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Brian Fishman 

After Zarqawi: The 
Dilemmas and Future of 
A1 Qaeda in Iraq 


1 Although they worked together nominally, the central A1 Qaeda 
network, as led by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the late 
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s terrorist group in Iraq held vastly different con¬ 
ceptions of jihad. The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq minimized the 
magnitude of that ideological clash, enabling Zarqawi’s limited cooperation 
with A1 Qaeda in the Iraqi arena. Although they used each other for tacti¬ 
cal support, publicity, and recruiting purposes, their doctrinal differences 
made them only allies of convenience rather than genuine partners, and as 
Zarqawi’s tactics grew more extreme and indiscriminate, A1 Qaeda chose to 
distance itself from his handiwork. 

The U.S. air strike that killed Zarqawi on June 7, 2006, deprived A1 Qaeda 
in Iraq (AQI) of its strategic leader. But the knowledge that U.S., Iraqi, and 
Jordanian intelligence effectively penetrated AQI to gather information on 
Zarqawi’s whereabouts is just as important to the group’s future as Zarqawi’s 
elimination. The coalition’s demonstrated ability to gather accurate intelli¬ 
gence is likely to frighten and sow distrust among AQI’s remaining members. 
This heightens the leadership challenge for AQI’s new emir, identified only 
under the alias Abu Hamzah al-Muhajir. His response to the internal security 
questions and the lingering doctrinal impasse with A1 Qaeda proper will de¬ 
termine the organization’s future trajectory. 

The challenge for Muhajir is to strike a balance between appealing to secu¬ 
lar and tribal Sunnis in Iraq, some of whom likely provided intelligence that 
helped doom Zarqawi, while maintaining an insular terrorist network that can 

Brian Fishman is an associate in the Combating Terrorism Center at the United States 
Military Academy at West Point and an instructor in the Department of Social Sciences. The 
views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent those of the U.S. 
Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or any other department or agency of the 
U.S. government. 

© 2006 by The Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Massachusetts 

Institute of Technology 

The Washington Quarterly • 29:4 pp. 19-32. 

The Washington Quarterly ■ Autumn 2006 


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After Zarqawi: The Dilemmas and Future of A1 Qaeda in Iraq 









United States Military Academy,Combating Terrorism Center,West 








Approved for public release; distribution unlimited 






18. NUMBER 19a. NAME OF 



unclassified unclassified unclassified Report (SAR) 


Standard Form 298 (Rev. 8-98) 

Prescribed by ANSI Std Z39-18 

| Brian Fishman 

sustain potentially weakening criticism from Islamic, Arab, and Western sourc¬ 
es. During his tenure, Zarqawi discovered that these two goals require unique 
ideological and operational strategies that may be mutually exclusive. A mod¬ 
erate ideology allows for mass appeal, whereas a more extreme ideology that 
emphasizes the moral imperative of separation from society increases group 
cohesion but impairs recruiting. Zarqawi developed a controversial strategy 
to sidestep this contradiction, which ultimately widened the rift between his 
group and bin Laden’s. Now, Muhajir or whoever ends up at AQI’s helm must 
clarify AQI’s focus to counter increasing factionalism. This is easier said than 
done. Muhajir has done little to clarify AQI’s strategic future in the months 
since Zarqawi was killed. The United States can seize on this turning point to 
manipulate AQI’s points of instability. 

Enemies Near and Far 

After being released from a Jordanian prison in 1999, where he was held for 
five years on terrorism-related charges, Zarqawi traveled to Afghanistan to 
establish his own terrorist training camp. He did not, however, join A1 Qa¬ 
eda. Sayf al-Adl, a senior A1 Qaeda leader, explained that Zarqawi’s disagree¬ 
ment with A1 Qaeda, or more specifically, bin Laden, was ideological: “The 
controversial issues with [Zarqawi] were neither new nor uncommon.... The 
most important issue with [Zarqawi] was the stance regarding the Saudi 
regime and how to deal with it in light of the Islamic laws that pertain to 
excommunication and belief.” 1 The disagreement between Zarqawi and A1 
Qaeda over Saudi Arabia hinted at what would become their fundamental 
discord: whether jihadi-salafists should prioritize attacks against the “near 
enemy” or the “far enemy.” This debate would not be easily resolved. Even 
three years later, when Zarqawi was building a terrorist network in Iraq called 
Tawhid wal Jihad, he did not join A1 Qaeda. 

Zarqawi and A1 Qaeda based their versions of jihad on their divergent 
understandings of their enemy’s center of gravity. Bin Laden’s A1 Qaeda saw 
U.S. support (the far enemy) for Arab governments in funding, the granting 
of legitimacy, and weapons sales as the source of apostate political power 
and therefore prioritized attacks on the United States. In contrast, Zarqawi 
focused on apostate cultural and political influence within the Islamic world 
(the near enemy), which he considered a separate issue from U.S. govern¬ 
mental support. Thus, the two parties employed different strategies of war¬ 
fare even as they shared the same ultimate goal: the reestablishment of the 
caliphate, a single, transnational Islamic state. 

