Al-Zarqawi’s Rise to Power: Analyzing Tactics and Targets

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 22

49% of Zarqawi’s targets are military, 36.2% political, 14.1% economic, and 0.6% ethno-religious.

This article is the first in a two-part series on Zarqawi’s rising influence in the jihadist movement.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is attaining legendary status. Glorified by militant Salafists and jihadists the world over as an invincible warrior and vilified by Western governments as the most dangerous terrorist on the planet, Zarqawi currently occupies commanding heights among jihadi networks. While the Zarqawi phenomenon is largely a product of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, his disproportionate influence on the Iraqi insurgency is detrimental to the long-term interests of the Iraqi nationalist “resistance.”

The Zarqawi network in its latest incarnation, namely the “Qaedat al-Jihad fi Bilad ar-Rafidain” (al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers) is often assumed to be the core component of the Iraqi insurgency. This erroneous assessment is largely due to the organization’s carefully calibrated operations that are marked by suicide bombings (against hard and soft targets alike) that claim many victims and indiscriminately target civilians, high-profile kidnappings and the slaughtering of members of the new Iraqi security forces and any elements that are connected to the coalition presence in Iraq.

This article attempts to understand the Zarqawi network’s size in relation to the overall Iraqi resistance by analyzing the movement’s military operations—its strategies and tactics and linking these to the organization’s literature and Zarqawi’s speeches—in order to shed new light on the motives and goals of Salafi-jihadists in Iraq.

A Safe Haven and a Full-Fledged War

Being a Salafi-jihadist movement, al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers considers its struggle in Iraq as a cosmic conflict between “good and evil.” Their strategic vision includes the creation of a safe haven for al-Qaeda’s operations in the region and beyond, which indicates that they have much more than political objectives in Iraq.

According to Zarqawi: “We do not fight for a fistful of dust or illusory boundaries drawn by ‘Sikes-Picot’. We are not fighting so that a Western evil would replace an Arab evil. Ours is a higher and more sublime fight. We are fighting so that Allah’s word becomes supreme and religion is all for Allah. Anyone who opposes this goal or stands in the way of this aim is our enemy and will be a target for our swords, regardless of their name or lineage … a Muslim American is our dear brother: an infidel Arab is our hated enemy, even if we both come from the same womb” [1]. He also says, “We have revived the jurisprudence of our good ancestors in fighting heretics and enforcing Allah’s law on them. Jihad will be continuous, and will not distinguish between Western infidels or heretic Arabs until the rule of caliphate is restored or we die in the process.”

In order to develop a better understanding of al-Zarqawi’s “enemies” and his organization’s military strategies, this article makes use of reliable information from different sources on the experience of two years of American occupation of Iraq (April 10, 2003 – April 10, 2005) [2]. There are eight types of tactics used by the Iraqi resistance: general attacks, arson attacks, bombings, shootings, suicide attacks, car bombs, assassinations and abductions [3].

Table 1 and Chart 1 (see below) provide several indications: Zarqawi and his faction constitute only 14% of the total Iraqi resistance, which clearly indicates that the network’s size is limited and the international media is largely responsible for exaggerating their role. In addition, Zarqawi’s tactics are dramatic as his faction routinely resorts to suicide attacks. Suicide bombings by the Zarqawi network, which make up 42.2% total suicide attacks in Iraq, have many advantages, the most important of which are low cost, lack of need for escape plans and media coverage. The percentage of suicide attacks perpetrated by Zarqawi’s faction to the overall number of victims of other operations is 70% dead and 83.7% injured (see table 2). The high rate of victims apparently proves the effectiveness of the terrorist act (table 2 indicates that civilian victims of this tactic are as high as 80%) and achieves a large media coverage.

Objectives of the al-Zarqawi Network

There are two main indicators that illustrate the real objectives of Salafi-jihadists in Iraq: namely identifying the targets of the attacks, and the movement’s literature, which reveals its vision for Iraq and the broader region in light of the American occupation. Each factor supports the other analytically.

49% of Zarqawi’s targets are military (see chart 2). In addition, 76.2% of the overall military targets were Iraqi and only 23.8% were American. On the other hand, political targets (including national political figures, local officials, political offices such as embassies and UN facilities) come second to military ones (36.2%), followed by economic targets (collaborators and companies)—14.1%, and finally ethno-religious targets—0.6%.

Such quantitative data reveal that the “internal agenda” is of great significance to the network. Naturally, the “original enemy,” according to Salafi-jihadists, is the United States; however, attacking internal targets (Iraqi security forces, Iraqi politicians, collaborators, etc.) is also of great importance, as indicated by the growing number of civilian victims.

Zarqawi believes that by establishing an Iraqi government and training Iraqi police, the Americans are aiming to “keep themselves from being killed” and indirectly “occupying the nation and robbing its riches” [4]. In his letter, which was leaked by the American forces and published by the London-based Hayat newspaper, Zarqawi asserts that the “enemies” are the American forces and the Alliance—the Shi’ite (whom they call the Rafida, or renegades)—and the Kurds, who are represented by Talabani and Barazani. In that letter, Zarqawi calls for targeting the Shi’ites “because they have put on the military uniforms,” a direct reference to the domination of the new Iraqi security forces by the religious Shiites. Zarqawi sees the Shiites as a graver danger than the Americans and believes that this threat can most effectively galvanize Iraq’s embattled Arab Sunni community against the new Iraq [5].

