The announcement on February 20 of the capture of Talib al-Dulaymi, known as Abu Qutayba, marks the latest in a string of arrests of high-ranking aides to Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi. Al-Dulaymi fell victim to the military operation conducted by U.S. and Iraqi troops termed “Operation River Blitz”, a security sweep along the Euphrates river valley in al-Anbar province, northwest of Baghdad. He is considered to be a key logistics figure in al-Zarqawi’s organization, and alongside Ahmad Isma’il al-Rawi (also picked up at the same time), was responsible for arranging access to the group’s leader. These add to the growing list of figures detained since last December, as a result of operations at Al-Ramadi and Baqouba, bringing the total to about 10 so far.
This growing number of captured ‘top ranking’ officials or ‘lieutenants’ poses the question of just how many there are, and whether these terms are as significant as they appear. A February 27 posting in the name of al-Qaeda in Iraq poured scorn on the announcements, saying “we have lost track of how many ‘lieutenants’ they have claimed to have arrested” and “this is a hopeless attempt on [the Crusaders’] part to raise morale.” At the same time, if the detainees were in fact important figures, these multiple arrests should be impacting the ability of al-Zarqawi’s group to mount attacks. Since it has been claiming responsibility for numerous car bombings over the last two months, this does not appear to be the case.
One explanation, however, is that the terms ‘top rank’ or emir [commander] may reflect a classification that is unique to the al-Zarqawi group. A clue comes from interviews with alleged captured emirs, which have been aired recently on the Iraqi government’s television station al-Iraqiya, and on the Dubai-based Iraqi channel al-Fayha. During the interviews, the detainees described a cell structure network in which members of rank were classed as ‘executioners’ or ‘commanders.’ Operatives in Mosul detailed how the rank and file could attain the rank of ‘commander’ once they had carried out 10 beheadings.
Participants to the jihadi forums reflect the same interest in al-Zarqawi’s survival, and have also been keeping a tab on the fate of the lieutenants. One list posted on February 15 on the al-Ma’sada forum (www.alm2sda.net) provides a list of 22 “prominent figures in the leadership,” who have to date been killed (see Addendum). The fact that al-Zarqawi’s group saw fit to respond means either that the organization is indeed suffering from the effects of ‘Operation River Blitz’, or at least that it fears the propaganda effect of such announcements.
But despite the losses and the arrests, al-Zarqawi’s group still retains the potential to heavily influence the course of the insurgency. This was illustrated by a posting on the al-Saqifa forum on February 21, which revealed some exasperation at the potential effect on morale of news on talks between the U.S. military and leaders of the insurgency. The declaration by the Organization of al-Qaeda in Iraq ‘refuting the claims of talks between the Sunnis and the Crusaders,’ underlined that: “We have rejected what was published in the Crusader magazine Time.” This was a reference to the article “Talking with the Enemy” published in the February 28 edition of the magazine. The article gave details of direct contacts taking place between U.S. military and members of the Sunni insurgency. News that such meetings had already taken place was clearly the cause of irritation: “We repeat that the only ones to speak for the mujahideen are the mujahideen themselves; there is no voice other than that of the bullet.”
The text of the declaration insisted on the difference between their struggle and that of the Ba’athist remnants – many of whom have been threatened by al-Zarqawi if they attempt to negotiate: “They think that we fight for the cause of territory or wealth; but they are disappointed, and retire in disgrace; everyone knows that our jihad is for the raising on high of the Creator’s Word … and for nothing else … not for a constitution, nor for an accord with the infidel … nor to replace the sword in its scabbard; for our bullets have not run out” (www.alsakifa.org).
On February 15, on the forum al-Ma’sada, the participant signing himself al-Utaybi1, listed those of al-Zarqawi’s group who had died. In a few cases, he has appended personal notes on the names.
-Abu Khabab al-Falastini, one of the first from that country, he along with Abu Qatada al-Falastini (whom God release from bondage);
-Abu Umar al-Masri, one of the Afghan Arabs;
-Abu Sulayman al-Urduni one of the Afghan Arabs and wanted dead or alive by the Jordanian authorities;
-Abu Bakr al-Suri Abu Amar al-Suri one of the Afghan boys and emir of one of the groups in Kandahar;
-Abu Ahmad al-Tabuki arrested by the Americans at al-Taji north of Baghdad; who were unaware of his importance, along with 8 Arabs; he participated in the war against the Soviets alongside Hekmatyar; he was one of the most important of those wanted by the Peninsula [i.e. Saudi] tyrants, but he escaped from them and departed for [Iraq]; he is considered to be one of the most senior leaders of the Shaykh’s leadership and even Shaykh Yusuf al-Ayyiri deferred to him.
-Abu Anas al-Shami, whom the pen is too feeble to describe;
[Editorial note: Al-Shami’s death last September was one of the few acknowledged by al-Zarqawi himself. From the tone of al-Zarqawi’s voice on an elegiac audio tape confirming his death, the loss appears to have shaken him]
-Abu Anas al-Turki;
-Abu Muhammad al-Lubnani, considered the most senior emir; he entered the group a few months after the fall [of Saddam Hussein] and whose his son was killed at the al-Faruq barracks at Rawa; [the father] had emigrated from Denmark and had taken up position on the Iranian-Afghan border;
-Mawlud al-Iraqi, one of the most important aides of the Shaykh; he slept only on the move and was ambitious to perform a suicide operation;
-Abu Qasim al-Karbuli;
-Abu al-Azaim al-Libi, group emir;
-Hajji Thamir al-Atruz;
-Abu Muhammad Hamza al-Urduni;
-Abu Faris al-Anbari;
-Abu Basir al-Shami, a group emir;
-Abu al-Harith Muhammad Jasim al-Isawi;
-Abu Khattab al-Falluji Umar Hadid;
-Abu al-Bara al-Kuwaiti Faisal Zayd al-Mutairi, former head of media and architect of a number of operations featured on the ‘Winds of Victory’ tape;
-Abu Bakr al-Kuwaiti, a group emir;
-Abu Abd al-Aziz al-Suri, a group emir;
-Abu Ubayda al-Suri, a group emir;
-Ali Muhammad, a group emir in Haditha.