Last week's tragic bombings in Baghdad, Karbala, and Quetta on the Shi'ite holy day of Ashura killed 271 in Iraq and 42 in Pakistan, causing wide-ranging reactions in both Iraq and South Asia. Yet who was behind these barbaric attacks and why? This special analysis will try to answer some of these questions.
The Usual Suspect Not surprisingly, the Abu Musab Zarqawi. As is now common knowledge, Zarqawi is believed to be writer of a letter sent to the al-Qaeda leadership requesting permission to engage in a sectarian campaign against Iraqi Shi'ites in hopes of starting a civil war that would spell the end of coalition efforts in the country. One copy of that letter was found on Hassan Ghul near the Iranian border, while another was recovered in Baghdad safe house and yet another showed up in the possession of al-Qaeda financiers in Saudi Arabia, so would not appear imprudent to believe that at least one copy made it one of al-Qaeda's remaining leaders, most of whom are currently located in Iran. Cased closed, then? Not quite. As I noted in my last special analysis, prior to the Ashura Massacre there were no indications that al-Qaeda or affiliated groups were actively targeting Iraqi Shi'ites, instead preferring to focus the majority of their efforts attacking coalition forces and Iraqi police or security forces loyal to the interim government. As a result, I came to the conclusion that al-Qaeda had likely opted against taking approach, both because of the organizations ecumenical mindset (at least amongst those who share its hatred for the West) as well as out of deferrence to their Iranian hosts. A recent story in the New York Times appears to support that conclusion, noting that al-Qaeda has rejected Zarqawi's offer to help him kill Shi'ites. Media Meme One further point to be made is that there appears to be a concerted effort by anonymous sources to tell a number of media outlets (and I have no intention of speculating as to why this might be) that Zarqawi is not an al-Qaeda leader. Most of these claims rely upon little more than thinly-veiled sophistry or reliance on their own distorted intelligence, but they have been repeated to such an extent that is long-since past time to start knocking them down. The standard of picture of Zarqawi that often emerges in many of these articles is that of a Jordanian terrorist leading an obscure group called al-Tawhid dedicated to overthrowing the Hashemite monarchy and killing Jews. The ultimate source of these claims, as I noted several months ago, is the testimony of Shadi Abdallah to German authorities. However, this explanation has holes big enough for Godzilla to walk through with its ultimate inability to explain how or why an obscure terrorist like Zarqawi would be in a position to issue orders to known Moroccan (Salafi Jihad), Algerian (GIA and GSPC), Libyan (Libyan Islamic Fighting Group), Turkish (Turkish Hezbollah and Great Islamic Eastern Raiders' Front), Kurdish (Ansar al-Islam), and Chechen (warlords Shamil Basayev and Ruslan Gelayev) al-Qaeda affiliates (or receive orders from al-Qaeda military commander Saif al-Adel), especially if, as Shadi Abdallah initially claimed, he is in fact a rival to the organization. Even more improbable is the belief that the Taliban would allow a man who was a stated rival to their primary patron to set up his own base of operations in Herat, the same city the al-Qaeda nuclear program was being run out of. Simply speaking, neither the Taliban nor bin Laden allowed rivals to operate freely in their own backyard - just ask Ahmed Shah Masoud. Another fact that I think is being missed with regard to the media claims of Zarqawi's affiliation is what exactly al-Qaeda "is" to begin with. The idea that it exists as some kind of a more or less homogeneous organization along the lines of the fictional SPECTRE, Hydra, or Cobra is simply not the case. What is, rather, as Rohan Gunaratna explains in his book Inside Al-Qaeda, is "an organization of organizations," a coalition of over forty different terrorist groups operating under bin Laden's aegis as the Islamic International Front under a unified central command and ideology. Nor is this any great secret, given that the Milan wiretaps and the reference in them by individual al-Tawhid members to "Emir Abdullah" (i.e. bin Laden) leave one with little doubt who they are working for. Unfortunately, for the purposes of press reports it is that central command or core network of between 3,000-200 individual leaders that alone is made to fit the definition of "al-Qaeda." Zarqawi's own terrorist organization, al-Tawhid, is an al-Qaeda affiliate organization operating within the framework of the International Front similar to the way in which a separate franchise exists within a multi-national corporation. Far too many pundits and analysts seem to be pre-occupied with fitting al-Qaeda into something resembling a nation-state framework, but I myself believe that a corporate framework is a far better way to describe the organization and how it operates, particularly at senior levels. An analogy between bin Laden and his lieutenants in the organization's