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    Middle East
     Jun 14, 2006
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.

Some immediately 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 "intellectual"

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.

He is 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 and objectives.

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.

Muhajir's 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 Afghanistan".

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.

He 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.

Sunnis would 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 Africa.

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.

Method 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.

Muhajir, however, 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."

The 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 al-Qaeda.

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 known.

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).

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing .)

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