Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Return of Zarqawi: Multiple Deadly Bombings Target Iraqi Shi'is

The late Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian leader of al-Qa'ida in the Land of the Two Rivers (AQI), was virulently anti-Shi'i and dedicated to turning Iraq into a new base for transnational Salafi jihadis. His organization and allies are responsible for the deaths of thosands of Iraqi civilians, police, and security personnel. The writing at the bottom right-hand side of this video still reads "Shura al-Mujahideen," the name of a loose umbrella for the most extreme Salafi jihadi groups operating in the country, many of them led and staffed primarily by non-Iraqis. The Shura was disbanded in 2007 with the formation of a new umbrella, the Islamic State of Iraq, under the leadership of a shadowy individual known as Abu 'Umar al-Baghdadi. Al-Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike in June 2006, and was succeeded as head of AQI by the Egyptian Abu Hamza al-Muhajir.

NOTE: I do not subscribe to the simplistic division of Iraqis into three major groups, namely "Kurds, Sunnis, and Shi'is." I identify the confessional identities of groups in this post simply as a means of identification as it relates to my argument, and not as an artificial division as is done by many journalists and pundits.

While the world's eyes are focused on ongoing demonstrations in neighboring Iran, a murderous series of bombings have targeted Iraqi Shi'i civilians during the past five days. The attacks, which were follow a recent series of terrorist attacks near Shi'i shrines targeting Iraqi and foreign pilgrims, are reminiscent of the bloody sectarian tactics perfected by the late leader of al-Qa'ida in the Land of the Two Rivers (AQI), the Jordanian Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi. Before he was killed in a U.S. airstrike in June 2006, al-Zarqawi outlined his plan to create a civil war between Iraqi's communities in a crazed letter to Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the chief ideologue of al-Qa'ida "Central" (AQC), which was intercepted in 2005.

"[The Shi'is are]…a lurking snake, a crafty and malicious scorpion, a spying enemy, and a mortal venom. Here, we are entering a battle on two levels. One is open, against a furious enemy and patent unbelief [the U.S. and foreign, non-Muslim Coalition]; the other is more difficult and fierce, against a cunning enemy who wears the garb of a friend [that of a Muslim], pretends to agree, and calls for solidarity [this may refer to al-Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr], but harbors evil and takes tortuous paths. He is the heir to the esoteric gangs that traversed the history of Islam and left indelible scars on its face. The attentive observer and careful witness will realize that Shi‘ism is a looming danger and a true challenge. ‘They are the enemies; so beware of them. The curse of God be on them! How are they deluded (away from the Truth)…," writes al-Zarqawi.

"Peace unto You, O' Shaykh of Jihad"

The full letter, in both Arabic and English, can be read HERE. Throughout the letter, he most often refers to Shi'is as "Rafida" or the plural, "Rawafid," or "those who reject," a derogatory term used by Salafi Sunnis against Shi'is. Some analysts have argued, and I tend to agree, that Zarqawi was the founder of a new form of Salafi jihadism, one which is fueled in large part by an almost incomprehensible violent hatred for Shi'i Muslims. His strategy was even questioned by his former teacher, the Palestinian-Jordanian Salafi jihadi shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, and al-Zawahiri.

AQI and other Salafi jihadi groups suffered a series of setbacks beginning in 2007, after the U.S. military secured an alliance, thanks to generous amounts of money, some Iraqi tribal councils, the "Awakening Councils" (Majalis al-Sahwa), and their militias, which the U.S. prefers to call "Sons of Iraq." It was driven out of many of its former safe havens, but has proven remarkably resilient. The series of recent attacks which have specifically targeted Iraqi Shi'is and foreign Shi'i pilgrims may be a sign that AQI and its allies, whose ideology, though hostile to all Muslims who do not subscribe to it, retains a special virulence against Shi'i Muslim, are returning to the tactics of the late al-Zarqawi, which proved so effective in 2006 following AQI's February bombing of the revered Shi'i shrine of al-'Askariyya in Samarra.

The al-'Askariyya Shrine in Samarra after the February 2006 bombing, which destroyed its dome.

Two of the 12 Imams of Twelver Shi'is, the 10th, 'Ali al-Hadi, and 11th, Hassan al-'Askari, are buried inside. The shrine, according to popular belief, is also where the twelfth Imam, Muhammad ibn Hassan "al-Mahdi," who is believed by Twelver Shi'is to be in a mystical occultation, will return at the appointed time.