This ideological dispute between Zarqawi and A1 Qaeda was never resolved, 
which explains much of the tension between them even after Zarqawi swore 
allegiance to A1 Qaeda. Zarqawi and bin Laden put aside their differences 


The Washington Quarterly ■ Autumn 2006 

After Zarqawi: The Dilemmas and Future of A1 Qaeda in Iraq | 

because the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its subsequent intimate relationship with 
the new Iraqi government conflated the near and far enemy. The functional 
implications of the ideological gap between Zarqawi and A1 Qaeda were re¬ 
duced greatly by the invasion, enabling them to cooperate operationally even 
as they continued to disagree ideologically. In 
1999, when Zarqawi operated in Afghanistan, 
his ideological differences translated into dif¬ 
ferent tactics. At that time, A1 Qaeda’s focus 
on attacking the U.S. homeland required very 
different planning than an attack on an Arab 
regime or apostate cultural site. In present- 
day Iraq, however, the operational implica¬ 
tions of the two strategies are not so distinct. 

An attack on a U.S. patrol or an Iraqi police 
station requires similar planning and is a direct blow against both an apostate 
government and a critical U.S. foreign policy goal. 

Zarqawi’s agreement to join A1 Qaeda in the fall of 2004, 18 months after 
the invasion of Iraq, did not mean that he immediately acceded to A1 Qa¬ 
eda’s ideological and operational strategy. In a book released online in May 
2005, the chief of Zarqawi’s shari‘a committee, Abu Hamzah al-Baghdadi, ex¬ 
plicitly contradicted Al Qaeda’s doctrine by restating Zarqawi’s focus on the 
near enemy: “Apostasy is a greater transgression than original disbelief, and 
the apostate is a greater enemy.... [T]he enemy who is close to the Muslims 
is more dangerous. When you fight him, you avert his evil and the evil of those 
who stand behind him. If the Muslims occupy themselves with fighting the 
far enemy, the near enemy will seize the chance to hurt the Muslims.” 2 

During Zarqawi’s tenure as emir, AQI’s relationship with Al Qaeda was 
a function of strategic convenience rather than doctrinal agreement. For 
Al Qaeda, attaching its name to Zarqawi’s activities enabled it to maintain 
relevance even as its core forces were destroyed or on the run. Zarqawi, 
meanwhile, used the Al Qaeda brand to facilitate recruiting. This nominal 
relationship was never truly robust; its weaknesses became increasingly ap¬ 
parent when Zarqawi ignored instructions from Al Qaeda to cease attacks 
against civilian and Shi‘a cultural targets, which could not easily be inter¬ 
preted as strikes against the far enemy. This decision was not taken lightly, 
and it was largely a function of AQI’s second dilemma. 

Zarqawi and Al 
Qaeda were allies of 
convenience rather 
than genuine partners. 

The Gharib Paradox and Shi‘a Strategy 

All terrorist groups face an important ideological paradox. Their ideas must 
appeal to a popular audience, but they also must be insular enough to main¬ 
tain internal group cohesion in the face of external criticism. The latter 

The Washington Quarterly ■ Autumn 2006 


| Brian Fishman 

effect is often achieved by denigrating the masses that do not belong to the 
group, which naturally limits mass appeal. Zarqawi dealt with this paradox by 
favoring internal group cohesion over popular appeal, a tendency illustrated 
by his long-standing nickname, al-Gharib, or the Stranger, a common nom de 

guerre among jihadists. 

Zarqawi’s adoption of Gharib in the early 
1990s was a means of steeling himself for the 
isolation of the long fight on which he had em¬ 
barked. This definition of identity—an outsider 
from mainstream society—embraces and expro¬ 
priates isolation from the majority so that, in¬ 
stead of being a source of despair and weakness, 
seclusion promotes unity and strength. 3 The 
gharib identity informed Zarqawi’s activities un- 

Will Al Qaeda 

in Iraq follow 
Zarqawi’s teaching 
or bin Laden’s? 

til his death. In October 2005, he paraphrased scholars and hadith to argue 
that God smiles on strangers because they adhere to Islam even as the masses 
abandon God: 

The strangers ... are the good few among the evil many_These various 

descriptions of the strangers by the prophet, may God’s peace and bless¬ 
ings be upon him, while explaining the great role of these strangers in their 
places and during the times of their alienation, namely their role of imple¬ 
menting and adhering to the orders of God, also explains the immense pain 
and suffering of these strangers and their great patience in facing them. 4 

