Tuesday, May 31, 2005

A Rift at the Top?

Last week, there was considerable speculation about Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's future as Al Qaida's chief operative in Iraq. Various websites and press reports suggested that the Jordanian-born terrorist leader had been seriously injured in a recent firefight with U.S. troops. One jihadist website even claimed that a successor to Zarqawi had been named.

Today, there is still doubt about Zarqawi's future as the leader of the Iraq insurgency. But this speculation is not based on his medical condition. Indeed, Zarqawi has apparently released a new audiotape, claiming that his wounds are minor, and that he remains in the "fight against the crusaders," a clear reference to the U.S. and its coalition partners. However, Zarqawi's hold on power may be slipping, due to an apparent rift between the terrorist commander in Iraq and senior Al Qaida leaders.

Vague rumor about a possible rift first surfaced last week. Now, more recent information tends to give credence to those rumors. Over the weekend, I spoke with a recently-retired intelligence officer, with years of experience in counter-terrorism issues and the South Aisan region. According to this officer, the Pakistani Intelligence Service (ISI) believes that a senior Al Qaida officer recently departed the tribal areas along the Afghan-Pakistan border, enroute to Iraq. His primary mission, according to the ISI, is to "reinvigorate" the Iraqi insurgency. His secondary mission is to assert greater Al Qaida control over the insurgency, its strategy and operational tactics.

I wasn't given the name of this senior operative. However, I was told that he is a native Iraqi, with years of insurgent experience dating back to mujahedin operations against the Soviets in the 1980s. This individual has been a close associate of bin Laden since the mid-1990s, and reportedly had direct access to the Al Qaida leader, underscoring his senior status within the organization. It is unclear when this individual might arrive in Iraq, although ISI agents expressed "strong confidence" that the senior operative is enroute.

If correct, this report suggests that bin Laden (and other Al Qaida officials) are dissatisfied with Zarqawi's handling of the Iraq insurgency. Earlier this year, media reports indicated that bin Laden wanted Zarqawi to expand his base of operations outside Iraq, launching new attacks in Europe and the United States. So far, Zarqawi has not responded to that directive, and his continuing focus on Iraqi operations suggests that he ignored bin Laden's guidance, or lacked the resources to stage new attacks outside the Middle East. There are also indications that some Al Qaida leaders may be unhappy with Zarqawi's indiscriminate targeting of Shiite civilians, preferring that he concentrate (instead) on U.S. troops and Iraqi government officials.

The projected arrival of a senior Al Qaida official suggests a split may be developing between the group's senior leadership (including bin Laden) and its existing leadership in Iraq. That may explain why Zarqawi sounded so conciliatory toward bin Laden in his audio message, seeking his advice on future operations, and reporting that he has forwarded a "war plan" to the Al Qaida founder.

In reality, Zarqawi is probably angry by the dispatch of another senior operative to Iraq. The insurgency has always been his show; Zarqawi likely views this development as an effort to dilute his authority and put anti-coalition forces under closer tighter Al Qaida control.

It's unclear how this will "play" among the terrorists already in Iraq. Many feel a personal allegiance to Zarqawi and will resist efforts at meddling by senior Al Qaida leaders in South Asia. The arrival of the senior operative and his efforts at influencing the insurgency may well produce a split among anti-coalition efforts, reducing their operational effectiveness. Al Qaida efforts to asset control over the insurgency will also feed the growing resentment toward "foreign" fighters in Iraq, and provide another reason for Iraqi civilians to cooperate with coalition forces and the recently-installed government.

At this juncture, it's too early to predict Zarqawi's demise as a terrorist leader. But his future is far from certain, and it appears that a lot of folks have him in their sights, including his supposed Al Qaida allies.

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