Last week, several jihadi forums released an audio message from Osama bin Laden chastising the Iraqi mujahideen for their failure to unite to defeat their common adversary. Bin Laden’s message elicited mixed reactions from the splintered factions of the Iraqi insurgency, with some echoing bin Laden’s advice and others criticizing the distributors of the message, including Arab satellite stations like al-Jazeera, for airing their dirty laundry (al Quds al Arabi, October 26).
Bin Laden lectures, “My brothers, the Mujahideen in Iraq, just as you are deserving of praise and commendation, your open hearts and good humbleness makes you deserving of admonition and advice. You have done well by carrying out one of the greatest duties, which few carry out: repelling the attacking enemy. But some of you have been tardy in performing another duty, which also among the greatest of duties: combining your ranks to make them one rank, as loved by Allah…”
Bin Laden also warns the Iraqi mujahideen that disunity is a source of ammunition for their enemies. “As for those in whose hearts there is a disease, they look for the faults and lapses of the mujahideen and exaggerate them, and perhaps allege that they are a consequence of the devotion of Jihad, which they label as violence and terror.”
Some groups, like the Islamic Army of Iraq (IAI), immediately heeded bin Laden’s message. IAI issued a statement after the missive, stating that they will join the Islamic State of Iraq, claiming that the only reason they had not done so previously was because of a leadership dispute that has now been resolved (al Farj Media Center, October 25).
Other groups like the Association of Muslim Scholars welcomed bin Laden’s statement, but interpreted the message differently. They were grateful that bin Laden came out strongly against the Islamic State of Iraq, characterizing his statement as a “precise diagnosis” (al Jazeera, October 22). However, bin Laden never explicitly condemned the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq. Instead he criticized Iraqi Sunni groups for participating in elections and joining the police forces, and generally warned Iraqi insurgents’ groups to cease their infighting. It seems rather than urging for unity among the Iraqi factions, the various players are manipulating the message to suit their political goals.
Although bin Laden’s message was an attempt to shore up unity amongst the disordered mujahideen, his explicit chastising of jihadist groups also highlights al-Qaeda’s biggest strategic blunder in Iraq—the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq and its fumbling effort to compel other Iraqi groups to come under its banner. This move, rather than bolstering the Iraqi insurgency, fueled resentment towards al-Qaeda by indigenous Iraqi insurgent groups and accelerated anti-al-Qaeda sentiment. The tribes who formerly supported al-Qaeda formed the Anbar Awakening and expelled al-Qaeda from its former stronghold in al-Anbar province.
Bin Laden’s message may in fact bolster the spirit to unite temporarily, but will not likely translate into a serious transformation of the Iraqi insurgency. As the various responses to bin Laden’s message suggest, the insurgency’s factionalism is rooted in deep divides over tactics and end goals. Unfortunately for al-Qaeda, the mistakes bin Laden alludes to in his statement cannot be solved by a directive from the man himself. The establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq will reverberate against al-Qaeda as long as the insurgency is active. In fact, many Iraqi insurgent groups are heeding the opposite advice of bin Laden and joining the political process.
The Iraqi insurgency is now faced with a significant trend towards political participation. A move that was spearheaded by the Awakening Councils has now expanded into the formation of the Political Council of the Iraqi Resistance. Though much less inclined towards cooperating with Coalition forces than the Awakening Councils, and not renouncing violence outright, the formation of this group by important factions within the Iraqi insurgency represents a clear break from al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq by key elements in the insurgency (al Jazeera, October 13). Bin Laden’s admonishing has done little to affect this trend of political participation. Neither has it forged true unification among the insurgents.