A Profile of al-Qaeda’s New Leader in Iraq: Abu Ayyub al-Masri

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 24

It did not take al-Qaeda in Iraq long to name the successor to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, contrary to speculation that the killing of al-Zarqawi would disrupt al-Qaeda’s operations. In a defiant spirit, al-Qaeda announced the name of the man it appointed to the helm of its operations in Iraq less than a week after the death of al-Zarqawi: Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, who the U.S. government says is Sheikh Abu Ayyub al-Masri (al-Jazeera, June 15).

Al-Masri, an Egyptian in his 40s, has been one of al-Zawahiri’s disciples since 1982 and lived in Sudan until 1995. From there, he moved to Pakistan and stayed with the Osama bin Zaid Mosque group in Peshawar; the mosque, apparently, is frequented by extremists. In 1999, al-Masri went to Afghanistan and trained at the al-Farouq camp where he met al-Zarqawi. Al-Masri became an expert in making roadside bombs and explosives. In 2001, al-Masri traveled to Iraq and worked with Ansar al-Islam in the north. Later, he joined al-Qaeda and became very close to al-Zarqawi, directing suicide bombers from Fallujah (al-Arabiya, June 12).

Although al-Masri is unknown to many observers, what little is known suggests that in the last three years he was in charge of the intelligence operations for al-Qaeda in Iraq and was mainly responsible for soliciting new recruits and insurgent groups to al-Qaeda’s corral. To fulfill this task, he traveled, using fake names, to countries all over the Middle East and North Africa. Also, being well educated in Sharia law, al-Masri was tasked with receiving and teaching the Salafi-Jihadist ideology to new recruits. At one stage, he was based in al-Qaim, 380 kilometers northwest of Baghdad (al-Arabiya, June 12).

In his first communiqué on June 13, al-Masri vowed to revenge the killing of al-Zarqawi and threatened to punish the United States and its allies, saying the fortresses in the green area would not protect them. Furthermore, al-Masri pledged to wage formidable battles in the coming days against the U.S. “crusaders” and the Iraqi “apostates” and proselytes collaborating with them. He also sent a strong warning to Shiites, calling them the blasphemous grandchildren of Ibn al-Alqami—the Shiite minister in the last Islamic regime that ruled Iraq who betrayed the Caliph—promising to carry through what al-Zarqawi started. The historic reference to Shiites indicates deep-seated animosity toward them and the continuity of al-Qaeda’s endeavors to fuel sectarian violence and, consequently, to induce civil war in Iraq. In the same statement, al-Masri pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden, testifying that al-Qaeda soldiers in Iraq were awaiting bin Laden’s orders (al-Arabiya, June 13).

Although not much information is known about al-Masri, he sounds just as violent, if not more violent, than his predecessor. The one letter he released on the internet in 2004, titled The Samiri of our Age, reaffirms his adherence to the Salafi-Jihadist extremist ideology. In this 2004 letter, al-Masri exhibits a strong grasp of the Quran and Quranic teachings. He cites a verse from the Quran that tells the story of the Jew (Samiri) who went against the will and teachings of the Prophet Moses and carved a calf from gold to worship instead of God. God bestowed on the renegade Jew wisdom and grace, but Samiri showed ingratitude and antagonism toward God and the Prophet Moses. Accordingly, al-Masri talked about today’s Islamic scholars and clergymen who have learned the true word of God that was revealed to Prophet Muhammad, yet flatter political leaders for a few dinars and dirhams. In al-Masri’s opinion, today’s leaders are materialists and not true adherents of Islam. He compares these “bad Muslims” with Samiri, in the verse he cites, and calls them the Samiris of our age.

Additionally, in his letter he accuses moderate Muslims, or the non-Salafis, of being more like Samiri and far more astray than Jews. His accusations against moderate Muslims demonstrate his likely fanaticism and potential for violence. He cites additional verses to consolidate his points, calling upon Muslims to declare an Islamic state according to the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings; only then, according to al-Masri, will Muslims be victorious (the entire document can be found at: https://www.alokab.com/quran/details.php?id=P455_0_2_0_C).

The connotation of al-Masri’s letter is superficial in Islamic ideology and does not necessarily illustrate deep understanding of Islamic doctrine. Regardless of al-Masri’s background as an ideologue tasked with non-violent activities during al-Zarqawi’s tenure, his communiqué and letter reveal a very extreme, fanatical mindset. Significantly, being an Egyptian and one of al-Zawahiri’s disciples—or the so-called Egyptian Mafia composed of Egyptian nationals aligned with al-Zawahiri—al-Masri could be prone to target Iraqis, Shiite and Sunni government forces, as opposed to bin Laden’s Saudi mafia—Saudi nationals—whose priority is U.S. and Western targets.