Zarqawi used the gharib identity to explain the disadvantaged political 
position of jihadists and to suggest that their isolation and criticism indicated 
the moral rectitude of their path. Zarqawi cultivated this identity within his 
organization to prevent discouragement and disillusionment, stating that 
“[tjhose who belong to the victorious group can tolerate the bleakness of 
their path and they are not alarmed when they see that only few men take 
such a path. They are only compared in this with the best of creation and the 
eminent prophets and messengers.” 5 

Zarqawi’s approach to the gharib paradox made AQI resilient but impeded 
his ability to build a social consensus in the Sunni community that would be 
strong enough to assert any real political control in Iraq. An inflexible, extrem¬ 
ist ideology that relishes violence and embraces criticism as an indicator of 
ideological correctness is always going to alienate more people than it attracts, 
a trend that played out as Iraq’s tribal Sunnis increasingly rejected Zarqawi. 

Back in 2004, Zarqawi made a critical choice about how to deal with Iraq’s 
Sunni tribes. At the time, Zarqawi believed that increasing cooperation be¬ 
tween Sunni tribal leaders and U.S. as well as Iraqi government forces left him 
with two bad options and one long-shot hope for building an alliance with the 


The Washington Quarterly ■ Autumn 2006 

After Zarqawi: The Dilemmas and Future of A1 Qaeda in Iraq | 

tribes. The first option was to attack the tribal chiefs directly despite the prob¬ 
ability of alienating Sunnis in his base areas. The second was to abandon Iraq 
to fight elsewhere. 6 Because neither option was palatable, Zarqawi reasoned 
that his only hope of making common cause with the tribal leaders was to in¬ 
stigate widespread Shi‘a-on-Sunni violence. 7 Zarqawi hoped that provoking a 
Shi‘a backlash against Sunnis would convince moderate and tribal Sunnis that 
the Iraqi government was simply a veil of legitimacy disguising a coordinated 
Shi‘a plot to attack Sunnis. This, Zarqawi hoped, would compel secular Sunni 
groups to ally with him and adopt his ideology and methods. In other words, 
Zarqawi believed that it was not necessary to moderate his ideology and strate¬ 
gy to become attractive to moderate Sunnis because he believed that he could 
quickly radicalize the Sunni population. He would solve the gharib paradox by 
dramatically changing the underlying conditions. 

Six months before joining A1 Qaeda, Zarqawi explained this Shi‘a strategy 
to its leaders, saying that 

targeting [Shi’a] in religious, political, and military depth will provoke 
them to show the Sunnis their rabies ... and bare the teeth of the hidden 
rancor working in their breasts. If we succeed in dragging them into the 
arena of sectarian war, it will become possible to awaken the inattentive 
Sunnis as they feel imminent danger and annihilating death at the hands 
of the Sabeans. 8 

This is not to say that Zarqawi opposed attacking Shi‘a targets as a worth¬ 
while goal in and of itself. The killings were intended to punish the Shi‘a for 
theological offenses, to correct historical injustice, and to penalize collabora¬ 
tion with U.S. forces. Yet, Zarqawi’s policy had a grander strategic purpose 
of building popular support for Zarqawi in the Sunni areas of Iraq without 
moderating the ideological extremism that insulates the movement from 
outside criticism. 

Zarqawi’s problem was that not all criticism of his strategy came from 
outside the jihadist movement. In the summer of 2005, Ayman al-Zawahiri, 
A1 Qaeda’s second in command, criticized Zarqawi’s Shi‘a strategy, claiming 
that attacks on Shi’a targets distorted the image of jihadists and distracted 
them from their most important enemy, the United States. This disagreement 
pertained to more than just the Shi’a; it reflected the older disagreement 
over whether or not attacks should be focused on the near enemy or the far 
enemy. Zarqawi’s attacks on Shi’a cultural sites and civilian institutions were 
more difficult to justify as damaging to the U.S. far enemy than attacks on 
U.S. or Iraqi security forces. As Zarqawi’s attacks grew more indiscriminate, 
the operational nexus between the near and far enemies that was created by 
the U.S. presence in Iraq dissolved, and the alliance of convenience between 
Zarqawi and A1 Qaeda broke down. 

The Washington Quarterly ■ Autumn 2006 


| Brian Fishman 

Zarqawi’s Strategic Failure 

How much will Al 
Qaeda in Iraq expand 
its area of operations 
outside of Iraq? 

