Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 24

An October 17th statement posted on an Islamist website and published in al-Qaeda’s military journal Mu`askar al-Battar claiming to be from the Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (JTJ) group led by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi began with a personal pledge of allegiance from Zarqawi and his fighters to Osama bin Laden: “[Let it be known that] al-Tawhid wal-Jihad pledges both its leaders and its soldiers to the mujahid commander, Sheikh “Osama bin Laden”… Numerous messages were passed between ‘Abu Musab’ (God protect him) and the al-Qaeda brotherhood over the past eight months, establishing a dialogue between them. No sooner had the calls been cut off than God chose to restore them, and our most generous brothers in al-Qaeda came to understand the strategy of the Tawhid wal-Jihad organization in Iraq, the land of the two rivers and of the Caliphs, and their hearts warmed to its methods and overall mission.” [1]

After this, JTJ began issuing statements of responsibility under its new name Tanzim Qai’dat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn (al-Qaeda in Iraq). At the time, some Islamist circles expressed doubt about the statement’s authenticity suggesting that it was part of a US-inspired campaign to associate the violence in Iraq with “international terrorism” rather than “legitimate” nationalist insurgency. [2] But the identities of the posters as well as the language and style indicated that the messages were from Zarqawi’s group. U.S. intelligence sources say they are confident of the validity of the original pledge.

The statements marked a surprising twist in the long, complex and disputed tale of Zarqawi’s links with al-Qaeda. Few have doubted that there has been contact, but the generally accepted view so far has been that Zarqawi constructed his own parallel network which may have in some ways been in competition, or at the very least independent of, al-Qaeda.

Historically, the links were limited. According to an interview in Al-Hayat a former Afghan jihadist claims that Zarqawi was not a well-known or significant fighter in Afghanistan during the late 1980s and early 1990s. [3] He participated with a number of jihadi fighters in the battlefront at Khost, where a number of Jordanians fought, but had no identifiable links to al-Qaeda as it began to emerge.

After spending some time in a Jordanian prison, Zarqawi returned to Afghanistan and subsequently established a training camp in the western city of Herat. Though he apparently assembled 80 to 100 people, largely Palestinians and Jordanians committed to jihad but with no formal name for the group, there is not thought to have been any links to al-Qaeda at this time. Evidence gathered from Shadi Abdullah, an Islamist arrested in Germany in 2002, even points to competition between Zarqawi and bin Laden for recruits during this period, though Zarqawi seemed far more focused on overthrowing the Jordanian regime and recruited almost exclusively Palestinians and Jordanians.

After the U.S. attacked the Taliban, Zarqawi moved first to Iran. He was then pressured to move on and traveled just over the border into Iraqi Kurdistan as the only available place for refuge. Here he developed links with a new generation of Salifists who had not fought in the original Afghan jihad, including Ansar al-Islam, which had established itself on the Iranian border and taken control of a number of villages. Reports from militants claim that Iran was concerned over their location and asked them to move three miles from the border to avoid any direct contact between Iranians and the Ansar forces. Jihadist fighters then flowed into Northern Iraq from Afghanistan and Pakistan through Iran. [4]

In his February 2003 presentation to the UN Security Council, the U.S. Secretary of State described Zarqawi as “an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda lieutenants.” Although Secretary Powell was careful not to call him a formal member of al-Qaeda, Zarqawi was depicted as a key link in the evidence designed to outline an association between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. But firm evidence of strong links either way – to Saddam on the one side and to al-Qaeda on the other – is largely absent.

Since the formal end of the Iraq war in April 2003, many of the most high-profile attacks, in particular suicide bombings and kidnappings have been attributed to Zarqawi’s organization. But some question whether Zarqawi is really as significant in organizing the insurgency as portrayed. It is helpful for the U.S. to personalize the insurgency and emphasize the role of foreign fighters because doing so provides a link to al-Qaeda while obscuring the essentially “nationalist” character of the Iraqi insurgency. For the Iraqi interim government it is also helpful to emphasize international links because it diminishes the sense that there is a domestic Sunni-led insurgency against the state and that Iraqis are willing to kill each other.

Though Zarqawi and his fighters numerically make a small proportion of the resistance (estimates run from 50 to 500), they exercise an exaggerated degree of influence due to their coupling of extreme violence with an acute understanding of the power of the media; tactics which have developed in symmetry and through close observation of other international terrorist groups including al-Qaeda and its offshoots in Saudi Arabia. Over the summer of 2004 with Osama bin Laden yet to appear and Zarqawi carrying out increasingly bloody and high profile attacks, some began to question whether Zarqawi was beginning to rival or even succeed bin Laden.

