Looking to the Levant: Internationalizing the Iraqi Insurgency

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 5

A number of Iraqi insurgents are increasingly turning their guns outward—rhetorically at least—toward the Levant (Jordan, Gaza, the West Bank, Israel and Lebanon) in general and Israel in particular. It is no secret that Osama bin Laden has renewed calls for the destruction of Israel and the liberation of Palestine, and has also stepped up efforts to set up bases of operations around the Levant in its attempt to restore the Caliphate over every former territory of Islam, from Spain to Iraq. At a time when al-Qaeda is enhancing its Israeli-Palestinian agit-prop and is developing networks in Lebanon and Palestine, the rhetoric of Iraqi insurgents—whether involuntarily or by design—might play into the hands of al-Qaeda’s master plan for the region.

Iraq a Cornerstone for al-Qaeda’s Expansion Toward the Levant

Since 2003, Iraq has become the main front of al-Qaeda’s war against the West. Iraq has served as a recruiting poster for would-be jihadis from all over the world and as a training ground for thousands of foreign and Iraqi fighters. Maybe more importantly, it appears clear now that al-Qaeda has skillfully exploited the situation in Iraq to establish a base in the heart of the Middle East—something it had never accomplished before—a conveniently located stepping-stone from which to launch the liberation of Jerusalem through the infiltration of operators into the Levant and the spread of its brand of Salafist-jihadist ideology.

In his July 2006 commentary on Israel’s war against Lebanon, al-Qaeda ideologist Ayman al-Zawahiri said:

By Iraq being near Palestine it is an advantage; therefore the Muslims should support its mujahideen until an Islamic Emirate of jihad is established there. Subsequently it would transfer the jihad to the borders of Palestine with the aid of Allah, then the mujahideen in and out of Palestine would unite and the greatest conquest [i.e. that of Israel] would be accomplished [1].

In May 2007, al-Zawahiri reinforced the same point:

The jihad in Iraq today, by the grace of Allah, is moving from the stage of defeat of the Crusader invaders and their traitorous underlings to the stage of consolidating a mujahid Islamic Emirate which will liberate the homelands of Islam, protect the sacred things of the Muslims, implement the rules of the sharia, give the weak and oppressed their rights back, and raise the banner of jihad as it makes its way through a rugged path of sacrifice and giving toward the environs of Jerusalem, with Allah’s permission [2].

Al-Qaeda in Iraq Calls for Jihad in Palestine

Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) logically appears to be al-Qaeda’s greatest ally in its plan to subvert the Levant. The group, echoing al-Qaeda’s leaders and ideologues, has consistently claimed the suffering of the Palestinians epitomizes the suffering of Muslims around the world, treating their plight as a symbol of the so-called Western war on Islam. Consequently, AQI has made it clear that its enterprise in Iraq was one of the struggles that will lead to the liberation of Jerusalem. In an April 2006 speech, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi declared: “In Iraq we are very close to al-Aqsa Mosque of the Messenger of Allah, so we fight in Iraq and our eyes are on Jerusalem which can only be restored by the guiding Quran and sword of victory” [3].

More importantly, AQI’s development in Iraq seemed to follow the path outlined by al-Qaeda’s leaders. After al-Zawahiri announced that the mujahideen should unify and create an emirate in Iraq, AQI formed the Islamic State of Iraq, an emirate designed to unify all the mujahideen fighting in Iraq under the banner of Islam [4]. When al-Zawahiri called on Iraq to become a consolidating base from which to launch the liberation of all Muslim lands last May, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, made similar references while emphasizing the duty of Iraqi Muslims to join the ranks of the mujahideen and reject the Coalition’s engagement mechanisms—such as Awakening Councils, political parties and local concerned citizen groups [5].

Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq in Collusion

The rhetorical and operational collusion between the two plans has become even more apparent in recent months. First, al-Zawahiri has repeatedly condemned the Palestinian factions—Fatah and Hamas—for either endorsing negotiations to achieve a two-state solution (Fatah) or for engaging in the democratic political process (Hamas). Al-Zawahiri contends that these actions are a betrayal of jihad and true Islamic tenets. Second, Osama bin Laden reminded his supporters:

I reassure my people in Palestine specifically that we will expand our jihad, Allah willing, and will not acknowledge the Sykes-Picot border, nor the rulers installed by colonialism… if [America] and its agents are defeated in Iraq, then hopefully not much will remain before the mujahideen from Baghdad, Anbar, Mosul, Diyala and Salah al-Din will go to liberate Hittin [6] for us—Allah willing—and we will not acknowledge the Jewish state’s existence on one inch of Palestinian land like all the Arab rulers did when they accepted the Riyadh initiative years ago.

During remarks on the Israeli blockade of Gaza, ISI leader al-Baghdadi expressed views perfectly congruent with al-Qaeda’s leadership: “Our conversation today is our view of terminating the struggle with the Jews in the Land of Congregation and Resurrection [Palestine].” According to Baghdadi, because Israel is a religious state and because there is “no difference between Judaism and Zionism,” Israel has no claim to statehood. Like al-Zawahiri, he heavily criticizes Fatah and the secularist-nationalist Palestinian leadership who he says has achieved nothing after years of lying. Like al-Zawahiri, he repudiates Hamas as betraying Islam and the ummah (Islamic community) [7].

