseel and Abu al-Ghadia
The real name of Abu Aseel has not been revealed, and sources in Islamic
movements operating in Iraq confirm that he is a low-profile commander in
al-Qaeda who avoids the limelight.
The website of the Saudi Al-Arabiya channel said these sources predicted that
Abu Maysara, the spokesman for al-Qaeda in Iraq, would announce Abu Aseel as
successor to Zarqawi. The chances of this happening, the site added, were 80%.
Born in 1944 in the Sunni province of al-Anbar, Abu Aseel is 62 years old. He
graduated from the National Security Academy in Iraq in the 1960s. Usually,
these graduates are posted at police and public-security headquarters in Iraq,
but Abu Aseel was transferred to military intelligence in the Iraqi army.
He served there during the heyday of Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime, and
abandoned the army to join Islamic fundamentalist parties in the 1990s. He had
worked closely with Zarqawi since 2002.
Ghadia is much younger than Aseel. Born in 1976, Sulayman Khalid Darwish (known
as Abu al-Ghadia) is a Syrian who once lived in the suburbs of Damascus.
He currently serves as a commander of al-Qaeda's intelligence branch and a
member of the Mujahideen Shura Council, a coalition of six Sunni insurgency
groups created by Zarqawi in January.
He had been very close to Zarqawi since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Before
that, they had met in Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks on the US of
September 11, 2001.
Ghadia had accompanied Zarqawi to Jordan, where Zarqawi introduced him to a
Jordanian woman whom he married and took with him to Iraq. The US government
had frozen Ghadia's assets in the US, saying that his job was to raise money
Ghadia is said to have channeled $10,000-$12,000 every 20-25 days to Zarqawi in
Iraq, through donors and sympathizers in the Arab and Islamic world.
In Afghanistan, he had been trained by Zarqawi himself in the use of firearms
and explosives. He then received further training in document fraud at the
Palestinian Ayn al-Hilwe Camp in Lebanon. He allegedly received further
training in combat in Iraq and Turkey before setting up permanent base with
Zarqawi in Iraq.
One of his main contributions was providing fake passports and documents to
al-Qaeda members traveling around the world.
Even before his death, speculation was rife within al-Qaeda on who would
eventually replace Zarqawi.
Last month, a communique in the name of Zarqawi's group was posted on the
Internet, saying, "The commanders met after the wounding of our Sheikh Abu
Musab al-Zarqawi (may God recover him from all ill), and decided to appoint a
leader who would assume command until our sheikh returns to his full health.
They have decided to appoint our Sheikh Abu al-Hafs al-Qurani as leader of the
mujahideen ... in executing the most difficult of tasks."
This communique was challenged by Zarqawi's official spokesman, Abu Maysara,
who said, "We disclaim what has been said about the appointment of the
so-called Abu al-Hafs. We announced that Zarqawi had been wounded to show the
honesty in our media, and bring assurance to our brothers because it had been
rumored that our sheikh had been killed."
Abu Jalal al-Iraqi, another commander who had been close to Zarqawi, had
confirmed the story of his being wounded weeks before his death. According to
Iraqi, Zarqawi had been wounded when a bullet pierced his right lung and
settled in his back, forcing him to rely on an artificial respirator.
Also last month, the London-based daily Al-Hayat ran a story saying that four
Iraqis and one Syrian (Ghadia) were competing to become No 2 in al-Qaeda, in
the event that Zarqawi didn't survive his wounds.
According to the International Crisis Group, Zarqawi controlled 15% of the
Iraqi insurgency, estimated by other think-tanks to be no fewer than 60 armed
groups dispersed all over Iraq.
Diaa Rashwan, an expert on military Islamists at Al-Ahram Center for Political
and Strategic Studies in Cairo, commented on Zarqawi's death: "Zarqawi cannot
really be replaced. He was the one who founded al-Qaeda in Iraq. He was the
only known name and face in the group. If this group is going to reorganize, it
will do so under a new leader who will be known only by a nom de guerre.
His history many not even be known."
Some believe that to avoid a power struggle, a committee of jihadis will be
formed to replace Zarqawi. This would include the Syrian Ghadia, the Iraqi
Aseel, the Egyptian Masri, as well as Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Iraqi, Abu Dardaa
(commander of al-Qaeda operations in Baghdad), and Maysara, their Iraqi
This was substantiated in a statement posted on one of al-Qaeda's websites
hours after Zarqawi's death, announcing that such a committee had already been
formed, without mentioning the names of its members.
Other options are that bin Laden rises to assume leadership by proxy of
al-Qaeda in Iraq, through a local figure close to him. If handled by bin Laden,
al-Qaeda in Iraq would focus more on combating (and killing) US troops and
Iraqis working with the Americans, steering clear from Zarqawi's beheading
techniques and targeted attacks on civilians and Shi'ites.
Abdul-Bari Atwan, the publisher of the London daily Al-Quds al-Arabi, who is an
expert on political Islam and who has interviewed bin Laden, expected that a
less extremist figure, such as Abdul-Rahman al-Iraqi, would assume Zarqawi's
Iraqi would develop a new approach to al-Qaeda's warfare in Iraq. He would try
to unify the insurgency, which splintered under Zarqawi because many were
opposed to his brutal methods (especially after the senseless bombings in
Amman, which gave al-Qaeda a very bad name in the Islamic world).
Many were also greatly opposed to his war on Shi'ites, and his April 25
broadcast to Sunnis to fight the Shi'ites of Iraq. By being an Iraqi, the new
leader would make use of tribal relations, as well as roots, history and
marriage, to consolidate power among Iraqi fighters - many of whom were not
happy in the first place at being led by a Saudi (bin Laden), then by a
Also, an Iraqi heading al-Qaeda in Iraq would be less prone to target civilian
Iraqis so freely, as Zarqawi had done, thinking - at least twice - before
killing his own countrymen so savagely. Zarqawi, on the other hand, did not
blink when he ordered the extermination of Iraqis.
Atwan believed that a committee headed by bin Laden would appoint the successor
to Zarqawi, claiming that Zarqawi had hijacked al-Qaeda in Iraq, but grew so
strong and powerful that it was difficult to sideline him - even by bin Laden.
Iraqi, or any of the new names emerging, is far more disciplined than Zarqawi
and would adhere to bin Laden's orders. Bin Laden's decision, nevertheless,
would have to be enforced and approved by the Mujahideen Shura Council.
The final option for post-Zarqawi Iraq is for his entire entourage to fall
apart, with different commanders claiming the right to succession, and perhaps
even quarreling among themselves, overall weakening the entire insurgency.
The insurgency would then splinter, perhaps losing much of its earlier power,
but it would not go away. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki responded to
post-Zarqawi al-Qaeda by saying, "Whenever there is a new Zarqawi, we will kill
Not that easy, and Maliki knows this very well. It took the Americans three
years to kill Zarqawi, while bin Laden is still at large, five years after
Certainly, bin Laden will do his utmost to make sure that the insurgency does
not disintegrate. Strange, but true: bin Laden will be more "civilized" in
handling al-Qaeda in Iraq than Zarqawi. That's how bad Zarqawi had become.
All the same, there was an insurgency before Zarqawi, and there will be an
insurgency after Zarqawi, although the names and nature might change.