Jordanian-born al Qaeda militant Abu Musab Zarqawi has been replaced as head of the terrorist organization in Iraq in a bid to put an Iraqi figure at the head of the group’s struggle, said a leading Islamist.
But terrorism specialists were divided on whether the move represented a demotion for the figure most closely identified with a wave of suicide bombings and beheadings or a move by Zarqawi to focus his efforts on a larger regional war.
Huthayafa Azzam, whose father is seen as a political mentor of al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, told reporters in Jordan over the weekend that Zarqawi, who has not made a public statement in months, was no longer the head of al Qaeda in Iraq and that his role “has been limited to military action.”
Azzam, who claims close contacts with leading insurgents inside Iraq, said Zarqawi had “made many political mistakes,” including kidnappings and beheadings that sparked popular revulsion and unauthorized operations outside Iraq, such as the November bombing of a Jordanian hotel.
“The resistance command inside and outside Iraq, including imams, criticized [Zarqawi] and after long discussions demanded that he be confined to military action,” Azzam told the Associated Press and other news outlets.
U.S. military officials in Baghdad have put a $25 million bounty on Zarqawi’s head, and talked as recently as last week of the Jordanian terrorist’s leading role and of attacks thought to be carried out by his group, al Qaeda in Iraq.
Reports that Zarqawi had been shunted aside are “nothing we can verify,” Lt. Col. Barry Johnson told reporters in Baghdad yesterday.
In mid-January, Internet communiques from al Qaeda in Iraq abruptly ceased when it was announced that six Sunni insurgent groups in Iraq had come together to form a “Mujahideen Shura Council.”
Western terrorism specialists expected Zarqawi to head the new council. But the group announced Jan. 20 that the previously unknown Abdullah Rashid al-Baghdadi was the council’s new leader. Baghdadi is thought to be an Iraqi, but Iraqi government officials said they think the name is a pseudonym.
Rita Katz, a counterterrorism specialist at the Washington-based Search for International Terrorist Entities (SITE) Institute, was one of the first Western analysts to flag Zarqawi’s diminished profile. Ayman al-Zawahri, considered bin Laden’s right-hand man, told Zarqawi in a June 2005 letter that Iraqis should quickly be given leadership positions in the Iraqi fight.
“This was not a demotion, as [Zarqawi] from the get-go viewed Iraq as only a springboard to the global jihad aimed to establish a worldwide caliphate,” Ms. Katz said. “He must have felt the time was ripe to delegate the local Iraqi struggle to a local organization, while he continued to pursue the next stages of the plan.”
She said the November hotel attack in Amman, Jordan, that killed 63 persons was seen by bin Laden and other al Qaeda strategists not as a blunder but as part of a larger plan to increase instability and tensions throughout the region. Zarqawi has long talked of sparking the sectarian tensions now evident in Iraq between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims.
It was not clear how much contact Azzam has with insurgent groups inside Iraq, but his late father, Abdullah Azzam, was considered a pivotal player among those dedicated to a jihad, or holy war, against enemies of Islam.
Bin Laden, a Saudi citizen, has said he was inspired to join the Afghan guerrilla struggle against the Soviet army in 1984 because of the teachings of Abdullah Azzam, who helped found the Palestinian wing of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. He also authored an influential five-volume study of jihad before being killed by a car bomb in Afghanistan in 1989.