So what explains the October 2004 pledge of loyalty? The message claims that talks have been going on for eight months between al-Qaeda and Zarqawi which encountered many interruptions as Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad explained its strategy before the final offer of loyalty. Zarqawi is alleged to have sought al-Qaeda support in the past but without success. In January 2004, an individual was captured carrying a 17-page letter on a CD thought to be written by Zarqawi calling for help from al-Qaeda in fomenting a sectarian war in Iraq. The implication was that Zarqawi’s group was independent but nonetheless looking for support as the tone was at once supplicatory but also written as if from one equal to another.

The letter said that Zarqawi’s group had “our backs to the sea, the enemy before us” and “we do not see ourselves as fit to challenge you,” but instead seek to “work under your banner, comply with your orders.” U.S. officials said they believed al-Qaeda had rebuffed these advances but there are some doubts over the provenance and authorship of the letter.

Various explanations have emerged for the October pledge. One senior U.S. counter-terrorism official told the author in early November 2004 that it may be a sign of weakness, a view which is supported by the January letter. The view is based on the supposition that groups like Zarqawi’s would prefer to retain their independence and autonomy to enhance their maneuverability and ability to attract recruits and funding. Any decision to associate themselves with another group is thus indicative of internal and external pressures. They argue that pressure on Fallujah as a base of operations and sanctuary for Zarqawi forced him to reach out. Other Arab analysts contend that Zarqawi was put under pressure by the growing al-Qaeda presence in Iraq to subsume his organization under a broader movement.

Zarqawi is never described as a great thinker or religious ideologue. One of those who knew him in prison said that he would attack other inmates with his fists: “That’s all he could do. He’s not like bin Laden with ideas and vision. He had no vision.” Meanwhile, ideologically there is not a total overlap between Zarqawi and bin Laden. Both clearly subscribe to jihadist salafism, but Zarqawi’s use of violence has been more extreme and graphic. Historically, whilst bin Laden in the last decade has focused on the far enemy of the United States, Zarqawi has focused on enemies nearer at hand like the Jordanian regime and now the interim Iraqi government.

One Arab who claimed to have recently met with Zarqawi in Fallujah stated that Zarqawi’s purpose was to turn Iraq into a new base of operations to carry out further attacks in the region. “Rescuing Jerusalem and the neighboring countries will come only after the rise of an Islamic state from which the youth will set out to liberate the neighboring areas,” the Islamist Arab told Al-Hayat. [5]

The legitimacy of attacking Muslims looks to be the greatest difference between al-Qaeda and Zarqawi. In particular, Zarqawi has been more focused on fomenting sectarian strife within Iraq by attacking the Shi’as. In an April 2004 message on a website attributed to Zarqawi, he threatens to “kill their [Shi’a] imams and cut off their heads” and describes the August 2003 killing of Ayatatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim as a “generous act of God,” as Hakim was “full of deception and hostility to the people of Islam.” [6]

The problem for Zarqawi may be that the extreme levels of violence which he uses could end up isolating him and his group. One former jihadist compared him to the Algerian GIA in his willingness to engage in mass slaughter of both personnel and civilians. In July, Arabic media reported Iraqi intelligence sources saying that a number of factions of the Iraqi resistance had cut their ties with Zarqawi because of the level of civilian casualties he causes and because they saw him as a “terrorist” rather than part of the “resistance.” Whether this is a problem for al-Qaeda is debatable, but the oath of loyalty to bin Laden could hurt Zarqawi because it makes clear that his group – already led by a foreigner – has an al-Qaeda dictated international agenda and is no longer acting in the exclusive interest of Iraqis.

Observers believe Zarqawi’s organization is certain to continue escalating its violence as the January elections approach, hoping in particular to exacerbate sectarian tensions by exploiting Sunni fears of Shi’a domination. The ability of the elections to draw communities into the political process may be the ultimate determinant of Zarqawi’s durability, as his organization requires networks of local support to survive. If a new government can gain some legitimacy then that may well turn the tide against his group.

Gordon Corera is the BBC’s Security Correspondent


1. Translated by the Jamestown Foundation.

2. Diya Rashwan quoted in Al Quds al-Arabi, October 19, 2004

3. Al Hayat, London, November 8, 2004

4. Al Hayat, London, November 8, 2004

5. Al Hayat, London, September 10, 2004

6. Translated by BBC Monitoring.