Godfathers of Terror

Their sights set on the elections, militant groups in Iraq are now stirring up more violence than ever. Radical Islamists such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi are particularly interested in torpedoing the elections. Alexandra Senfft took a closer look at Zarqawi's networks and his political goals

photo: DPA
US Marines look at poster of Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi, Fallujah, Iraq

​​Their sights set on the elections planned for January 30th, militant groups in Iraq are stirring up more violence than ever. Radical Islamists in particular intend to do their best to hinder free and peaceful elections. Now witnessing the waning of the political influence they enjoyed under Saddam Hussein, they fear that the new government will almost certainly be dominated by Shiites.

Murderous attacks like those carried out in the Shiite cities of Najaf and Kerbala on December 20 are a continuation of the series of intraconfessional bloodbaths that threaten to drive Iraq toward civil war.

Chaos – the favored strategy of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

Presumably that is just what Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the most-sought Islamist terrorist in the world after Bin Laden, would like to see happen. The more anarchic the conditions in Iraq become, the greater the chaos – and chaos is the elixir of life for militant Islamists, who take advantage of the resulting power vacuum to assert their fanatical interests.

The Bush administration has placed a 25-million-dollar bounty on the head of the feared Jordanian. The US alleges that he is behind the terrorist attacks in Madrid, Paris, and Istanbul and accuses him of beheading two US citizens and a British hostage, along with various other crimes that probably are not all his doing. There is evidence implicating al-Zarqawi as the wirepuller behind a group in Germany that planned attacks on Jewish institutions.

We actually know very little about al-Zarqawi – so little in fact that some experts even doubt the existence of the radical Islamist or believe that he has long since lost his life in one of the battles in Iraq. The information we do have about him is in some cases not well backed up and frequently more of a speculative nature.

"A thug rather than a thinker"

photo: DPA
Undated photo of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi released by the US Department of State

​​All we seem to know for sure is that al-Zarqawi was born in 1966 in the Jordanian town of Zarqa under the name al-Khalaila and grew up in an underprivileged, arch-conservative milieu, with minimal schooling. He is supposed to have already shown criminal tendencies in youth: "a thug rather than a thinker" (The Guardian).

How the father of four children found his way to radical Islamism can only be explained today with the usual mix of psychological, social, and political causes. At any rate, he eventually traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan to fight against the Soviets, and spent several years in a Jordanian prison, accused of subversive activities. In 2000 he fled once again to Afghanistan and, driven away by the US military intervention there, finally ended up in Iraq.

There, according to Guido Steinberg, Islamic scholar and terrorism expert, al-Zarqawi made himself into something of a "terrorist trendsetter" with the group he founded in 2004, Jama'at at-tawhid wa-l-Jihad (Community for Monotheism and Holy War). With his shocking video recordings of decapitations, the professionally operating radical Islamist soon made headlines all over the world.

Strategies against the West

Al-Zarqawi wants to be seen as the backbone between the Iraqi and Arab resistance against the allied and Israeli occupiers. The militants should follow his lead and put at his disposal all of their financial donations toward the common cause. He intends to achieve this leadership position by committing the most spectacular and horrific acts possible, as a kind of proof of performance.

In a letter attributed to Zarqawi that was published by the US authorities in February 2004, whose origins are however still questioned by the experts, he explained: "All that we hope is that we will be the spearhead, the enabling vanguard, and the bridge on which the Islamic nation crosses over to the victory that is promised and the tomorrow to which we aspire."

It is alleged that Zarqawi's main enemy is the USA and all of those allied with that country. Thus, an alleged comrade of al-Zarqawi stated on September 10, 2004 in the Arabic-language newspaper al-Hayat, published in London: "There is absolutely no question that anyone who collaborates with the occupiers is a traitor and must be killed, no matter whether Sunni, Shiite, or Turk."

While in his purported letter al-Zarqawi describes in detail who it is that he views as the enemy, he does not provide any visions of a political or social order to be installed after the hoped-for triumph.

Guerilla group as a social movement

His propaganda seems to have met with some success: supposedly, many radicals in Iraq have joined forces with him. University of Michigan historian Juan Cole even claims that al-Zarqawi has been able to set up his foreign guerilla group as a social movement in Iraq.

In the meantime, most Iraqis are now at pains to oust these foreign militants, reports the Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram, since they hold them responsible for the anarchic conditions in their country. Their rejection, however, might also be based on the fact that, with his radical religious acts and obviously self-interested motives, al-Zarqawi discredits what is regarded as the legitimate Iraqi resistance against the American occupation.

The rampant violence he has set loose could therefore at some point end up directed back against him – similar to what happened when the Algerians had their fill of the massacres perpetrated by the GIA, or when the Egyptians withdrew their support from the radical Islamists after the bloodbath in Luxor.

Connections to Bin Laden

Al-Zarqawi is usually cited in connection with the international terror network al-Qaida. With this supposed connection, former US Secretary of State Colin Powell attempted to prove that the Iraqi leadership was involved in international terrorism – as one of the main justifications for the US invasion of Iraq.

But today experts still know very little about how much Zarqawi and Bin Laden really have to do with each other. In October 2004 Zarqawi declared himself a follower of Bin Laden and re-christened his group Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad ar-Rafidain (Mesopotamia). This seemed to indicate a commitment not only to al-Qaida, but also to the battle in Iraq.

