Al-Qaeda in Iraq: Still Striving to Undo al-Zarqawi’s Damage to Mujahideen Unity

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 17

Although dead for almost two years, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s negative impact in Iraq continues to be a serious problem for al-Qaeda. Indeed, of all the threats and dangers encountered by al-Qaeda since 9/11, al-Zarqawi was the only strategic threat to the organization’s continuing viability. Al-Zarqawi’s efforts to create a Sunni-Shiite civil war in Iraq—which would have been blamed on al-Qaeda—threatened al-Qaeda’s ability to keep Sunni Islamists focused on the United States—the “far enemy”—and to an extent would have rehabilitated the reputation of the Arab tyrannies that al-Qaeda and its allies oppose because those states would have quickly moved to provide cash and military materiel to Sunnis fighting Shiites in Iraq. For al-Qaeda, al-Zarqawi today is an annoying memory—though one celebrated for his knightly heroics—but the impact of his actions still bedevil al-Qaeda’s goal of helping to establish a Sunni organization that can govern after the withdrawal of the U.S.-led coalition.

In recent weeks, Ayman al-Zawahiri and al-Qaeda’s chief in Iraq, Abu Hamza al-Mujahir, have thrice taken up the issue of splits among Iraq’s Sunni fighters and pressed for a setting aside of differences and a move toward unification under the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). Speaking on April 18 to mark the five-year anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, al-Zawahiri repeated his and bin Laden’s earlier assurances to the Iraqi mujahideen that U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq have been beaten and that their future is one of “failure and defeat” [1]. He ridiculed General Petraeus’s call for a “pause” in the reduction of U.S. troops as a “ridiculous farce to cover up the failure in Iraq and to help [President] Bush dodge the decision to withdraw forces, which is considered a declaration of the [defeat of the] Crusaders’ invasion of Iraq … by transferring the problem to the new president.” Al-Zawahiri also argued that the tide had turned against the Sunni Awakening Councils, that they are now being pursued by the mujahideen, and that Petraeus’s pause was required because the Councils needed protection by U.S. forces.

Less pointedly, but just as telling, al-Zawahiri explained that although the military crisis was over, much work still needed to be done to prepare the Sunni mujahideen to govern Iraq and to face down Iranian aggression. “The people of Islam and jihad in Iraq have only to be persistent and remain firm” in order to exploit their military success. While “the Americans are being routed” and “they are fighting in Washington over the date of the withdrawal,” al-Zawahiri warned that achieving unity must be the mujahideen’s order of the day and that all fighting groups must rally around the Islamic State of Iraq. By uniting under the ISI’s leadership, al-Zawahiri said, Sunni fighters will be able to prevent the Iraqi Shiites and their Iranian sponsors from achieving Tehran’s goal of “annexing southern Iraq and the eastern parts of al-Jazirah [a region of northwest Iraq between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers] and expanding to establish contacts with its followers in Lebanon.” Just as Iran and the West criticized al-Zarqawi as a foreign surrogate trying to usurp the leadership of the Iraqi insurgency, al-Zawahairi damned Muqtada al-Sadr as a “naïve boy” who cannot decide whether to fight or demonstrate and who is being used by “Iranian Intelligence … as a puppet.”

On the day after al-Zawahiri spoke, al-Qaeda’s chief in Iraq, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, issued a long statement aimed at promoting the unification of the Sunni mujahideen under the banner of the ISI [2]. Echoing al-Zawahiri, al-Muhajir claimed on April 19 that he was speaking to “let all Muslims know that complete victory [over the U.S.-led coalition] is imminent,” and that “the future will be for this religion [Sunni Islam] … with our omnipotent God’s help.” Al-Muhajir stressed that the mujahideen “are not fight[ing] the Crusader occupiers or Arab apostates or for the sake of land, but to exalt God’s word on earth.” Al-Muhajir warned the Sunni mujahideen that “sincere adherence to God is the most important factor of victory and consolidation” and that only genuine unity can provide “pride, victory, and consolidation.” But despite this truth, the Sunni Iraqi mujahideen remain disunited: Some have turned away from jihad, and some have proven by their actions that “there can be no pride or victory with disunity at all, even if our commander is the best creation of God and the most courageous of men.”

