Over the last several months, there's been a great deal of discussion with respect to Abu Musab Zarqawi and whether or not he's ally of Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda network.
Originally there was no real question about this - nor is there still among actual governments, a point I'll get to later in the post. Recently, however, the issue has become politicized in the United States by people inside the intelligence community who do not agree with the conventional characterization being put out by the administration. Some have chosen to air those disputes to the press. This is augmented by the fact some intelligence-security officials in Europe, particularly in Germany, adopt a similar view of the man.
In this piece, I'm going to try to put up and the evidence for and against Zarqawi being an al-Qaeda leader... and why I believe that the body of evidence swings decisively in favor of the al-Qaeda conclusion.
So who believes what?
This is an important question, since most of the people who talk about Zarqawi aside from the usual grouping of intelligence personnel tend to be anonymous when quoted in the media. Finding out who believes what is extremely important if you want to weigh credibility on these types of issues. I should also add that the current conflict between the administration and various folks at the CIA is a somewhat of a unique phenomenon, though it unfortunately complicates these matters greatly as far as figuring out what the truth is now that we're in a political season.
Finally, note that my knowledge of what various foreign governments believe on these subjects is somewhat dated and only extends to August 2004 at the absolute maximum:
- US - Most of the US intelligence community refers to Zarqawi as either an al-Qaeda leader or an "al-Qaeda associate," the latter being the same term used within government to describe the leaders of al-Qaeda satellite organizations like Jemaah Islamiyyah or the Algerian GSPC. There are people in the State Department and the CIA analysis section who give more credibility to the German stuff than others, but they tend to be in the minority view which is why they're the ones doing much of the leaking.
Alternatively, there are some people who know damned well that Zarqawi is al-Qaeda but choose to leak dissenting opinions on the subject for political reasons. Al-Qaeda's refusal to assist Zarqawi in stirring up a sectarian conflict inside Iraq also raised some eyebrows when it first occurred, but now the general consensus is that this was done more to retain al-Qaeda ties to Iran than any kind of a true break between the two organizations.
- UK - As in the US, there are some dissenting views within the British intelligence community, but the Milan wiretaps among other things seem to have even more persuaded the British authorities that Zarqawi is, as he is described in the Lord Butler report, a "senior al-Qaeda figure." To the best my knowledge, the British don't have anywhere resembling the kind of problems within their intelligence infrastructure that the US does, so if disagreements do exist with respect to this conclusion, they certainly aren't being made public.
- France - Initially the French were extremely skeptical of Abu Musab Zarqawi's ties to al-Qaeda, in large part because their thinking was heavily influenced by the German opinion and they tended to disregard most US intelligence on the subject of Zarqawi because of it.
Since the disruption of the al-Qaeda infrastructure in southern France and the succession of Zarqawi lieutenant Abu Hafs al-Urduni to the leadership of the Arab al-Qaeda fighters in Chechnya, the French have done a definite 180 on Zarqawi and successfully identified the connections between him, al-Tawhid, al-Qaeda, the Chechen Killer Korps, and the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Ignoring the Chechen connection to al-Qaeda is becoming more and more difficult for European governments post-Beslan, but with respect to noticing the LeT connection the French are probably ahead of the US on this one.
- Germany - Germany was the first Western government to get a hold of some of Zarqawi's minions, in particular Shadi Abdallah, who appears to be the ultimate source of most of the claims that Zarqawi and al-Tawhid are rivals rather than allies. The Germans also have Zarqawi speaking to his flunkies on a satellite phone telling them that the money raised by al-Tawhid cells in Germany were supposed to go only to al-Tawhid, not to the larger al-Qaeda network. As a result of this evidence, the Germans regard Zarqawi as a rival rather an ally of al-Qaeda and cite those findings as evidence against cooperation between the two. There have also been some reports that the German al-Tawhid cells refused to assist Ramzi Binalshibh in getting out of Germany, but I've never seen any hard evidence on that point.
- Jordan - Jordan has the largest single file on Zarqawi of any intelligence agency and they say that he's an al-Qaeda leader, citing the interrogation of his over 100 al-Tawhid members, phone conversations between Zarqawi and Abu Zubaydah, and most recently Azmi al-Jayyousi and his attempt to carry out mass murder in Amman this last spring.
- Other Arab intelligence agencies - While other Arab intelligence agencies believe that Zarqawi is an al-Qaeda leader but don't think that he actually carries out half of the attacks attributed to him by the US or that he claims responsibility for. The general opinion among most Arab intelligence agencies is that the majority of the Iraqi insurgency is composed of native Iraqis fighting back against the US occupation and that Zarqawi is just a way to scapegoat them all as being terrorist in character.
So there you have it.
The evidence in favor ...