Establishing a safe haven for al-Qaeda depends on foiling the American plan that aims, according to Salafi-jihadists, to plant “puppets” in the new Iraqi government. As a result, the Zarqawi network has identified a range of targets that consist mostly of collaborators and companies (transport and contractors), which contrasts sharply with the targets of the nationalist Iraqi “resistance” that focus on oil facilities and the broader economic infrastructure that aim to show that the American project in Iraq is failing [6]. The divergence in tactics is rooted in wholly divergent strategic objectives. The nationalist Iraqi “resistance” has a realizable political aim: they want to end the occupation and participate in ruling the country. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda in Iraq sees the Iraq conflict as a temporary (albeit the most important) arena in which the greater struggle between the Salafi-jihadists and the United States unfolds.

In regards to targeting Shi’ites and Kurds, it is clear that despite the network’s literature, which is full of extreme threats against Shiites and to a lesser extent the Kurds, the declared operations against the former are almost non-existent. It is important to understand that in their public literature, al-Qaeda in Iraq justify targeting Shi’ites on the basis of this community’s open and wide-ranging cooperation with the occupation, and not on their supposedly “heretical” beliefs. This is the case with the religious Shi’ite political organizations, whose militias, in particular the highly effective al-Badr paramilitary organization (labeled as “al-Ghadr,” or “treachery” by the Salafi-jihadists) largely dominate the new Iraqi security structures. The Zarqawi network is mindful of the harmful effect of targeting Shi’ites insofar as global Muslim public opinion is concerned, and hence it tries to justify the targeting of Shi’ite security elites on political rather than religious grounds.

The Zarqawi network is also mindful of the level of support it enjoys amongst local Iraqi communities. This not only creates problems insofar as targeting Shi’ites is concerned, but also has implications for targeting the new security forces in their entirety. Zarqawi mentioned this point in his letter and talked of the difficulty of inciting people to fight the police, with whom they share kinship and have other relationships. This creates a dilemma for the faction: they either force their local Iraqi recruits to fight their relatives or “pack their bags and search for another land that would repeat the sad story in the fields of Jihad” [7].

Irrespective of these daunting challenges, Zarqawi still declared war on the Iranian-backed Badr Brigades (better known as the Badr Corps and now formally referred to as the Badr Organization) and even proposed establishing “Omar” Brigades to assassinate the leaders of the Badr paramilitary organization and the skilful and influential politicians of Hizb ad-Dawa, thus masking his war against the rising religious Shi’ite power in Iraq with overly-ambitious political goals.


While the Salafi-jihadists have inevitably become embroiled in the treacherous politics of occupied Iraq, they have not retreated even an inch from their ideological beliefs and strategic objectives. The Salafi-jihadists in Iraq, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, see the Iraq conflict as part of their jihad, first and foremost, and secondly as a springboard for a wider regional conflict that has as its central aim uprooting the current political order in the region. This clearly demonstrates how the Salafi-jihadist¬ way has a radically different agenda from that of national- or ethnic-based resistance movements in unstable regions in which they have arrived (usually uninvited), thus imposing a daunting burden on these local resistance movements. Whether the wider nationalist Iraqi “resistance” can overcome the challenge of the Salafi-jihadists and reach some form of truce with the new Iraqi state remains to be seen.


(Data compiled by author from various sources, see note 2 in endnotes)

Table 1

The Operations of Zarqawi’s Faction Compared to Overall Iraqi Resistance Operations

Chart 1

Percentage of Zarqawi’s Operations to Iraqi Resistance Operations

Table 2

Percentage of Victims of Zarqawi’s Suicide Attacks to Victims of other Tactics

Chart 2


1. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s letter, “Mawqifuna al-shar’i min hukumat ‘Karzai al-Iraq’” (Our legal standpoint on Karzai’s Iraqi government – meaning Iyad Allawi), which is undated, can be accessed at:

2. This analysis is based on a daily follow-up of the Guardian’s Iraq section:,12438,793802,00.html,,12438,1151021,00.html

al-Ghad Newspaper; Patrick B. Baetjer, Iraqi Security and Military Force Developments: A Chronology, CSIS, May 13, 2005; that offers important statistics on the majority of terrorist groups in the world; and data from Qaedat al-Jihad fi Bilad ar-Rafidain/ Jama’at at-Tawhid wal Jihad.

3. Forthcoming study by the author, the Iraqi Resistance: between Terrorism & National Liberation movement: a Quantitative Study, Gulf Research Center-Dubai.

4. See Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s letter, “Mawqifuna ash-shar’i min hokumat Karzai al-Iraq” (Our religious standpoint from the government of Iraq’s Karzai) – meaning Iyad Allawi.

5. Zarqawi’s letter on the sectarian war in Iraq, the London-based al-Hayat newspaper, Feb. 12, 2004, p. 14. Also notice how Zarqawi talks about the triangular diabolic alliance between Americans, Kurds (Barazani and Talabani) and Shiites (the Ghadr “treachery” Brigades Hizb ad-Dawa lil Shaytan “Party of the Call for the Devil”) along with Allawi, in his posted letter “Ain Ahl Al-Moru’at” (Where are the People of Valor).

6. See Insurgents Wage Precise Attacks on Baghdad Fuel, the New York Times, 21, February, 2005..

7. Zarqawi’s letter – op. cit.