To correct these problems and preserve Sunni power in Iraq, al-Muhajir then argued that the Prophet Muhammad’s uniting example should be followed and all Sunni fighters should be welcomed under the flag of the ISI, including those who have fled the battle or deserted the jihad:

“The important point here is that despite the sin of fleeing and the enormity of the fleer’s crime [al-Muhajir appears to be referring here to Sunnis who joined the Awakening Councils or stopped fighting them]—a dangerous crime for it is feared that the person who commits it will not be able to atone for it—yet the Prophet did not rebuke those who fled or used [their flight] as justification for vituperation. On the contrary, he invoked their pride in their clans after reminding them of their precedence in jihad and embracing monotheism. It is useful at times of hardship for a commander after turning to God to turn to those who had precedence in jihad, and to follow that by turning to the good sons of the clans, and he should never discredit any of them. He should also communicate with all those who had abandoned jihad and remind them of the fact that they were the first to engage in jihad in the cause of God, and return them to the ranks of their brothers. If we leave them, then we leave them to the devil and his party, which is a loss to jihad and its soldiers. No sane person would advocate that.”

Al-Zawahiri completed al-Qaeda’s trio of efforts to promote unity among Iraqi Sunnis in the second installment of answers to the questions he solicited on the Internet [3]. In his first few responses al-Zawahiri focused on Iraq, and especially on the criticism of one questioner that Iraq’s minority Sunnis cannot prevail and that the formation of the ISI caused acrimony among the Sunni mujahideen. “I differ with what he said,” al-Zawahiri replied, because “the Sunni community is not a minority in Iraq but they are a majority because the Kurds as well as the Turkomens are also Sunnis.” Regarding the ISI, al-Zawahiri argued that it was created to be a force for unity, not factionalism:

“The brothers in the mujahideen shura council [of the ISI] have exerted their utmost to absorb all the jihad resources in Iraq and they delayed the declaration of the state for several months in order to contact all the mujahid leaderships in Iraq. The declaration of the state was not a cause of dispute but was and will continue to be, God willing, the reason for preventing the mujahideen from falling into the sedition of infighting, which happened in Afghanistan.

If there is a group, a faction, or a body of people that agree with the Islamic State of Iraq in its pure line, which is distant from nationalist fanaticism and secularism, and which endeavors to establish the Islamic Caliphate and liberate all the Muslim lands from the Crusaders and Jews, then I call on them and the Islamic State of Iraq to hold talks and reach understanding on merging into one entity, and I think they will succeed, God willing, if their intentions are good.”

It is doubtful that these three messages will unite the Sunni Iraqi mujahideen, but their production and careful orchestration by al-Qaeda shows that the group continues to labor to clean up al-Zarqawi’s mess. The timing and content of the two messages by al-Zawahiri and the one by al-Muhajir are unlikely to have been a coincidence. Al-Zawahiri’s first statement discussed Iraq in a global context, while al-Muhajir’s gave scant notice to that context and instead almost exclusively focused on problems and opportunities in Iraq. Al-Zawahiri’s interview answers then affirmed the positions taken by al-Muhajir, thus giving them al-Qaeda’s official imprimatur. For fullest impact, the three messages needed to appear seriatim—starting with al-Zawahiri’s first, stage-setting message—and the fact that they did so suggests close and effective cooperation between the media arms of al-Qaeda and the ISI. Indeed, it might not be too much of a jump to suggest that the two media arms are really one and the same. The messages also show how strongly jihadist history dominates the thinking and actions of al-Zawahiri and bin Laden: Both are pulling out all the stops to try to prevent the Iraqi mujahideen from militarily winning the war but then losing its political aftermath because of disunity, as did the Afghan insurgents after they forced the Red Army’s withdrawal. While al-Zawahiri and al-Muhajir must be encouraged by the Iraqi insurgents’ recent, bloody successes against several leaders of the Awakening Councils, as well as by the spread of al-Qaeda’s influence from Iraq into the Levant and North Africa, both men surely recognize that the post-U.S.-withdrawal Sunni unity they deem absolutely mandatory for the creation of a stable Islamic state is still far beyond the horizon.


1. Ayman al-Zawahiri, “Five years after the Invasion of Iraq and Decades of Injustice by Tyrants,” Al-Sahab Media Production Organization, April 18.

2. Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, “The Paths of Victory,” Al-Fuqran Establishment for Media Production, April 19.

3. Ayman al-Zawahiri, “Open Interview, 2,” Al-Sahab Media Production Organization, April 22.