Zarqawi’s response to the two fundamental dilemmas facing AQI was inter¬ 
nally inconsistent and ultimately self-defeating. First, although AQI built a 
nominal relationship with Al Qaeda based on the U.S. presence in Iraq, Zar- 
qawi pursued an operational strategy premised not on the U.S. occupation 

but on the underlying sectarian divisions in 
Iraqi society. That operational strategy ulti¬ 
mately undermined the confluence of inter¬ 
ests that had enabled the original alliance. 
Second, Zarqawi designed an insular ideol¬ 
ogy that would complement his brutal opera¬ 
tional strategy. This ideological decision was 
ill conceived precisely because AQI’s contro¬ 
versial operational strategy ensured that the 
most damning criticism would come not from 
outside the jihadi movement but from inside Al Qaeda itself. 

The best illustration of Zarqawi’s self-defeating strategy was the November 
2005 coordinated bombing attack of three hotels in Amman, Jordan. The at¬ 
tack was widely derided in Jordan, particularly after the revelation that one 
bomb had detonated amid a wedding party. Although there is no public record 
of Al Qaeda condemning Zarqawi for this attack, in retrospect its silence was 
deafening. On April 13, 2006, six months after the Amman bombing, Zawahiri 
released a video that, in part, praised Zarqawi. 9 This was striking because Za- 
wahiri’s tape appears to have been made in early November 2005, just before 
the Amman hotel attacks. In the video, Zawahiri suggests it was intended to 
mark the anniversary of the infamous Tora Bora battle in Afghanistan, which 
occurred in November and December of 2001. He also referred to the Sep¬ 
tember 2005 reelection of Egyptian president Husni Mubarak and the October 
2005 earthquake in Pakistan as recent events. 

The delay between taping and release was perhaps an attempt by Zawa- 
hiri to distance Al Qaeda from the Amman attacks because of the negative 
reaction they generated in the Arab world. That Zawahiri did not mention 
Zarqawi by name in any of his statements during the interim period is further 
evidence that Al Qaeda did not want to be associated with an unpopular 
attack that did not serve its operational and ideological strategy. Although 
Zarqawi also tried to distance himself from some of the carnage of these at¬ 
tacks, he clearly considered the premise of attacking Jordanian hotels consis¬ 
tent with his modus operandi of attacking civilian apostates. To Al Qaeda’s 
leaders, however, the Amman attacks demonstrated that the functional im¬ 
plications of Zarqawi’s ideological and strategic differences with Al Qaeda 
remained significant despite their confluence of interests in Iraq. 


The Washington Quarterly ■ Autumn 2006 

After Zarqawi: The Dilemmas and Future of A1 Qaeda in Iraq | 

Al Qaeda’s Uncertain Future in Iraq 

Many major issues drive factionalism inside AQI, including the basic ques¬ 
tions of power and influence. The most important strategic question is a 
function of AQI’s two critical dilemmas discussed above. Should AQI con¬ 
tinue to conduct excruciatingly brutal attacks, particularly against Shi‘a 
civilians, or should it fall in line behind Al Qaeda’s leadership and refocus 
attacks on the far enemy? In other words, should AQI respond to the gharib 
paradox by following Zarqawi’s teaching or bin Laden’s? 

One man that seems to be firmly in the Zarqawi camp is Abdallah bin 
Rashid al-Baghdadi, the emir of the Mujahidin Shura Council (MSC). The 
MSC, which was formed in January 2006 as an umbrella media group for 
several jihadist groups in Iraq, may play an increasingly important role now 
that the jihad’s greatest media champion, Zarqawi, is no more. On June 9, 
2006, Baghdadi reiterated his determination to continue Zarqawi’s jihad 
against Iraq’s Shi‘a. Baghdadi’s intentions were further clarified on June 
21, 2006, when the MSC’s legal committee authorized the execution of four 
Russian hostages. 10 A video of their beheadings was circulated online four 
days later. 11 

Baghdadi’s statement stood in stark contrast to the first official jihadi 
statement made after Zarqawi’s death. In that statement, the deputy emir of 
AQI, Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Iraqi, pledged to continue bin Laden’s strategy 
in Iraq. 12 Iraqi ignored the fact that bin Laden’s strategy had never been fol¬ 
lowed in Iraq and that doing so would represent a major strategic shift for 
the organization. His attempt to ignore this reality was likely an attempt to 
position himself as a close intellectual ally of bin Laden. 

In this internal debate, the Zarqawi camp is likely to have the upper hand. 
Maintaining strategic momentum will be simpler than changing it midstream. 
Furthermore, the apparent penetration of AQI by U.S. and Iraqi intelligence, 
as indicated by the U.S. ability to pinpoint Zarqawi’s advisers and track them 
to the safe house where he was killed, will compel the group to close ranks 
ideologically and operationally. In an environment of internecine warfare 
and distrust, the pressure to respond to the gharib paradox by increasing the 
brutality of attacks and demonizing all nongroup members is very high. AQI 
will attempt to increase group solidarity through shared participation in bru¬ 
tal acts and will use both ideological and operational participation in such 
behavior as a means of vetting members. The increase of sectarian violence 
in Iraq since Zarqawi’s death will only reinforce this tendency. 

