On October 15 the Muslim month of Ramadan kicked off with a crop of attacks, justifying Iraqi fears that the traditional holy month of fasting and prayer has been transformed into a harbinger of violence. On that day a powerful car bomb exploded in Baghdad near an Iraqi police station, wounding 10 police and civilians. As if to underscore the religious struggle this was followed a day later by a string of attacks on the minority Christian community with blasts at churches around Baghdad. Both of these were soon eclipsed by a sustained mortar attack on an Iraqi National Guard headquarters north of Baghdad, leaving a total of over 100 killed or injured. The tone for Ramadan was duly set.
Readers of the last issue of Terrorism Focus will recall how the online al-Qaeda periodical, The Al-Battar Training Camp (Mu’askar al-Battar Issue 20), took pains to dismiss any reservations about fighting during Ramadan, citing the precedent set by their mujahid ancestors and contemporary mujahideen fighting in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia and Saudi Arabia. This was later followed by a more impassioned plea in its sister journal, Sawt al-Jihad (the Voice of Jihad), where the Foreword by Sa’ud bin Hamud Al-‘Utaybi set the tone: “Make of this month like the month of [the battle of] Badr and the conquest of Makka, [the battle of] Shaqhab and other victories of Islam. We ask of God that he make of this Ramadan a month of glory, victory and consolidation… to lay low polytheism and the polytheists…raise the ensign of monotheism and plant the banner of jihad.” (Sawt al-Jihad, issue 27, p.4). The same theme was taken up further by Sheikh ‘Amir Bin Abdallah Al-‘Amir, who reminded his readers that “this is your season…How sweet it is to rejoice in the breaking of the fast and to taste the slaying of infidels…The most glorious and finest [military] campaigns happened in Ramadan… the day of Salvation in which the heads of the leading infidels of [the tribe of] Quraysh were made to fly” (Sawt al-Jihad, issue 27, p.38).
The high profile enjoyed by the Islamist-identity insurgents was further enhanced by the claims made by Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi’s Tawhid wal-Jihad group, now operating under the name Tanzeem Qaedat Al-Jihad Fi Bilad Al-Rafidayn (al-Qaeda’s Organization for Jihad in the Land of the Two Rivers [Tigris and Euphrates]), whose “military wing” posted a statement on October 24 claiming responsibility for the killing of 48 “apostates … corrupt heads, members of the pagan Iraqi guard”. This was in reference to the execution of a group of trainee Iraqi guards on a remote road in eastern Iraq following a basic training session. The operation is of particular significance since it marks a new departure in sophistication and boldness of the insurgents, and is most probably the result of inside penetration of the fledgling Iraqi forces.
The statement using the new identification of Tanzeem Qaedat Al-Jihad Fi Bilad Al-Rafidayn came a week after a posting which announced “the good tidings: the Tawhid wal-Jihad movement has joined under the flag of al-Qaeda” and declared “the bay’a [‘pledge of allegiance’] of Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi to Shaykh Usama bin Laden”. The announcement alluded to “an exchange of viewpoints” that had occurred over a period of 8 months, during which “a catastrophic dispute occurred”, following which “our noble brothers showed understanding for the strategy of the Tawhid wal-Jihad movement” and their support “for our style and system”.
This development threw into the spotlight once again the relationship between al-Zarqawi and al-Qaeda. Early this year U.S. officials claimed to have found documents from al-Zarqawi which appeared to ask help from al-Qaeda in a strategy to provoke sectarian war between the Shi’a and Sunni communities in Iraq. Uncertainty remained as to how al-Qaeda would respond to this, or to al-Zarqawi’s pledge of allegiance. By October 25, however, the ambiguity appeared to have been resolved when issue 21 of The Al-Battar Training Camp appeared on the Internet. Included in its text was a confirmation and approval by al-Qaeda of al-Zarqawi’s pledge of allegiance to Bin Laden. The question now is how far the unification of forces represents a consolidation, or a mark of weakness, given al-Zarqawi’s past record of dismissing al-Qaeda’s influence over his movement.
Western analysts might well concur with supporters of the anti-US insurgency in Iraq in lending a clear objective to the attacks carried out in recent weeks — the greater the violence, the greater the chances that President Bush and his policy will be overturned. However, as to the strategic aims of the overtly Islamist element of the insurgency, these remain as opaque as ever. The shrill religious overtones in the language continue to chime awkwardly with nationalist Iraqi aims, and are oblivious to the election of President George W. Bush or Sen. John Kerry, and the influence this would have on the prolongation of the presence of the coalition forces. That the struggle itself is most likely of more interest than anything it could achieve in Iraq is well illustrated by the call for stepping up the fight during Ramadan, made in the latest issue of The Voice of Jihad, where the true rationale given by al-Qaeda and the supporters of the jihad is to “come closer to Allah through the blood of the infidels.”