Zarqawi: The Resurgence of an Al Qaeda Leader
Posted: May 8, 2006
Al Qaeda in Iraq leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, has begun to reassert his influence over the Iraqi insurgency and emphasize his role as one of the most powerful terrorist leaders in the world.
In a video posted on the Internet in late April 2006, Zarqawi - whose influence over radical jihadists reached its peak after the fall of Saddam Hussein – presents himself as a strong and capable military and political leader and as an active participant in the insurgency.
Zarqawi's message urging his followers to continue fighting the U.S. comes at a time when some observers had suggested that he was seeking to lower his profile in Iraq following criticism of his tactics by other members of the insurgency. The release of the video, however, marks the first time that he has appeared in a video, suggesting that he trying to reassert his primacy in the Iraqi insurgency.
The 34-minute video, which was circulated on Web sites often used by Islamic militants, shows Zarqawi sharply criticizing the U.S. presence in Iraq and predicts an end to U.S. presence in country at the hands of his fighters. In the video, he is shown wearing black militant garb, firing a machine gun into the desert and showing off his physique.
Tensions between Zarqawi and other insurgent groups had intensified after he claimed responsibility for the November 2005 Amman bombings, which were widely denounced in the Muslim world. Additionally, Zarqawi's efforts to foment sectarian violence in Iraq were rejected by other insurgents, and in late 2005, escalating tensions between the two camps led to series of reprisal attacks, and the deaths of members of both sides.
Shortly thereafter, Al Qaeda in Iraq announced that it was joining the newly-formed Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC), an umbrella organization comprising eight different insurgent and jihadist terrorist groups operating in Iraq. In a statement released a few days after its creation, the MSC announced that Zarqawi would step down as its leader in favor of a previously unknown Iraqi. It was at that time that Zarqawi himself also stopped issuing propaganda in the form of audio statements circulated on militant Web sites.
Since joining the MSC, Al Qaeda in Iraq has also ceased to issue its own statements taking credit for attacks on Iraqi and coalition forces. Indeed, in the new video Zarqawi mentions the MSC as the cornerstone of a future Islamic state in Iraq and the group's symbol appears in the video as well.
Following the creation of the MSC and Zarqawi's apparent abdication of leadership, many terrorism experts contended that it was possible that not only was Zarqawi seeking to lower his profile, but he may have been marginalized by other insurgent and terrorist leaders. This speculation was fueled by statements made by Hudayf Azzam, the son of Osama bin Laden's spiritual mentor, Abdullah Azzam.
In an interview with a German publication, Azzam, who claims to have close ties to the Iraqi insurgency, said that Al Qaeda leadership had demoted Zarqawi, stripping him of his political duties and relegated him to a purely military role within the organization. At the time, Azzam said that Al Qaeda was responding to Zarqawi's repeated political mistakes, such as killing too many innocent Muslims and employing overly brutal measures.
This new video, however, seemingly dispels Azzam's claims and the belief that Zarqawi had either been marginalized or was seeking to lower his profile. At the very least, it signals a significant change in tactics on Zarqawi's part, as he clearly is attempting to assert his position as a leader of Al Qaeda and the overall insurgency in Iraq.
Additionally, there have been reports emanating from the Iraqi government that Zarqawi may be having trouble recruiting suicide bombers. If so, this video could serve as a useful recruiting tool, as potential recruits would likely be drawn to the image of a strong insurgent leader commanding his men. This would be particularly useful as new reports from the U.S. intelligence community that Zarqawi is attempting to raise a mini-army that would employ more conventional military tactics.
Other observers have suggested that the video may be a sign that Zarqawi's influence is weakening. The unedited version of the video, captured and released by the U.S. military, undercuts the image of the terror leader by showing Zarqawi wearing American tennis shoes and unable to operate his automatic rifle.
Zarqawi's appearance in the video also clears up many unknowns surrounding the mysterious terrorist leader. Since his rise to prominence in 2003, various rumors have circulated throughout the intelligence and media communities that, among other things, Zarqawi had been badly injured or killed in fighting with the insurgency. It also serves to clarify the relationship between Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden, whom Zarqawi describes as his leader. The video also coincided with the release of new audios statements by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri
Though his exact reasons for releasing the video remain unclear, it demonstrates a major shift in propaganda tactics by the Al Qaeda in Iraq leader. As his leadership role was being questioned, Zarqawi may have felt the need to proactively demonstrate that he is indeed in command of his troops and remains a potent political leader.
One way he does this is by expanding his political message and geographical reach. In addition to the anti-American statements, a fierce anti-Jewish theme recurs throughout the video, as Zarqawi incorporates many references to Zionists into his rant, using the word to describe both Jews specifically and as an insult when describing both the Shiites and Kurds. Zarqawi also claims that the "crusader" U.S. went to war in Iraq at the behest of Israel, which he says seeks a state running from the Nile River to the Euphrates River. He goes on to link the fight in Iraq to his eventual goal of capturing Jerusalem and destroying Israel, saying that the two are inexorably linked.
Zarqawi has previously claimed responsibility for a rocket attack in northern Israel in December 2005 in an audio statement and for firing rockets against Israeli and U.S. targets from the Jordanian Red Sea port of Aqaba in August 2005.
By appearing in the video, Zarqawi has reasserted his influence over the Iraqi insurgency and once again established his role as one of the most powerful terrorist leaders in the world.