Another question regarding Zarqawi’s successor is whether AQI should 
be led by an Iraqi or another foreigner like Zarqawi. The appointment of 
Muhajir as the new emir, whose pseudonym implies he is not an Iraqi, sug¬ 
gests this question has been decided, but that does not mean all of the issues 

The Washington Quarterly ■ Autumn 2006 


| Brian Fishman 

It may be better to 
let disagreements 
fester rather than to 
eliminate all potential 

surrounding it have been resolved. One critical issue is the vulnerability 
of AQI to penetration by U.S. and Iraqi intelligence. If Iraqi intelligence 
brought Zarqawi down, foreign fighters in the group may lose trust in their 
Iraqi comrades. Likewise, the revelation that Jordanian intelligence, which 
worked closely with Iraqi tribes to gather information on Zarqawi, contrib¬ 
uted to Zarqawi’s demise may sow distrust of foreigners among Iraqi elements 

of AQI. 13 Although AQI’s ideology eschews 
nationality, having foreign leadership cer¬ 
tainly did not help the group win friends 
among Iraq’s Sunni population. In the wake 
of Zarqawi’s failed attempt to radicalize large 
numbers of Iraqi Sunnis, some AQI members 
will likely advocate reaching out to them by 
elevating Iraqi members of the organization. 

The third question concerns how much 
AQI should expand its area of operations 
outside of Iraq. Zarqawi’s Shi‘a strategy was a 
long shot to avoid pursuing the only other strategies that he felt were avail¬ 
able: confront the tribal leaders head-on or leave Iraq. The Shi‘a strategy 
was clearly failing even before Zarqawi was killed, which accounts for the 
increase in attacks on tribal leaders and helps explain AQI’s effort to build 
infrastructure for jihad outside of Iraq. 14 Even setting aside the November 
2005 Amman hotel attacks, the evidence that Zarqawi was planning to ex¬ 
pand the jihad beyond Iraq is robust. Jordanian sources report that up to 300 
terrorists trained in Iraq have since returned home to await orders. 15 

Zarqawi’s final missive focused on a regional Shi‘a conspiracy against Sun¬ 
nis and threatened Lebanon’s Hizballah in particular. 16 A document found 
in the safe house where Zarqawi was killed outlined a plan to incite a war 
between Iran and the United States. One possible tactic was to frame Iran 
for attacks in the West itself. 17 The debate within AQI over operations out¬ 
side of Iraq will inevitably be tied to the question of whether AQI’s future 
revolves around attacking the near enemy, like Zarqawi advocated, or the far 
enemy, as bin Laden argued. Even though Zarqawi was toying with the idea 
of blaming Iran for attacks on Western targets, his long-standing doctrine 
suggests that AQI’s primary focus would likely have remained apostate Arabs 
in the Middle East. Zarqawi’s death may actually strengthen the negotiating 
position of jihadists dedicated to attacking the U.S. homeland. 

Decoding Muhajir 

After Zarqawi’s death, Muhajir has assumed the responsibility of leading 
AQI. His primary challenge is to consolidate control over AQI’s various 


The Washington Quarterly ■ Autumn 2006 

After Zarqawi: The Dilemmas and Future of A1 Qaeda in Iraq | 

elements while providing strategic guidance on these critical strategic ques¬ 
tions, which will not be easy. From the moment Muhajir was appointed, U.S. 
forces, AQI members, and online sympathizers speculated about the emir’s 
real identity. Some sympathizers maintained it was Iraqi, AQI’s deputy emir, 
whereas Maj. Gen. William Caldwell declared that Muhajir was really Abu 
Ayyub al-Masri, an Egyptian with long-standing ties to Zawahiri. Meanwhile, 
another group hoped to build support around Baghdadi, emir of the MSC. As 
of this writing, confusion over the identity of AQI’s new emir has not been 
definitively resolved, a fact that alone demonstrates how Zarqawi’s death 
was a significant blow to AQI. In his wake, Muhajir must harangue disparate 
factions into accepting his authority, but more substantively, he must address 
the distinct strategic perspectives within AQI. Further, he must do all of this 
in a very difficult operational environment. Zarqawi’s killing demonstrated 
that AQI had been penetrated, and Muhajir must redefine AQI’s strategic 
direction within an organization that he cannot completely trust. 

During his tenure as AQI leader, Zarqawi used public statements released 
online to convey determination, ideological fervor, and strategic purpose to 
followers, enemies, and pole-sitters. These statements provided strategic con¬ 
text for AQI’s attacks, which might otherwise be perceived as simple acts of 
sadism rather than military instruments designed to achieve specific outcomes. 
They also encouraged widely dispersed AQI members to sustain criticism and 
suffer the hardships of jihad. Without a central node defiantly explaining the 
group’s strategic purpose, AQI as we know it would have ceased to exist. 