On Saturday, June 20, a kamikaze (suicide) truck bombing targeted an Iraqi Turcoman Shi'i mosque in the village of Taza in the north of the country, killing at least 73 people and wounding over 200. In April, 60 pilgrims were killed by two female kamikaze bombers near the Shi'i Kadhimiyya Shrine in Baghdad. In early May, a teenage bomber was stopped before he could detonate his explosives-belt inside an Iraqi Turcoman Shi'i mosque in the northern city of Kirkuk.

Taza, Iraq after the bombing

The latest attack occured yesterday (Wednesday, June 24) in Sadr City, a sprawling area of Baghdad which is home to over two million people, most of the Iraqi Shi'is. Unlike the other recent attacks, the vehicle bombing in the Mraydi Market was not a kamikaze attack. A rickshaw packed with explosives, which were hidden with produce, attached to a motorcycle exploded, killing at least 72 people, though the toll may rise. However, reports suggest that the operator of the motorcycle got off before the explosives were detonated. It is unclear whether this latest attack was supposed to be yet another kamikaze mission, but was not due to "cold feet" by the driver.

Though AQI seems to be returning to its former (successful) strategy of targeting Iraqi Shi'is, the organization and its allies also seem to be forgoing a high number of attacks (frequency) for a series of well-planned and very deadly "spectacular," or "big" attacks. In addition to a return to the strategy developed by al-Zarqawi, the late AQI chief was recently "honored" in a nasheed (a religiously-themed, or in this case militant-themed, song) in he is identified as the "Prince of the Martyrs," or "Amir al-Istishhadiyyin" in Arabic. The nasheed is accompanied with photographs and footage of al-Zarqawi with AQI jihadis in Iraq, and the famous photograph of his bruised face following his death. The nasheed video also includes footage of roadside bombings against the U.S. military, footage of prominent Iraqi politicians and security officers, including Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, a prominent Sunni politician who heads the Iraqi Accord Front, and footage of U.S. military personnel with members of the Awakening Councils, including the late Shaykh 'Abd al-Sattar Abu Risha, who formed one of the first councils in al-Anbar Province in western Iraq, which was an AQI stronghold from 2004-2006. These individuals are described as "unbelievers" and "criminals."

"Islamic State of Iraq: The State of Islam, with God's permission, Remains"

The video closes with a series of statements read by Abu 'Umar al-Baghdadi, the "caliph" of the Islamic State of Iraq. The statements all begin with one of the ISI's "mantras," the ISI "remains," or "will remain," which is an integral part to much of the visual media produced by the group, or in its name.


View the video nasheed. Warning: It includes footage of violence.

During the heyday of al-Zarqawi's tenure as leader of AQI, kamikaze suicide vehicle attacks were a bedrock of his strategy, one which he first employed in 2003 in attacks against the headquarters of the United Nations and the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad. These attacks are glorified in video nasheed releases such as the following, entitled "Final Goodbye." This video is a perfect example of the type of media that AQ, through its al-Sahab (The Clouds) media wing, and its allies and affiliates, such as al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM) have perfected. AQIM has released multiple videos since April, including a nearly two-hour video, 'Ushaq al-Hur (Lovers of the Pure Beings of Paradise).

View the video nasheed "Final Goodbye," which includes footage from both Iraq (by AQI and its allies) and the Maghrib (by AQIM). The video shows no actual violence, but is one of the best examples I have seen of Salafi jihadi media. Around the 4:50-minute mark, the text reads "Ghazwat Badr Baghdad," or "Badr-Baghdad Raid/Battle," a reference to the Battle of Badr, when the Prophet Muhammad and his supporters defeated a much larger Meccan force sent to destroy them.


Anonymous said...

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Alexander said...

Do you think these attacks were carried out now specifically because AQI views Iran as less capable of aiding its Shi'i allies in Iraq, due to the political turmoil Iran faces at home? Or were these were planned to take place at this time anyway, and the timing was merely coincidental? Maybe a little of both--some planning, and some opportunism?

إبن الصقلي said...


I think it may be a combination of a "return," as I argue to a tried-and-true strategy used by AQI's founder, a bit of opportunism given current events, and, perhaps most importantly, opportunism of a different kind, i.e. taking advantage of the U.S. government's new focus on the "good war" in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The "series," loosely speaking, of attacks against high-profile Iraqi Shi'i, and foreign Shi'i, targets, such as pilgrims close to the Kadhimiyya Shrine in Baghdad, began several months ago. AQI and other Salafi jihadi groups also have enough in their own ideology that would make attacks on Shi'is attractive from a theological position. They also were more than willing to launch such attacks before, when the Iranian government was less distracted by events at home. However, I think your point about distractions on the Iranian government front must seen as a "plus" by AQI and its allies.