Maybe more worrisome, anecdotal evidence suggests that both al-Qaeda and the ISI have moved beyond the motivational phase and into a more operational one. A document calling for the implementation of a three-year plan to move from Iraq into the Levant recently surfaced on the web. The document calls for the establishment of Salafist-jihadist cells in Jordan, Palestine and Lebanon (al-boraq.info, January 28). Meanwhile, al-Baghdadi is recommending actions that fit within that plan. In particular, he calls for the creation of a Salafist creed and belief group in Palestine and advises the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades—Hamas’ military wing—to secede from Hamas and act on its own according to sharia principles. Finally, U.S. military commanders have recently noticed that several ISI leaders are leaving Iraq in response to the increased U.S. military pressure there (AFP, February 11). Although their whereabouts and future plans remain unknown, their escape from Iraq at a time when al-Qaeda/AQI have established the liberation of Jerusalem as their ultimate goal begs the question of their potential role in making this happen.

Are Nationalist and Islamist Insurgents Joining the International Jihad?

At the same time, non-al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents in Iraq have increasingly commented on international issues and affairs as they relate to Islam or the Palestinians. In effect, these groups are using selected events to show that Islam is under existential attack and/or that the West does not care about Muslim suffering. For example, the Islamic Army in Iraq (IAI), a large insurgent group which has cooperated temporarily with the United States on the ground in Iraq, recently delivered a vitriolic indictment of Western policies in the Middle East, accusing the United States of seeking to control the economic wealth of Muslims, facilitating Western cultural domination and enabling the establishment of a “Greater Israel” that would include Iraq [8]. A larger alliance that includes the IAI along with more nationalistic movements—such as the Islamic Front of the Iraqi Resistance and the Mujahideen Army—the Political Council of the Iraqi Resistance (PCIR) condemned Denmark for the re-publication of cartoons that seemed to equate the Prophet with terrorism. The group says that retaliatory strikes are to be expected [9]. Central to al-Qaeda’s strategy, such stories reinforce the idea that the West in general and the United States in particular are seeking to dominate and subjugate the Islamic world.

The continuously stalled peace process between Israel and the Palestinians as well as Israel’s deadly incursions into Gaza and the month-long Israeli blockade all figure prominently in the nationalist and Islamist insurgents’ propaganda. In late January, the Reformation and Jihad Front, Hamas-Iraq and the Islamic Front for the Iraqi Resistance (JAMI) strongly condemned the Israeli blockade of Gaza [10]. Meanwhile, the Jihad and Change Front (JACF), along with al-Furqan Army, the Conquering Army, the Brigades of Martyrs in Iraq and the Army of Ansar al-Mujahideen issued a statement of support to the Palestinians, claiming that they “will strike the occupier on our land [i.e. the United States] and give him a taste of defeat and shame” while their “eyes are on al-Aqsa” [11]. Recently, the IAI released a documentary equating the U.S. occupation of Iraq with the Israeli blockade of Gaza [12]. The visuals are well done and professional and their subtext speaks to all—Arab and non-Arab, Muslim or non-Muslim—who view what Israelis do in Gaza and what Americans do in Iraq as oppression. The visuals can be both interpreted within a secular/anti-imperialist framework—most common in Europe and parts of Asia—or within an Islamist framework—most common in the Middle East. However, the speech accompanying the images, in Arabic, calls for jihad against the infidels and vows to liberate Palestine from Israeli aggression.

This use of radical Islamist rhetoric by nationalist and Islamist Iraqi insurgents will most probably have a pernicious effect in the future. Whether the leadership of these groups actually intends to transform their operations into international jihad is not yet known. However, regardless of the intentions of these leaders, their use of such rhetoric, their focus on the resemblance between Iraq and Palestine and their use of religious justifications to examine the “crimes” committed by the West against Muslims play exactly into the hands of al-Qaeda’s plan for the Middle East.


1. Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, “The Zio-Crusaders’ War on Gaza and Lebanon,” As-Sahab Media Production Company, July 27, 2006.

2. “Third Interview with Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri,” As-Sahab Media Production Company, May 5, 2007.

3. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, “A Message to the People,” Mujahideen Shura Council, April 25, 2006.

4. The Mujahideen Shura Council in Iraq, “Announcing the Establishment of the State of Iraq,” October 15, 2006.

5. See for example, “Between Perversion of Creed and Tenets of Jihad,” Statement by the Islamic State of Iraq, August 27, 2007.

6. The former Palestinian town of Hittin was the site of Salah al-Din’s 1187 victory over the crusaders that allowed the re-conquest of Jerusalem.

7. Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, “Religion is Sincere Advice,” Islamic State of Iraq, February 14.

8. “A message from the Islamic Army leaderBush and Sarkozy…Political alliance or wealth and power share,” Islamic Army in Iraq, January 25.

9. “Response to Denmark,” Political Council of the Iraqi Resistance, February 18.

10. “Formation of a campaign of the Iraqi resistance to support Gaza,” Political Council of the Iraqi Resistance, January 21.

11. “Start of the Campaign of the ‘Twins’ Operation in support for our brothers in Gaza and All of Palestine,” Joint statement by the Furqan Army, the Conquering Army, the Brigades of Martyrs in Iraq and the Army of Ansar al-Mujahideen, January 23.

12. The video is available on the video-sharing website LiveLeak: https://www.liveleak.com/view?i=a8f_1202716268