Shura Majlis and a dictator with his advisors simply does not fit - a far better one would be the chairman of the board of a multi-national corporation and his CEOs. And, in case any one is curious, this is the likely reason as to why Zarqawi's letter to the al-Qaeda leadership is written in Arabic from one peer to another rather than from a subordinate to a superior - it is not that Zarqawi is not a leader within al-Qaeda, but rather an indication of just how high up he is within the organization. Finally, it behooves me to point out that it was none other than key members of Zarqawi's al-Tawhid that deployed several associates of the 9/11 hijackers in Europe prior to the attacks. With all due respect to the critics, you don't get more "al-Qaeda" than that. Iran Connection? There has been a lot of speculation within blogosphere since the Ashura Massacre that it may have been perpetrated with the foreknowledge or assistance of the Iranian government. Occasional Winds of Change commenter Michael Ledeen noted as much in his March 2, 2004 commentary on the Iranian reaction to the attacks and ActivistChat claims that anti-regime protesters in numerous Iranian cities accused the Islamic Republic of masterminding the attacks in Iraq for its own gain. Most of this struck me as fairly improbable until I discovered on several anti-regime websites charges that Iran itself bombed the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad on June 20, 1994. This makes a certain amount of sense - if the Iranian government bombed a holy Shi'ite shrine in the past on its own soil, presumably it would have no compunctions about doing so again on foreign soil. Iran officially blames the bombing on the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), a Marxist organization that wants to see a People's Republic rather than an Islamic Republic in power in Tehran, but attributing unknown bombings or assassinations to the MEK has been standard form in Iranian government circles for years. Every account I've seen instead lays the blame for the Mashhad bombing on none other than Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind behind the first World Trade Center bombing, who was in Pakistan in June 1994, where he attempted to assassinate then-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto under bin Laden's orders. The fact that Yousef is widely believed to have carried out the Mashhad bombing does not in of itself negate the possibility that he could have been asked to do so under orders from the Iranian government and certainly establishing a connection between Yousef and Iran at such an early date would greatly help in discerning just how far back al-Qaeda's operational ties to Tehran go and what Iran has received in return for sponsoring the organization. However, much of this information is currently unclear and cannot be stated with certainty at this time. Murky Enough Yet? The most interesting explanation that I've seen to date appeared in an article by B. Raman, a former Indian intelligence chief who opposed the war in Iraq but nevertheless recognizes the nature of threat currently posed by the Iraqi jihadis. His article, which makes a number of interesting claims, including that Ramzi Yousef worked with the Iraqi Mukhabarat (in Unit 999, perhaps?) to carry out the Mashhad bombing, a claim that I have not seen outside of adherents of Laurie Mylroie's theory that Yousef was himself an Iraqi intelligence agent. According Raman, the attack on the Iraqi Shi'ites was done as part of Zarqawi's broader strategy to instigate a civil war, while the Quetta attack was an al-Qaeda operation designed to frighten the local Shi'ites into submission against cooperating with the Pakistani authorities in the ongoing hunt for al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan. Certainly the fact that the Quetta attack's suspected mastermind was none other than Daud Badini, Ramzi Yousef's brother-in-law tends to add credibility to Raman's claims, as do recent revelations concerning four suspects arrested in connection with the attack. It is also worth pointing out that Yousef himself had marital ties to the leadership of Pakistani sectarian group Sipah-e-Sahaba, which calls for the annihilation of all Shi'ites and is commonly described as "defunct" by the Pakistani press despite the fact that its members still kill people on a semi-regular basis. More to the point, Raman's claims that the international brigades of the Harakat ul-Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Taiba are now forming the bulk of Zarqawi's foreign fighters in addition to al-Tawhid and Ansar al-Islam make sense for a number of reasons. In addition to supporting recent indications that Pakistani organizations and in particular the Lashkar-e-Taiba have become the new "legitimate" face of the International Front with al-Qaeda's leadership underground, this also explains why Kashmir has been so quiet recently - many of the major jihadi organizations in the region have all shifted their sights to Iraq. A move, incidentally, that would suit their backers in