There are a number of features that make al-Zarqawi’s video noteworthy. First of all, al-Zarqawi himself appears unmasked in it, the first time the militant jihadist leader has appeared in this manner. Secondly, the high-quality video was presented as a production of the “Mujahideen Shura Council in Iraq.” The formation of the Mujahideen Shura Council in January, and the appointment of the Iraqi Abdullah Rashid al-Baghdadi as spokesman, fed rumors that al-Zarqawi had been in some way reined in, confined to military rather than political or media functions. The appearance of the logo of the Mujahideen Shura Council alongside the black flag of al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq indicates that one of the purposes of the video’s production was to respond to these concerns. Al-Zarqawi reinforces his profile at the conclusion of the video when he states how he is “honored to be a member of this blessed Council under its blessed leadership, along with my being the Commander of the Organization of al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers.” Further clarification as to his status comes from the inclusion of the bin Laden excerpt, which spells out that, despite rumors of disaffection between al-Zarqawi and the al-Qaeda leadership under bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, there is a seamless continuity between these, the Shura Council and al-Qaeda in Iraq.
There were further demonstrations of the re-packaging of al-Zarqawi as a mujahid leader in the bin Laden mold. The footage of al-Zarqawi reviewing troops and wielding an automatic firearm deliberately recalls images of bin Laden in Afghanistan. More significant was the change in his rhetoric. While disparaging references were frequently made to the Shiites, this was couched in political more than religious terms, as “traitors” rather than “heretics”—a marked departure from al-Zarqawi’s customary language. The reference to a “Crusader enemy” also pointed to bin Laden’s more global focus for the jihad, as a struggle of which Iraq only forms a part. Al-Zarqawi also made reference to bin Laden’s proposed (and rejected) international truce with the West and underlined that while the fighters are in Iraq, “our eyes are on Bayt al-Maqdis [Jerusalem] which will never be restored except with a guiding Quran and a conquering sword.” Al-Zarqawi also made more politically-specific references to the various groups and parties in Iraq rather than confining himself to his customary monochromatic language of “Muslims and Infidels.” All of which suggest that the criticisms made, not least by the al-Qaeda figureheads themselves, that al-Zarqawi was diverting attention away from the broader political goals of jihad to more visceral matters, have been addressed.
The timing of the release of the video is also significant in that it coincided with Prime Minister-designate Jawad al-Maliki’s announcement of the formation of a government of national unity in Iraq. While the political threat to al-Zarqawi from a functioning, representative government is clear enough, Jawad al-Maliki’s stated intention to integrate the country’s militias into the national armed forces will cause deepest concern since it has the potential to dilute the militant insurgency environment and leave groups such as al-Zarqawi’s dangerously isolated. Al-Zarqawi responded to these threats by warning of those “who use the Islamic slogans as a veil to promulgate covertly their scandalous black deeds, publicizing from their masters the importance of forming military and police units, confusing the Muslims with their ambiguous words, injecting poison into honey.” The grouping of seven militant organizations under the Mujahideen Shura Council (most of whom are little-known groups with limited influence) is evidence of this isolation, and al-Zarqawi’s self-proclamation of membership of the Council aims to grant the militant leader the legitimizing flavor of a wider movement.
Beyond that, the specter of political participation threatens to undermine al-Qaeda’s premise that Muslims can seek betterment and political power only through first expelling the “far enemy” of the United States from the region as a preliminary to establishing a rump Islamic state from which to radiate jihad. To counter this, al-Zarqawi in his video presentation presents the political process in Iraq as an American ruse “to rescue you [the U.S.] from your acute and embarrassing crisis” and denounces Sunni politicians who expressed support for what can only be “a collaborationist government subject to the Crusaders…which if it comes to pass will be a poisoned dagger in the heart of the Islamic Nation.”
With the absence, to date, of an Islamic state in Iraq, and with the civil war yet to materialize, al-Zarqawi appears to be maintaining his media profile. While offering little new in substance, the video is novel in the public relations emphasis on al-Zarqawi as the mujahid leader, now presented in a less radical and more strategic guise. The modeling of al-Zarqawi on bin Laden’s image and imitation of his global jihad vocabulary serve this purpose, while at the same time the footage of the head of the Organization of al-Qaeda in Iraq, in the role of the active leader, trainer and strategist, underscores his position as heir to bin Laden as the mujahid model of an earlier era.