The most striking attribute of Muhajir’s tenure thus far is the fact that 
he has chosen not to define either his own identity or his strategic vision 
for AQI clearly. Muhajir must have good reasons for this silence because the 
costs of such strategic ambiguity are very high. Muhajir is likely foregoing the 
benefits of strategic clarity in order to mollify different factions within AQI. 
His silence prolongs the internal debate within AQI over the group’s future 
strategy. Muhajir is unlikely to force a resolution until he is certain he will 
win. In a covert organization that depends on the cooperation of many mem¬ 
bers, the standard for victory is not simply a majority, it is near consensus. 

Predicting Al Qaeda’s Next Move in Iraq 

In the long run, it may be better to let disagreements fester within AQI 
rather than to eliminate all potential targets immediately. 18 Striking kineti- 
cally at an organization’s leadership is not always the best way to destroy its 
effectiveness. Asking who will be the next emir of AQI is a useful intellectu¬ 
al question, but it may be somewhat misleading. Asking which leader within 
the jihadist movement in Iraq will be Zarqawi’s intellectual successor may 

The Washington Quarterly ■ Autumn 2006 


| Brian Fishman 

be a better way to frame the issue than focusing on the AQI organization 

specifically. Despite this ambiguity, some broad conclusions can be reached 

about the future of AQI and the wider jihadist movement in Iraq. 

First, A1 Qaeda in Iraq will fragment. Other Islamic groups in Iraq, no¬ 
tably Ansar al-Sunnah and the Islamic Army of Iraq, will collect some of 
AQI’s inevitably disaffected derivatives. Zarqawi’s greatest strength was 

not his ideological prowess, it was his personal 
leadership skills. Muhajir, whether he is the 
Egyptian Masri or someone else, is unlikely to 
be commensurately capable. Some elements of 
AQI will likely leave the organization, both in 
response to doctrinal disagreements and to 
fears that the group has been penetrated by 
coalition intelligence operatives. In order to 
build unity within AQI, Muhajir or whoever 
ultimately takes control will most likely con¬ 
tinue Zarqawi-esque attacks but will at least 

The leadership 
would welcome a 
fight between the 
United States and 
Iran’s Shi‘a leaders. 

temporarily reduce AQI’s anti-Sunni-apostate rhetoric. 

Zarqawi may be dead, but the gharib identity will live on, either in AQI 
itself or in some derivative organization. Although Zarqawi was rightly and 

frequently derided as an ill-educated leader, he combined ideology and ac¬ 

tion in a manner that will continue to inspire many in and outside of Iraq. 
His ideology had teeth. As damaging as AQI’s brutal anti-Shi‘a attacks 
may be to A1 Qaeda’s image, a public rift would be even more traumatic. 
Despite continued strategic tension, neither party will provoke a dramatic 

Second, AQI’s new emir will try to attack outside of Iraq. AQI’s long-term 
focus on the near enemy suggests it is best positioned to attack Arab coun¬ 
tries, rather than the United States or European targets. Although a specific 
location will not be Muhajir’s first concern, he will look for a place with es¬ 
tablished support networks, a large Sunni population, historical Sunni-Shi‘a 
tension, and an unpopular apostate government. The most likely targets are 
Lebanon and Syria, where a dramatic and bloody attack on Shi‘a targets 
would be extremely destabilizing. Although attacks on Israel are the lowest 
common denominator of terrorist act in much of the Islamic world and mov¬ 
ing in that direction is, to some degree, an act of desperation, organizing a 
successful attack on Israel could bolster the credibility of AQI’s new emir 
more than any other action. Zarqawi’s successors will be heartened by the 
fighting between Israel and Hizballah. Although they would prefer to see a 
Sunni group, rather than Shi‘a Hizballah, be the champion of militant anti- 
Zionism, they will see war between two of their biggest enemies as a positive 
development and a potential opportunity. 


The Washington Quarterly ■ Autumn 2006 

After Zarqawi: The Dilemmas and Future of A1 Qaeda in Iraq | 

Attacks on the United States or Europe are possible, but this would signify 
a greater degree of subordination to bin Laden and A1 Qaeda proper. No 
matter where AQI chooses to focus geographically, it will attempt to exploit 
events in the region. One of the most provocative would be a U.S. or Israeli 
strike on Iran. Although Iran itself is not a good arena for jihad, Muhajir and 
the AQI leadership would welcome a fight between the United States and 
Iran’s Shi‘a leaders. If the United States attacks Iran because of its nuclear 
program, the network will actively attempt to heighten the tension region¬ 
ally, perhaps by staging dramatic attacks in Syria or Lebanon and blaming 
either Iran or the United States. 