Here, near as I can tell, is the evidence in favor of Zarqawi being an al-Qaeda leader that is available to the general public. Please keep in mind when reading this that I have always been of the opinion that Zarqawi is an al-Qaeda leader:
- The initial Jordanian court indictment against Zarqawi for his role in the Millennium Plot refers to collaboration with at least two known al-Qaeda figures, Abu Zubaydah and Raed Hijazi.
- Zarqawi's top deputy, according to Spanish court documents, is Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, the leader of al-Qaeda's Syrian "family."
- In addition to his own Herat infrastructure, Zarqawi administered a bonafide al-Qaeda training camp near Kabul.
- Bin Laden provided Zarqawi with at least $30,000 to finance terrorist attacks against Israel in 2001.
- Moroccan authorities believe that bin Laden provided $70,000 of "seed money" to the Salafi Jihad organization through Zarqawi.
- One of Zarqawi's top lieutenants in Germany, Abderrazak al-Mahdjoub, was involved in the financing of the Hamburg cell that carried out the 9/11 attacks.
- Zarqawi fled to Iran after the bombing in Afghanistan with Saif al-Adel and bin Laden's son Saad (among hundreds of other upper and mid-level al-Qaeda leaders) and like them was protected by the IRGC.
- While in Iraq, Zarqawi ordered the assassination of US diplomat Laurence Foley in Jordan. One of the assassins, Salem Saad bin Suweid, was a known member of the Libyan al-Qaeda affiliate FIG according to Jordanian authorities.
- Zarqawi sought refuge with Ansar al-Islam in northern Iraq, which was unquestionably an al-Qaeda affiliate group.
- The 3/11 bombings in Spain involved members of al-Tawhid, al-Qaeda, the existing Algerian GSPC network in Spain, and members of the Moroccan Salafi Jihad who forced to flee Morocco following the Casablanca bombings. The key masterminds behind the attack were Amir Azizi, Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, and Rabei Osman Sayyid Ahmed. One was an al-Tawhid member, another is Zarqawi's second-in-command, and the third is a senior member of al-Zawahiri's Egyptian Islamic Jihad. The most obvious conclusions that one can draw from all of this is that there was either a joint operation between the four groups or that the four groups are part of the same terrorist coalition, which bin Laden referred to in his 1998 declaration of war as the International Islamic Front (IIF).
- In the Milan wiretaps, al-Tawhid members speak quite eloquently about what a great man "Emir Abdullah" (i.e. bin Laden) is and refer to Zarqawi as the man who is close to him. That doesn't quite jive with the idea that Zarqawi is some kind of rival or enemy to bin Laden, or if he is at the very least his subordinates don't seem to think so.
- The courier for Zarqawi's now-famous letter was none other than Hassan Ghul, a known mid-level al-Qaeda leader. In the letter, Zarqawi addresses bin Laden with obvious deference and respect, not from a superior-subordinate perspective, but rather from a perspective which might be compared to that of a corporate board member addressing a CEO.
- Copies of Zarqawi's letter found their way to the homes of lesser members of the "Golden Chain" in Saudi Arabia. I very much doubt that their identities are all that well publicized, even in the world of international terrorism. Certainly they aren't things that al-Qaeda is just going to casually slip ...
- In the most recent Amman plot, the perpetrators delivered their confessions on Jordanian national TV. In them, Azmi al-Jayyousi stated quite clearly that Zarqawi told him that their attack was going to be the first chemical weapons attack perpetrated by al-Qaeda, not al-Tawhid.
- In both his latest audiotape in which he offered a truce to Europe, bin Laden praised al-Tawhid for its activities against American forces in Iraq. Given that bin Laden almost never claims responsibility for the attacks perpetrated by his jackboots but instead praises them, I strongly suspect that this is as close as we're going to get on this point to him claiming Zarqawi's group as his own.
The evidence against ...
This is the most complete listing that I've been make to find of the alleged reasons why Zarqawi and al-Tawhid are not tied to al-Qaeda:
1. Zarqawi did not swear an oath of allegiance to bin Laden.
2. Zarqawi had his own independent training infrastructure in Herat, separate from that of al-Qaeda's.
3. Zarqawi ordered his German minions not to support their al-Qaeda counterparts there with money.
4. The testimony of Shadi Abdallah.
5. The somewhat bizarre belief (at least in my view) that just because Zarqawi sought aid from bin Laden via Hassan Ghul meant that he had not done so in the past.
6. Zarqawi's views towards the Shi'ites in his letter are/are not consistent with those of bin Laden's, nor are his views towards attacking the "near" rather than the "far" enemy.
