The Heir Unapparent

In naming a successor to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, U.S. intelligence is once again getting it wrong. Is it an honest mistake, or a deliberate manipulation of the facts?

In the run-up to the war in Iraq, the United States government needed to prove a link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. Their link was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a marginal jihadist who, thanks in large part to the U.S. misinformation machine, became one of the worlds deadliest terrorists. Ironically, Zarqawis death has given rise to a new round of propaganda, this time over his successor. U.S. military leaders, under pressure to demonstrate both that they know the identity of Zarqawis heir and that the link between the insurgency and al Qaeda remains strong, are once again skillfully spinning the facts.

According to Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, a top U.S. military commander in Iraq, al Qaedas new emir in Iraq is an Egyptian named Abu Ayyub al Masri, who in the 1980s was a follower of Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama bin Ladens No. 2. Caldwells claim took terrorism experts, as well as former members of Egypts Muslim Brotherhood, by surprise. Montasser el-Zayat, for instance, who was imprisoned with Zawahiri from 1981 to 1984 for the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, says that Masri does not even appear on Egypts list of wanted jihadists. Not even his nom de guerre, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir (the immigrant), rings any bells, Zayat says. Yet Caldwell claimed he is among the founding members of al Qaeda. Is false information again at the root of U.S. intelligence? It appears so.

Caldwells claim doesnt pass muster if you compare Masris jihadist rsum with Zarqawis terrorist career. According to U.S. intelligence declassified in recent weeks, Masri moved in 1999 to Afghanistan, where he met Zarqawi. They supposedly befriended each other while training in al Qaedas Al Farouk camp. But that is highly unlikely, for a couple of reasons. First, if Masri were a founding member of al Qaeda, he should have reached Afghanistan at least a decade earlier. Second, Zarqawi only became a member of al Qaeda much later, in November 2004. When he first met Osama bin Laden in Kandahar at the beginning of 2000, Zarqawi refused to join al Qaeda. At the time, Zarqawi did not share bin Ladens enthusiasm for attacking the United States. Instead, he was focused on what he considered the near enemy, corrupt Arab regimes (in particular, the Hashemite monarchy that ruled his native Jordan). More devastating to this U.S. assertion is the fact that not only did Zarqawi never join the Farouk camp (or any other training facility run by al Qaeda), he actually set up his own camp in Afghanistan that was independent of al Qaeda. A tiny establishment in the outskirts of Herat, Zarqawis camp was run on a shoestring and funded by the Taliban.

The U.S. military wants us to believe that after the fall of the Taliban, Masri followed Zarqawi to Iraq, where he became one of his loyal followers. Yet, according to people who trained in Herat, there were no Egyptians or Saudis in the camp. Although al Qaeda recruited in Egypt and the Persian Gulf states, Zarqawis followers were Palestinians, Syrians, and Jordanians. They traveled to Herat to be trained in the art of suicide missions to be conducted close to home.

According to Caldwell, Masri was Zarqawis deputy in Falluja. But he and other U.S. officials probably also know that Zarqawi was never in Falluja. He was kept outside of the city by his followers, who feared for his life. He kept in contact with his group via a fleet of messengers. In reality, the leader of Zarqawis group in Falluja was a man named Abu Anas al Shami, who was among the first people to have joined Zarqawis Herat camp. Shami was also one of Zarqawis spiritual guides. In The Diary of Falluja, a collection of memoirs he wrote during the citys siege, Shami never mentions Masri.

In December 2004, after the fall of Falluja, Osama bin Laden officially named Zarqawi the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. The U.S. military asserts that, at the same time, Masri became the emir of al Qaeda in southern Iraq. This analysis shows a staggering lack of understanding of the jihadist mind-set. The division of Iraq into two zones directly contradicts the jihadists concept of the emir, the sole supreme guide. It would be all but inconceivable to have two emirs in the same country engaged in one conflict. An emir is the chosen leader, a figure who, for his followers, is almost as powerful as the Prophet Mohammed himself. That is a fact confirmed by a video of Zawahiri, released less than 48 hours after Zarqawis death, in which he describes Zarqawi as the prophet of Iraq. It would be blasphemous to have two prophets.

The more likely scenario is that Zarqawis successor is still to be decided. A battle for leadership appears to be under way between two candidates, Abu Abdul al Ramahdi, also known as al Iraqi, and Abdullah al-Rashid al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Mujahideen Shura Council, which comprises the five allied groups in the Sunni insurgency. Each of these men is backed by elements of the insurgency: nationalists, foreign jihadists, and al Qaeda. Both have used al Qaedas trademark to legitimize their quest for leadership. Less than 24 hours after Zarqawis death, leaflets were distributed inside several Iraqi mosques claiming al Iraqi as the new emir in Iraq. But jihadist Web pages close to al Qaeda have also proclaimed Baghdadi the new leader. Ramahdi, who is Iraqi-born, was until a few months ago hiding in the tribal belt between Afghanistan and Pakistan. He was sent by bin Laden to help Zarqawi broaden his recruitment network in Iraq, since, being Jordanian, Zarqawi was regarded as a foreigner by Sunni Iraqis.

The new emir of al Qaeda may be announced in as soon as a few weeks, probably in a video released by bin Laden or Zawahiri. But, whether U.S. intelligence cant get its facts straight or is engaging in deliberate misinformation, they probably already realize that Zarqawis death will be a false victory for coalition forces. Either of the two men likely to replace Zarqawi is better equipped to form a strong united front against the Shiites and coalition forces. Either will be far more indebted to bin Laden than Zarqawi ever was. Until now, bin Laden has been a relatively marginal figure in Iraq, forced to simply watch from many miles away. Now he will have a much closer lieutenant on the ground.

It is anyones guess why the U.S. military is telling the tales they are telling in Iraq today. Perhaps the misinformation is some sort of attempt to confuse the insurgents. That said, anyone vaguely familiar with Iraqs jihadists wouldnt take these reports seriously. If U.S. military intelligence had a better history of success in Iraq, it would probably inspire more confidence. Either way, one of the first principles any soldier learns is know your enemy. Unfortunately, the stories the U.S. military are spinning in Iraq dont suggest they know very much at all.

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