Whatever the specific target, AQI’s network outside of Iraq will begin to 
freelance. Communications problems will make it more difficult for AQI to 
exert bureaucratic control over its global network. In lieu of direct bureau¬ 
cratic control, ideological homogeneity and group insularity are very impor¬ 
tant for organizational cohesion. 19 Although Muhajir, like his predecessor, 
will eventually develop a strategic media presence to distribute ideology, 
Zarqawi’s death will loosen the personal and ideological bonds connecting 
the dispersed jihadis to AQI. These individuals will maintain a kinship to the 
Iraqi jihad but may be less directly tied to the AQI network. 

Implications for U.S. Withdrawal 

Wittingly and unwittingly, U.S. policy shapes the political terrain on which 
the jihadi-salafist network, including AQI, is built. By employing a selec¬ 
tive use of force, a carefully designed political and military presence in the 
Middle East, and information operations, the United States can design the 
battlefield to be as disruptive to the jihadi-salafists as possible. Generally 
speaking, measured actions are best. AQI, like other terrorist groups, would 
like to provoke unhelpful overreactions. 

U.S. policymakers must always think holistically about U.S. interests before 
embarking on any initiative. No single approach is correct, and policymakers 
must carefully analyze the costs and benefits of all options. Although disrupt¬ 
ing the AQI-A1 Qaeda nexus is a critical foreign policy goal, it should not be 
pursued at the expense of all others. Protecting U.S. economic interests and 
containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions are but two examples of more important 
priorities than driving a wedge in A1 Qaeda. Nevertheless, in order to increase 
the discord inside AQI and between AQI and A1 Qaeda, the United States 
should increase the distance between the near and far enemies by minimizing 
public support—military, economic, and moral—for “apostate” Arab regimes, 
including Iraq’s. To divide Zarqawi’s ideological successors from the bin Laden 
sympathizers, the United States should aggravate the functional implications 
of their ideological disagreement by disengaging from Iraq as much as possible. 

The Washington Quarterly ■ Autumn 2006 


| Brian Fishman 

Strategically, disengagement means beginning the process of moving 

troops out of Iraq and explicitly guaranteeing that all U.S. forces will leave 

eventually. Even if credibly separating the near and far enemies in the short 
term is not possible, the United States can complicate jihadist long-term 

planning by forcing on them a debate about 
how to proceed once the near and far enemies 
are less obviously linked. The U.S. debate 
over Iraq has been focused on means for too 
long, specifically the timeline-for-withdrawal 
debate, to the neglect of the most important 
issue, the end state, i.e., complete withdrawal 
versus a semipermanent presence. To disrupt 
the jihadists, U.S. strategic direction must be 
very clear, and talk must be supported by vis¬ 
ible action. This is not a call for U.S. troops to 

nor Al Qaeda were 
ever the center of 
gravity of the Iraqi 

run for the exits immediately but for the United States to make its strategic 
intentions to withdraw completely apparent. If that is not its intention, the 

United States must be prepared for Americans to die in Iraq in perpetuity. 

Critics will rightly question whether the benefit of upsetting AQI’s relation¬ 
ship with Al Qaeda justifies a strategic reorientation. If the war on terrorism 
is our primary concern, it very well may. The sectarian violence wracking Iraq 
is extraordinarily disruptive but does not necessarily translate into increased 
support for Al Qaeda and its affiliated movements. Iraq’s violent mobs and 
numerous secular insurgents will not target U.S. interests beyond Iraq’s border, 
but AQI and Al Qaeda will. The argument that we must prevent Iraq from 
becoming a haven for terrorists is certainly potent, but its impact is mitigated 
by the fact that Iraq is already serving that purpose. If the war in Iraq is but 
one front in a wider war on terrorism, then the campaign there should be de¬ 
signed to disrupt those elements that threaten U.S. interests around the world. 
Furthermore, the functional aspects of the strategic reorientation, in the short 
term, need not be overly dramatic. Although the timeline is protracted, Gen. 
George W. Casey’s reported plan to reduce U.S. combat brigades in Iraq from 
14 to six over the next 16 months is the right kind of thinking, as long as it is 
coupled with an unambiguous strategic message. 20 

Most importantly, U.S. planners should resist the temptation, in an at¬ 
tempt to avoid the psychological costs of defeat, to pursue middling strate¬ 
gies that have little hope of bringing victory but carry significant costs in 
blood and treasure. If the long-term outcome in Iraq resembles what many 
now consider victory in Afghanistan, the United States will be in a very 
precarious situation indeed. Maintaining a small U.S. force to advise and 
support an Iraqi government that can assert continuous authority only in 
some of Iraq’s provinces would be a very expensive strategy to give Zarqawi’s 


The Washington Quarterly ■ Autumn 2006 

After Zarqawi: The Dilemmas and Future of A1 Qaeda in Iraq | 

successors and other jihadists exactly what they want: access to U.S. troops, 
ungoverned space in the heart of the Middle East, a means of draining the 
U.S. Treasury, and a recruiting boon. 