the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment just fine while they try to conduct negotiations with India. Raman theorizes that in addition to LeT and HuM, Zarqawi also summoned members of the vehemently anti-Shi'ite Pakistani Lashkar-e-Jhangvi to Iraq to perpetrate the Ashura Massacre. While the LeT and HuM both share al-Qaeda's more ecumenical outlook, the LeT does not and hence would be a valuable pawn for Zarqawi to utilize in carrying out the attacks. If al-Qaeda got into trouble with Iran over the bombings (and a casual observer like myself notes that their denial was issued awful fast), the organization could always claim that Zarqawi was acting on his own accord or Zarqawi could use the LeJ as a scapegoat to prevent the attacks from disrupting the existing Iranian alliance with al-Qaeda. LeJ involvement might also explain reports of Farsi speakers being taken into custody shortly after the bombings - detained LeJ members might well speak Dari, which might sound like Farsi to an Arab unfamiliar with the language the same way that Portuguese or Italian can sometimes be mistaken for Spanish. There's Always A But ... As impressive and harmonizing as Raman's claims are, there are a number of difficulties with the scenario he creates. To begin with, while a reputable foreign intelligence source claiming that Zarqawi (to say nothing of Yousef) worked with the Iraqi Mukhabarat in the mid-1990s is nothing short of a bombshell, it also flies in the face of what has up until this point been considered a verifiable fact. According to multiple articles, including this masterful picture of the man that appeared February 10, 2004 in the Wall Street Journal, he listed as having been in Jordanian prison from 1992 until 1999 when he was released under a general amnesty during the same time that Raman says that he was assisting Yousef in bombing Mashhad and fighting alongside the Taliban during their conquest of Kabul. I am uncertain how, if at all, this data can be harmonized given the known facts. All the same, a scenario in which Zarqawi was on the lose during the 1990s would provide some extremely interesting rationales for his later actions, in particular his decision to leave Iran for Iraq (specifically Baghdad) to begin with. If one accepts the rationale that he was involved in the Mashhad bombing, his decision to leave makes perfect sense - he might well have feared that Iran would have learned of his connections to the bombing as well as his Mukhabarat connections and take action against him. It would also explain how, using his contacts within the Mukhabarat, an otherwise obscure al-Qaeda leader coming in from a hostile state happened to end up at an exclusive hospital in Baghdad to begin with. In addition, Raman's claim that bin Laden oversaw a massacre of Shi'ites at Gilgit in 1988 as the commander of Sunni tribal militia is certainly an interesting one, as it appears nowhere in any of the numerous biographies of the man that have been published in English since 9/11. Still, Raman has been making this claim since at least January 2002 so he's consistent in this regard if nothing else. Certainly taking part in such an action would explain why bin Laden is held in such high regard by the Sunni tribesmen of northern Pakistan entirely apart from his career as Abdullah Azzam's deputy during the Afghan War or his close ties with the Taliban. In Conclusion ... There's a lot that's still murky about the Ashura Massacre, but thus far it appears that Abu Musab Zarqawi is the chief suspect for the bombings in Karbala and Baghdad, possibly using the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi as pawns. The Quetta attack was coordinated by Daud Badini, the brother-in-law of the first World Trade Center bombing mastermind, possibly with the intent of frightening Shi'ite Baluchis into submission against collaborating with the Pakistani military in the hunt for bin Laden. Because of the decentralized and occasionally squabbling nature of the Islamic International Front, the core network (al-Qaeda) disavowed any involvement in the Iraq bombings for fear of antagonizing its current hosts in Iran. All of this assumes, however, that Iran itself did not play a role in or possess foreknowledge of the attacks, which could indeed be the case. This kind of "fog of war" with regard to facts that comes from analyzing separate and often contradictory pieces of information is one of the downsides that comes from dealing with open (or even closed, I suspect) source information in wartime. Ultimately, if any one individual knows the full rationale and strategy behind the Ashura Massacre, that man is none other than Abu Musab Zarqawi and until he is captured or killed of one thing we can be certain: what happened during last week's Ashura will almost certainly recur again and again, either in or outside of Iraq. It is for that reason if no other that if the US truly seeks to protect Iraq from another madman like Saddam Hussein that the focus right now on eliminating Zarqawi and his followers by any and all means necessary. The fresh blood on the streets of Baghdad and Karbala demands nothing less.