7. Al-Qaeda turned down Zarqawi's request for assistance, likely in deference to their current IRGC backers.
8. A Zarqawi lieutenant was recently quoted in al-Hayat as denying that Zarqawi was an al-Qaeda member.
Keep in mind that in cases like this, you can't just dismiss all of this evidence off-hand. As a result, I'm going to try and do my best to harmonize them to show why none of these counter-claims are inconsistent with the position that Zarqawi is both a leader of al-Tawhid as well as an al-Qaeda leader. All in all, I think that the weight of the evidence shows that he is only as much of a rival of bin Laden's as Zarqawi was.
Harmonizing all the data
To deal with the counter-claims specifically:
1. Neither did Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah, or Hambali, though I very much doubt that anyone is going to make the serious case that any of these guys aren't al-Qaeda leaders. Read the sainted 9/11 report, it's all quite clear on these points. Ultimately, I think that arguments about whether or not x is an al-Qaeda leader or to what extent y group is tied to al-Qaeda is something of a red herring that boils down to little more than a matter of semantics. Al-Qaeda didn't even refer to itself as such prior to 9/11.
2. That "independent training infrastructure" existed in Herat, which was unquestionably under Taliban control. No Islamist organization was allowed to operate inside Afghanistan that didn't join bin Laden's International Front, no matter how similar their ideologies might have been to that of Mullah Omar's. Ask Abdul Rasul Sayyaf or Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, for example. Bin Laden wasn't the type of person to tolerate rivals and if he had viewed Zarqawi as such he would have almost certainly had him eliminated.
Instead, what Zarqawi ran in Afghanistan was his own autonomous training infrastructure for al-Tawhid, the Great Islamic Eastern Raiders' Front, and Turkish Hezbollah among others. There are certainly precedents for this with the autonomous training camps in Afghanistan that had formerly been managed by Abu Zubaydah and JI.
3. This was likely little more than a dispute over money, which was and is quite common within terrorist organizations that don't rely on official channels to transfer funds. If Zarqawi was concerned about whether or not the money being raised for jihad in Germany was going to line the pockets of the local cell leaders, it would have made perfect sense for him to order such a move.
Similiar difficulties have emerged from a number of al-Qaeda e-mails recovered on computer hard drives from Afghanistan in which the organization attempted to ensure that the many thousands of dollars that were being sent back and forth overseas was actually going to its intended destinations. See al-Zawahiri's dispute with the Yemeni cells for more on this.
4. I've learned a lot more about this since the original piece on the subject appeared in a Newsweek web exclusive some months ago. Suffice it to say that a lot of what Abdallah confessed to was apparently true, which was why the Germans were as firm as they were in accepting what he had to say about Zarqawi. On the other hand, he may not have known all the facts, as by his own admission he was only working for both bin Laden and Zarqawi directly for a very short time and may not have had a chance to learn all the information on the interplay between the two men.
5. The letter found on Hassan Ghul was not sychophantic, but is certainly deferrential in nature. I myself have noted that because al-Qaeda (or more specifically the International Front) is a coalition of groups rather than a military-style organization, this makes perfect sense. Zarqawi's position in al-Qaeda could easily be compared to Joe's with respect to my own here on WoC.
6. The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi's views on Shi'ites aren't consistent with al-Qaeda's either, but that doesn't keep the group from using them as cannon fodder. And the available evidence, including Shadi Abdallah's testimony, certainly indicates that Zarqawi has ties to Iran, suggesting that he may be a little more ecumenical than the letter let on. The alleged near/far enemy difference between bin Laden and Zarqawi is a red herring; al-Qaeda encourages its members and affiliate groups to think global and act local, which is exactly why al-Tawhid kidnapped Indonesians inside Iraq in an effort to secure the release of JI spiritual leader Abu Bakar Bashir.
7. And Zarqawi has since ceased anti-Shi'ite attacks. Anybody care to guess why that might be? On a further note, one of the groups operating inside the organization sent aid to Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army back in April.
8. That terrorist probably thought of al-Qaeda, judging from the al-Hayat article, as referring to only a small number of people who have sworn oaths of unconditional allegiance to Osama bin Laden. Or he could simply be lying. Either way, the alternative is to believe that there is a second international anti-US Islamist movement in al-Tawhid that just happens to operate in synch with and overlap on everything we know about al-Qaeda. Which do you truly think is more plausible?
If anybody wants to seriously argue these points, I am more than open to discussion. Also note that none of this relates to Zarqawi's ties to the former Iraqi regime, though I will note that the recent CIA report on the subject drew no conclusions, which is the bottom line in terms of the document.
However, to argue that Zarqawi isn't an al-Qaeda leader in my view dangerously serves to under-estimate the scope and nature of a very dangerous and determined killer. He has already killed more Iraqis than the number of Israeli civilians who have died during the entire course of the Intifada.
He is not to be taken lightly.