A stubborn hope defied the data in the hands of US and Iraqi intelligence.
Was there any chance that Abu Musab al Zarqawi and his nightmarish exploits were gone forever? Could he be among the eight top al Qaeda operations, seven men and a woman, besieged in Mosul near the Syrian border on Nov. 20 by a large US-Iraqi force?
The American command leading the action did not think so, but took no chances. After several hours of fierce gunfire, the eight terrorists ignited half a ton of explosives and blew themselves up. A US medical unit was sent for to deliver a sample of Zarqawi’s DNA.
Three days later, Nov. 22, the DNA sample tested negative. Al Qaeda’s Iraq commander was not among the heavily charred bodies.
The American military had been sure of this from the start, because Monday, Nov. 21, the day after the Mosul showdown, their intelligence confirmed through Iraqi sources in touch with Zarqawi’s associates that on the day of the Mosul battle, the arch terrorist was safe and sound in Baghdad.
(See DNW 227 Oct. 28 Zarqawi Moves His HQ to Baghdad)
The opening up to US intelligence of a line to sources in direct contact with Zarqawi’s people is noted by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terror sources as a piece of insolence by the al Qaeda chief, rather than the result of a successful penetration of his command. He used an Iraqi conduit to send a provocative message to the Americans, assuring them he has settled in since his October 15 move to Baghdad – and is still beyond their reach.
This was all the more vexing because, on the day of the Mosul siege, a large American contingent swept through Baghdad in search of Zarqawi and his staff in their new lair. Painstaking advance surveillance was invested for the raid. It pinned down the likely addresses for the new al Qaeda headquarters either in the Dora district of southern Baghdad, further south in one of the suburbs or villages which dot the Tigris bank, or further west in the southern fringes on the roads heading south from the capital to Yusifiya or Huria.
Zarqawi eludes capture – again
The raid netted several hundred low-level operatives and weapons caches – but no Zarqawi or any of his top staffers.
He waited four days later before striking again.
At dawn, Wednesday, Nov. 23, 40 gunmen drove up in ten cars to the home of a sheikh of the Sunni al Duleimi tribe in the Hurriya district of Baghdad. They tumbled out, burst into the house and slaughtered Sheikh Kathim Sirheed Ali, 70, his three sons and his son-in-law in their beds.
The killers wore Iraqi army uniforms and drove Iraqi military vehicles. They punished the sheikh and wiped out his family for the “crime” of announcing his run for election on the Sunni Muslim ticket in the December 15 elections to the national assembly.
The al Qaeda chief’s ability to move a substantial body of armed terrorists from end to end of Baghdad – and the easy way it melts away – are a measure of the poor state of security in the Iraqi capital. Not only al Qaeda, but armed Shiite and Sunni militias operate in supposedly secured areas, with no one able to tell if Zarqawi’s killers are out and about disguised in the uniforms and insignia of any of those supposed militias.
Despite these difficulties, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counterterror sources detect signs that the American campaign to set limits on Zarqawi’s freedom of action in Baghdad is bearing fruit.
Behind the show of impudent pride, the al Qaeda chief is showing concern for his personal security and has taken action to tighten the belt protecting his person.
In the last few days, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report he has sent some of his closest aides away from headquarters in Baghdad in a shakeup of his top staff. He moved them out because he suspected that US intelligence may have come uncomfortably close to their hideouts in Baghdad.
New lieutenants have taken their place, unknown quantities to American and Iraqi intelligences. All that is known about some of them are their codenames and functions.
Abu Asid is known to have been named military commander of al Qaeda forces in Iraq, which makes him Zarqawi’s Number Two.
Abu Abdel Rahman is deputy in charge of religious law.
This position has strong military connotations. It is his job to lay down the religious procedures for al Qaeda’s military frameworks and therefore their methods of operation. As a senior deputy to the commander, he attends all the most secret operational councils of the network.
Abu Maisra was given charge of propaganda. This heading covers psychological warfare against the Americans, the Iraqi government, Iraqi security forces, Sunni Muslims who collaborate with the Baghdad regime, all Shiites and Zarqawi’s operations outside Iraq as for instance Jordan.
Al Qaeda-Asia finds fault with al Qaeda-Iraq
Abu Hamza was appointed the leader’s deputy with responsibility for canonical edicts.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter terror sources report that this function is an innovation for Zarqawi’s organization. He has created it deliberately to rebuff complaints coming from al Qaeda leadership circles in Pakistan and Afghanistan against his mode of operation in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East.
The motto that Zarqawi never tires of drumming into his officers and followers is this: “First fight the near enemy; later, the distant enemy.”
The “near enemy” freely translated applies to the Americans, their Iraqi collaborators, the Shiites, the Jordanians, the Egyptians and the Israelis.
The “distant enemy” is the United States and its European allies.
Al Qaeda’s Asian commanders preach the same watchword in reverse order: “First smite the distant enemy – meaning inside the United States and Europe, and only then strike the near enemy, i.e. the Americans, the Iraqis etc.
Our al Qaeda experts comment that this ideological dispute has thus far not influenced the level of warfare waged by Zarqawi’s cohorts in Iraq. This is because of his stubborn refusal to budge from his strategic standpoints. Although he swore an oath of allegiance to Osama bin Laden which entails total obedience, it is far from clear that bin Laden is behind the critics in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Quite the reverse, he appears to be keeping his distance from the controversy, which is led by young commanders, who are uncomfortable with Zarqawi’s ability to strike American targets in Iraq and the Middle East, which is beyond their own capabilities.
According to our sources, Abu Hamza’s mission is to provide strong canonical legitimacy for his boss and his campaign of terror and murder, a sort of theological shield to ward off his distant critics.