Although a decisive, complete withdrawal of troops is vital, the inverse 
principle is just as important. If the United States is determined to remain in 
Iraq, it should maximize the opportunity to crush the insurgency by increas¬ 
ing the number of troops on the ground. Calls for maintaining current troop 
levels or a phased drawdown of troops without a clear, strategic end state are 
well meaning but will ultimately serve our worst enemies’ interests rather 
than our own. In other words, strategic action must be resolute. 

Getting Al Qaeda Out of Iraq 

The United States should take advantage of AQI’s differences with Al Qa¬ 
eda rather than criticize AQI’s ideology, overtly or covertly. Zarqawi’s gharib 
identity will live on in AQI. Directly criticizing the network will be counter¬ 
productive, particularly in the months after his death, because the group’s 
ideology will manipulate criticism from the outside into solidarity within. Per¬ 
haps most importantly, the United States must be aware that neither Zarqawi 
nor AQI were ever the center of gravity of the Iraqi insurgency. AQI will be 
less dangerous without Zarqawi, but its derivatives will metastasize and grow. 
Secular, Sunni, and Shi‘a groups will continue to kill Americans and disrupt 
the Iraqi government. Nevertheless, the United States can improve its over¬ 
all prospects in this long war by sowing division within AQI and between 
AQI and Al Qaeda by simply avoiding actions that unite these rivals despite 
their ideological divisions. 


1. Abu Hamzah al-Baghdadi, “Why Do We Fight, and Whom Do We Fight?” June 2005, 

2. Ibid. 

3. The nickname also invokes an Arabic literary tradition that celebrates the lonely 
traveler longing for the simple comforts of home. See Abu ‘L-Faraj al-Isfahani, The 
Book of Strangers, trans. Patricia Crone and Shmuel Moreh (Princeton, N.J.: Markus 
Wiener Publishers, 2000). 

4. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, audio lecture, September 30, 2005, (appears to be derived from the Sahih Muslim, Kitab al-lman [The book 
of faith], chap. 66. 

5. Ibid. 

6. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, letter released by the Coalition Provisional Authority, Febru¬ 
ary 12, 2004, 

7. Ibid. 

The Washington Quarterly ■ Autumn 2006 


| Brian Fishman 

8. Ibid. 

9. Ayman al-Zawahiri, “Four Years After the Tora Bora Battles; From Tora Bora to 
Iraq,” Global News Network, April 13, 2006, 

10. Mujahidin Shura Council, untitled video, June 21, 2006, 

11. Mujahidin Shura Council, untitled video, June 26, 2006, 

12. Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Iraqi and the Mujahidin Shura Council Media Committee, 
“Statement Untitled—Acknowledging Zarqawi’s Death,” June 8, 2006, http://www. 

13. Borzou Daragahi and Josh Meyer, ‘“We Knew Him’: Jordanian Spies Infiltrated Iraq 
to Find Zarqawi,” Los Angeles Times, June 13, 2006, p. Al. 

14- “Al-Qaeda in Iraq Situation Report,” Harmony document no. IZ-060316-01, http:// This document was written by an aide in 
Zarqawi’s organization. The document was captured in Iraq by U.S. forces in early 

15. Michael Slackman and Scott Shane, “Terrorists Trained by Zarqawi Went Abroad, 
Jordan Says,” New York Times, June 11, 2006, p. Al. 

16. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, “Has the Story of the Rejectionists Reached Thee?” Islamic 
Renewal Forum, June 1, 2006, 

17. For a document found in a safe house and released by Iraqi national security ad¬ 
viser Mouwafak al-Rubaie, see Sameer N. Yacoub, “Al-Qaida in Iraq Sought War 
Between U.S. and Iran,” North County Times, June 15, 2006, http://www.nctimes. 
com/articles/2006/06/16/news/nation/15_01_226_15_06.txt. As this document was 
released just after Zarqawi’s killing by the Iraqi national security adviser, some have 
questioned its veracity. Whether authentic or not, the claim that Zarqawi hoped to 
instigate hostilities between the United States and Iran is likely accurate. 

18. Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Department of Social Sciences, U.S. 
Military Academy, “Harmony and Disharmony: Exploiting al-Qa’ida’s Organizational 
Vulnerabilities,” February 14, 2006, 

19. Ibid. 

20. Michael Gordon, “U.S. General in Iraq Outlines Troop Cuts,” New York Times, June 
25, 2006, p. Al. 


The Washington Quarterly 

Autumn 2006