But it is more complicated than that, says terrorism expert Steinberg, characterizing the relationship between the two networks as one of "competition and cooperation." As he will demonstrate in an upcoming article, there is definitely some ideological common ground, in particular the goals of driving the Americans and Israelis out of the region and toppling the corrupt Arab rulers.

Exploiting anti-Shiite sentiment

But Steinberg also notes some strategic differences: al-Zarqawi wants primarily to liberate Palestine and has focused on a hate-filled, anti-Shiite line with which he perhaps intends to "appeal to financiers from the gulf states, where anti-Shiite sentiment is widespread." The expert views Bin Laden as being much more interested in overthrowing the ruling Saudi dynasty, while avoiding direct attacks on Shiites.

Al-Qaida is "a network of militants and only exists as long as it is actively attacking," says sociologist and Islam specialist Olivier Roy (Le Monde Diplomatique). That is why Roy deems it to be in Bin Laden's own best interests when scattered militant groups proudly display the Qaida logo. This serves to keep the network alive and make it seem much more imposing and better organized on an international scale than it actually is.

Since the same can be said of al-Zarqawi, both wind up profiting from their loose ties, which are part of the general ideological network of "Salafis."

In one of his messages aired via Al-Jazeera on 27 December 2004, Bin Laden "officially" appointed al-Zarqawi as "al-Qaida's commander in Iraq".

Salafi networks and ideological patterns

"Salafism" feeds on the fanatical claim that only the prophet Mohammed and his comrades represent the true Islam. For the Salafis, everything that deviates from these ostensibly pure teachings, every innovation or reform, is an offence against the "religious truth" and must be combated. This reason is the reason why they regard Shiites as heretics, enemies just like Christians and Jews.

An American specialist on radical Islamist groups, Quintan Wiktorowicz of Rhodes College, has tried to depict the bewildering network of Salafis: they are grouped around various scholars with widely divergent political approaches and goals, depending on their regional and local situation.

"As an ideological network," says Wiktorowicz, "the Salafis are fragmented along often competing lines of sacred authority and conclusions about divine duties to promote and protect Islam, even though they share a common methodological approach to religious interpretation. This implies a tendency toward fragmentation and diversity, rather than centralization and unification.

Intra-Salafi struggle

There are certainly clusters within the network that organize around particular scholars and beliefs about politics and opposition in Islam, but even within these clusters there is competition and variety. This indicates an ongoing intra-Salafi struggle over identity and religious meaning."

We can assume that al-Zarqawi is interested in taking the helm within the Salafi movement as well, and even outstripping Bin Laden. Although he is usually in a position to carry out the deeds he announces according to plan, indicating a high degree of professionalism, no one really knows what his ultimate intentions are.

His actions can probably be attributed on the simplest level to a nasty brew of fanatical religious, political, and criminal motives, with no founding in a long-term, logical strategy with practical plans for the future.

Islamist terror – regional or global ambitions?

The fact is that many experts are against laying all the events in Iraq and the deeds of internationally operating Islamist terrorism at the door of a few individual evildoers. This is not only because of our lack of knowledge about group leaders such as al-Zarqawi, but also because focusing on one person or group tends to blur our capacity to see the big picture and delve into root causes.

In the view of the Islam experts, it is important to understand al-Qaida and al-Zarqawi's Qaidat al-Jihad not as unique organizations, but instead as components of an ideological network operating all over the world, made up of discrete groups who usually do not work in concert.

At the same time, scholars warn against seeing Islamist terrorism exclusively as a global phenomenon, because it has its origins in widely divergent regional conflicts. Al-Zarqawi as well pursues primarily regional objectives:

Iraq as staging ground for future attacks against Israel

"Given his alleged origins and ethnic ties, he may view Iraq as a possible staging ground for future attacks against Israel and the liberation of Palestinian territories," remarks Wiktorowicz. Of course, as a Jordanian from an impoverished background, he is also out to overthrow the monarchy in his country of birth.

The fact that the "war against terror" only creates more terror is no longer merely a gloomy prophecy put forth by critics of neo-conservative American foreign policy, but has become a terrible reality.

One of the disquieting aspects of the situation is that no one seems capable anymore of capturing a clear and complete picture of globally active Islamist terrorism.

The House of Islam is increasingly losing its moorings

French sociologist and Arabist Gilles Kepel believes that the religious leaders themselves have lost control over developments, and that the House of Islam is increasingly losing its moorings, endangering world peace.

His American colleague Wiktorowicz suspects that "the solution lies with Salafi scholars, who are responsible for sanctioning or prohibiting behaviors. If influential jihadi scholars can be convinced that the violence does not conform to Islamic law, this could have an enormous effect."

But as long as the West does not know how to deal with the problem, which is increasingly migrating to our shores, it is forced to make due with buzzwords. In this sense, says Kepel (in Die Welt), "'Zarqawi' is possibly merely the name we give to our uncertainty. Just like 'al-Qaida' is only a label we attach to an extremely complex phenomenon."

Alexandra Senfft

© Qantara.de 2005

Translation from the German by Jennifer Taylor-Gaida