Meet the new leader of al-Qaeda in
Iraq By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - Al-Qaeda caught terrorism
experts and intelligence agencies around the world
by surprise on Tuesday by naming Abu Hamza
al-Muhajir to succeed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the
al-Qaeda leader killed in Iraq last week.
In a communique released on the Internet,
al-Qaeda said Muhajir had been unanimously
selected by the Shura Council of the Mujahideen, a
coalition of six Sunni insurgency groups created
by Zarqawi in January.
speculated that the communique was a bluff, so
obscure was the name.
However, Asia Times
Online can confirm, via sources in Syria and Iraq,
that Muhajir certainly does exist. He is an
intelligence commander in
al-Qaeda, not a hands-on military leader like
Zarqawi. As the new commander of al-Qaeda in Iraq,
he will be more of a "political prince".
Military strategy will be formulated by
other veterans, such as Abu Aseel, 62, a former
general in Saddam Hussein's army (who had been
tipped to replace Zarqawi). Political strategy and
day-to-day politics will now be handled by Muhajir
- and possibly even by Osama bin Laden.
This information is supported by Muntaser
al-Zayyat, a lawyer who works with Islamic groups
in Egypt and who is an expert on al-Qaeda. Zayyat
confirmed that Muhajir was among the circle of
people who knew Zarqawi well and who had worked
with him closely since 2001.
believed to have been born in 1965 or 1966 -
making him about the same age as Zarqawi.
He was based in al-Qaim, a small town on
the Syrian border 400 kilometers northwest of
Baghdad, where he welcomed new troops and gave
them orientation courses on al-Qaeda operations
Recently, however, Muhajir
moved to Kirkuk. If he is currently based in
Kirkuk, it might explain the series of bombs that
went off on Tuesday, killing 24 Iraqis and
wounding another 40.
nationality, however, has not yet been identified.
Some speculate that he is from Libya, while others
claim he is from Yemen. One Islamic source whose
name was not given was quoted in the London
Al-Hayat newspaper as saying that Muhajir was an
Iraqi "who had contributed to jihad in
But this is strongly debated
by those familiar with the internal dynamics of
Zarqawi's al-Qaeda. Being a Jordanian himself,
Zarqawi never fully trusted the Iraqis he was
leading, fearing that they would abandon him in
favor of a local Iraqi commander.
surrounded himself by, and delegated authority to,
only non-Iraqis and his closed circle, which
comprised Yemenis, Syrians, Libyans and Saudis. If
Muhajir was close to Zarqawi, he would have to
have been non-Iraqi.
If he was hand-picked
by bin Laden, however, he could be an Iraqi, since
the al-Qaeda founder wants to mend the rifts
within the Iraqi insurgency created under Zarqawi,
who was bent on fomenting sectarian warfare
between Sunnis and Shi'ites.
welcome someone like Muhajir, especially the Sunni
tribes, which played an important role in
expelling Zarqawi from his former hiding place in
Anbar, forcing him to seek refugee in the remote
village where he was tracked down and killed by
the Americans. By appointing an Iraqi as head of
al-Qaeda in Iraq, bin Laden would thus be trying
to win over the tribes.
The lawyer Zayyat
and other al-Qaeda experts say that Muhajir worked
with bin Laden and lived with him in Sudan until
1995. After that, he moved to Peshawar in Pakistan
and then to Afghanistan, before settling in Iraq
with Zarqawi in 2001.
Others put the date
after the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. Since
2003, Muhajir has been in charge of recruiting
young Arabs into al-Qaeda and served as chief of
al-Qaeda intelligence in the Middle East and North
He travels to various Arab
countries, under false passports, and meets with
potential young Muslims who would be willing to
join al-Qaeda in Iraq. His recruitment has reached
as far as Algiers.
Since the invasion of
Iraq, however, he has not been involved in Iraqi
domestic issues nor in the Iraqi insurgency,
concentrating on recruitment and ideological
training for young Arabs. He lectures them on
jihad and anti-Americanism.
behind the choice The reason for the
last-minute sidestepping of Abu Aseel is that
since he is a former officer in the Iraqi army,
Iraqis have a lot of information about him. They
have his picture, his former contacts and dozens
of files on him, collected over the decades. He
would be a sitting duck.
is completely unknown to the Iraqis (and just
about everyone else). Zarqawi had become a virtual
movie star. He liked to put on a show, either
directly or through a proxy, and was well known to
everybody - the Americans, the Iraqis, the Syrians
and the Jordanians.
As Zarqawi had been a
criminal in Jordan, Jordanian intelligence had
records, pictures and detailed information about
his contacts, habits and character. The Saudi
channel Al-Arabiya quoted a well-informed source
on al-Qaeda as saying, "Muhajir has no picture or
identity. He is like a ghost."
appointment of an unknown such as Muhajir would
also give bin Laden the opportunity to assert
control of the Iraqi insurgency, which was
forcefully captured from him by Zarqawi from 2003.
Bin Laden opposed Zarqawi's war against
Iraqi citizens and the Shi'ites, claiming that
this gave al-Qaeda a bad name among Muslims,
preferring instead to target the Americans and
those cooperating with them in the Iraqi police
force and army.
Bin Laden might thus have
hand-picked Muhajir as a puppet commander to
ensure that he never became as strong as Zarqawi
and never challenged bin Laden for command of
Since Zarqawi's death, al-Qaeda
in Iraq has vowed to carry out large-scale attacks
that will "shake the enemy", claiming
responsibility for more than 50 attacks in the 24
hours after news of Zarqawi's killing became
A new face. Same struggle.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian
political analyst. He is the author of Steel
& Silk: Men and Women Who Shaped Syria
1900-2000 (Cune Press 2005).