There certainly is some evidence that jihadis and their supporters are taking note (and how could they not?) of what's happening in Iran. See this post on the Jihadica blog:

The Iran Crisis & Its Effects on the Global Jihad

There are some uncertainties with relying on random posts on the jihadi forums, as the author of the post notes. These include a lack of information about the user (are they an actual militant, or just an armchair cheerleader?) and their actual importance in the scheme of things. Nonetheless, it does seem to show that there is an interest in current events in Iran.

Key AQ strategists have focused on Iranian realpolitik, quite extensively, in the recent past:

Jihadi Strategist Explains Iranian Realpolitik

Alexander said...

Interesting links, thanks. I wonder to what extent pragmatism creates a conflict with ideology for these jihadi groups - have you written on that subject at all? For instance, they certainly must be aware that "Sunnifying" 18-20 million Iraqi Shi'a is not an achievable goal, and that doesn't seem to be their aim insomuch as turning Iraq into a base of operations, as you put it. But where is that division between practicality and (utterly deranged) idealism? Do they believe that they can successfully rid Iraq of its Shi'i population, or do they use such claims in their rhetoric while privately acknowledging its impossibility? (I'm just speculating here - it's not a subject I know much about, and I don't even know if they have made such claims).

I guess it is easier for me to see the line dividing Iranian state rhetoric on uniting the ummah and and the pragmatism of strategic alliances with Sunni Islamists like Hamas because I am more familiar with the case of Iran. (Though I have seen reports that Iran is trying--against all odds, one would think--to spread Shi'ism in Palestine. I don't know how credible these reports are, though, and whether that's just fantasy or reality).

Ultimately I think my question is part of a broader one that is hard to ever really know the answer to: how much do the major proponents of any political (or politicized) ideology really believe, and how much is posturing or politicking?

إبن الصقلي said...

I think we saw some of this in the back-and-forth between Ayman al-Zawahiri and al-Zarqawi in 2005. If the letters/messages intercepted are genuine, and they seem to be, al-Zawahiri was urging al-Zarqawi to stop attacks against Iraqi civilians, if for no other reason then killing Muslim civilians made it very difficult for AQ to "sell" its brand, and to stop his attacks on Iraqi Shi'i "laity," since they were largely ignorant of their own digressions.

However, when al-Zarqawi was killed in June 2006, AQ "Central," through al-Zawahiri, has dispelled, at least publicly, with any signs of disagreement with him.

The issue of violence, including against Shi'is, also led to a falling out between al-Zarqawi and his former mentor, the Palestinian-Jordanian jihadi shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. Recently, other Salafi jihadis have accused al-Maqdisi of becoming "soft." The NY Times did an article on it, which I can't find at the moment, but one great observation came from Princeton's Bernard Haykel: He basically said that each new generation of jihadis is much less educated in religious sources and are even more intolerant and violent than the previous generation.

Al-Zarqawi, I think, did not so much want or think that he could fully eradicate Iraqi's Shi'is, but instead wanted to create a situation of lawlessness through civil war that would, like in Afghanistan, allow AQI to operate more or less freely. Juan Cole has argued that some segments of Iraq's Sunni Arab community, particularly those once sympathetic or even allied with AQI and its sister groups, did believe that they could, at least, re-subjugate the Shi'is and become the ruling political class yet again.

I agree with you re: Iran's pragmatism vis-a-vis Sunni Islamists. I think that was a product of failed Shi'i uprisings in the Arab Gulf in the few years following the revolution.

I have seen similar reports re: Palestine. However, it seems that any conversion to Shi'ism has more to do with politics than actual religious persuasion. A similar trend emerged, apparently, in Syria shortly after the Summer 2006 Lebanon war. Two years ago, there was a new Arabic Palestinian Shi'i discussion forum, but it has since closed. There has been some conversion in Egypt, but there has also been a small indigenous Shi'i community there since the Fatimids.

Your last question is a great one, and one which I often ponder myself. The reason I think that at least a segment of Salafi jihadis truly believe their own rhetoric, whether or not it is actually achievable, is because I have had rather unpleasant conversations with Salafis who, though not jihadi, really have an almost irrational hatred of Shi'is.

Alexander said...

To your last point: "almost" irrational? :) I'm sure that many of the 'followers' of these ideologies truly believe in them, but what I wonder about especially is whether those at the top do.

إبن الصقلي said...

First, touché. ;-)

Although I have no hard evidence, I tend to believe that many, if not most or all, of the dedicated Salafi jihadis believe their screeds about Shi'is and other non-Salafi "deviant" Muslims. Many of them seem to espouse and act on these beliefs even when it seemingly makes little strategic sense.