The Man Who Could Have Stopped the Islamic State
Almost 10 years ago, an al Qaeda emissary was sent to tell Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to tone down his terrorism. The journey, and its failure, gave birth to ISIS.
The Breaking Point
Zarqawi finally swore allegiance to bin Laden in October 2004, but on his own terms. He was bending the knee, Zarqawi explained, only because his “respected brothers in al Qaeda understood [his] strategy … and their hearts opened to our approach.” Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was born, but the strategy of brutality and sectarianism that Abd al-Hadi warned against would continue.
Al Qaeda’s effort to control Zarqawi continued as well. In a July 2005 letter, al Qaeda’s then second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, warned him not to alienate Iraqis and to “avoid scenes of slaughter.”
Zarqawi was unimpressed. After U.S. Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte released a copy of the letter in September 2005, Zarqawi’s spokesman called it a fraud, arguing that it had “no foundation except in the imagination of the politicians of the Black House and their slaves.”
The disconnect between al Qaeda and Zarqawi became a crisis in November 2005, when Zarqawi’s foot soldiers bombed three hotels in Amman, Jordan, killing more than 60 Jordanians. Al Qaeda’s leadership was furious. “Policy must be dominant over militarism,” wrote Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, an al Qaeda commander in Iran, to Zarqawi three days after the Amman bombing. He ordered Zarqawi to halt all operations outside Iraq.
Atiyah reiterated Abd al-Hadi’s concern about al Qaeda’s ability to manage events in Iraq from afar, and was alarmed that Zarqawi apparently thought Zawahiri’s July letter was fraudulent. The document was authentic, he wrote, and represented “the thoughts of the brothers, the sheikhs, and all of the intellectual and moral leadership here.” He argued that improving coordination between al Qaeda and AQI was the group’s highest priority. “Preparing [the brothers] to be messengers between you and the leadership here,” Atiyah explained, “is more important than … sending the brothers for some operations like … the hotels in Amman.”
Zarqawi finally fell in line, partially. In January 2006, he established a coalition of Iraqi jihadi groups, the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC), which was designed to assuage some of al Qaeda’s concerns. The group named an Iraqi as emir, and Zarqawi reduced his public profile.
But the MSC was still mostly window dressing. Most importantly, it did not include the second-largest jihadi group in Iraq, Ansar al-Sunnah, which has Kurdish roots and a mistrustful relationship with Zarqawi. Al Qaeda’s central leadership was eager to unify the jihadi movement — but Zarqawi distrusted Ansar al-Sunnah, so they engaged Ansar al-Sunnah’s leadership directly.
On Jan. 26, 2006, Ayman al-Zawahiri wrote to Ansar al-Sunnah on behalf of al Qaeda’s Special Committee for Iraqi Affairs that the committee favored unification between AQI and Ansar al-Sunnah. More strikingly, it acknowledged that such a step was possible only “after reforming the situation of AQI.” Three days later, the committee sent another note urging that “all the obstacles standing in the way [of unification] must be removed.”
One of those obstacles may have been Zarqawi himself.
Al Qaeda quickly moved to resolve that problem: It reported to Ansar al-Sunnah that it had taken a step to improve the conditions needed for unification “by sending an honorable brother and a virtuous sheikh” to Iraq. Al Qaeda did not name its emissary, but noted “you know him very well.”
There is little doubt that al Qaeda’s letter to the Kurdish leadership of Ansar al-Sunnah indicated that Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, the ethnic Kurd from Mosul, was headed home.
In late 2003, Abd al-Hadi had asked Zarqawi whether he should travel to Iraq. Zarqawi said no. In January 2006, Zarqawi was not offered a veto.
The leadership of AQI would change long before Abd al-Hadi made it anywhere near Iraq. Zarqawi was killed in June 2006 by a U.S. airstrike and was replaced by an Egyptian called Abu Hamzah al-Muhajir. Despite his long ties to al Qaeda, Abu Hamzah continued AQI’s drift away from the central leadership. On Oct. 15, 2006, the Mujahideen Shura Council announced that all of its component groups were being dissolved and folded into a new jihadi government named the Islamic State of Iraq. Long before the Syrian civil war and the Islamic State’s rise to global prominence, the ISI’s explicit goal was to govern and ultimately re-establish the caliphate.
Al Qaeda’s leadership was blindsided. They had not been consulted about the declaration, and the ISI leadership failed to create “unity” among Iraqi jihadis by refusing to incorporate Ansar al-Sunnah, which remained wary of the ISI despite Zarqawi’s death. For a moment, al Qaeda’s leaders might have been heartened that Abd al-Hadi was nearing Iraq’s border and might be able to sort things out. But that moment was brief; Abd al-Hadi was arrested in Gaziantep one day after the ISI was declared.
With that arrest, al Qaeda’s boldest effort to finally control the jihadi movement in Iraq fizzled — and the movement that Zarqawi birthed was moving further out of its orbit. The rest, as they say, is history.