Just two weeks before the US flattened Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s hideout north of Baquba Wednesday night, June 7, Osama bin Laden named Abdulhadi al-Iraqi commander of worldwide operations – effectively Zarqawi’s new superior.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly, disclosing this development, reports Abdulhadi is his code name. His real name is not known. All we have discovered is that the new man is in his forties and his wife is a constant companion in his travels.
The appointment underlines three significant points:
1. Bin Laden’s choice of an Iraqi for the high post is a pointer to the overwhelming importance he attaches to the three-year old Iraq warfront, before and after Zarqawi’s exit, for the future of his organization.
2. After operating for some years as an independent terrorist contractor, Zarqawi placed himself in 2004 under Osama bin Laden’s direct command. Having to defer to a bin Laden lieutenant must have been a galling comedown for him.
3. But this would fit in with another disclosure by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources: Zarqawi, who had been claiming an inordinate amount of publicity, had fallen out with Wariya Arbili, commander of al Qaeda’s second largest affiliate in Iraq, Ansar al-Sunna. Arbili’s nom de guerre is Abdallah a-Shefi. Bin Laden may have resorted to the classic method of settling a quarrel between two victorious generals by setting a third over both their heads.
Wariya Arbili, whose name is fairly unknown in the West outside military and intelligence circles directly involved in Iraq, was becoming a formidable rival; his war gains challenged those of Zarqawi. His Ansar al Sunna had seized control of large tracts of Iraq including sectors of Baghdad and the western al Anbar province, as well as footholds in Mosul, Tal Afar further north, and the Salah-e-din province in central Baghdad with the major Sunni towns like Tikrit. Ansar al Sunna also boasts a strong presence in the Kurdish oil town of Kirkuk.
This fiercely radical Islamist group evolved from the northern Iraqi Ansar al-Islam as a home-grown jihadist group whose membership is a mix of Arabs, Kurds and Turkemen. In the 1980s, hundreds of these Iraqi extremists joined up with al Qaeda to fight the Russians in Afghanistan, returning home to challenge the Saddam Hussein regime. When US-led forces invaded Iraq in 2003 and toppled Saddam, they turned their bombs and guns against the foreign invaders.
Of late, under their leader Arbili, Ansar al Sunna had begun bringing al Qaeda important assets:
First al Qaeda incursions into Kurdistan and Iran
A. The organization has expanded its penetration of the Sunni Kurdish community to the point that Kurdish leaders, for the first time since the war erupted, fear al Qaeda as a tangible threat to their domination of Kurdistan.
B. Using Sunni Kurdish recruits, Arbili is vigorously recruiting Sunni Iranians to his organization. Tribute to Ansar al Sunna is contained in many of al Qaeda’s recent electronic messages and circulars in such phrases as: “Sunna currently has many followers among Iranian Sunnis and is mainly based in central and northern parts of the country.”
The inroads the organization has made on Iraq’s Kurdish community surface in Afghanistan where Kurds are fighting NATO troops alongside the Taliban. A prominent Kurdish commander from Iraq, Ayoub al-Kurdi, was identified among the dead in a battle near Kabul in late May.
Zarqawi looked askance at Arbili’s successes and tried to undermine him by drawing Ansar al Sunna adherents into his camp. In the last two weeks of his life, he had a major success: “Column 2”, a large Kurdish Sunni group, crossed over to his force. Arbili fought back by encroaching on Zarqawi turf and stealing away two of his affiliates, Brigades of the 20th Revolt and the Army of Islam.
Osama bin Laden was not pleased with the skirmishing between his two top commanders for supremacy in Iraq, which he regards as al Qaeda’s primary warfront. Their feud posed three big problems for their leader.
1. Bin Laden saw he could not afford to let Zarqawi undermine Arbili because al Qaeda’s gains in Iran and Kurdistan would be jeopardized; on his scale of priorities, the penetration of Iran and Kurdistan ranks higher than the Zarqawi-instigated civil war against Iraq’s Shiite community.
2. Bin Laden disapproved of many of Zarqawi’s aspirations and methods; he felt that using the Iraqi platform for leaps into Middle East positions in places like Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Sinai and the Palestinians, meant stretching al Qaeda’s resources too thin. Such practices as the decapitation of hostages and massacres of innocents gave rise to undesirable theological disputes in the jihadi movement. Bin Laden was prepared to back Zarqawi, but only as long as the war in Iraq went in al Qaeda’s favor.
3. Zarqawi’s drive to whittle down Ansar al Sunna’s strength was seen as a threat to hijack the Iraq arena as his own and usurp bin Laden’s authority.
Ansar al Suna’s motives for betrayal
This power struggle is believed by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s to have been the motive for Arbili’s aides to intimate to certain Sunni Iraqis close to Ansar al Sunna that leaks to the Americans on Zarqawi’s movements would not be taken amiss.
President George W. Bush, in his first remarks on Zarqawi’s death, Thursday, June 8, referred to a tip from “Iraqi sources” as having led to the pinpointing of the second or third most wanted terrorist in the world.
It was no accident that Thursday afternoon, 1700 Iraq time, all Iraqi Sunni insurgent and guerrilla groups, including those tied to al Qaeda, simultaneously released a very detailed manifesto nullifying one by one the edicts issued by Zarqawi without naming him. They did away with such injunctions as the all-war on Iraqi Shiites and the indiscriminate massacres of civilians. This document took time to prepare. It therefore attests to a degree of foreknowledge in Sunni radical circles that Zarqawi was finished.
The appointment of Abdulhadi sheds important light on some of the conventions that have grown up among Western intelligence pundits and terror researchers about al Qaeda’s mode of operation and evolution.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s al Qaeda experts have never subscribed to the theory that Osama bin Laden has been reduced to a figurehead by young Turks and that the organization has become an ideological umbrella for autonomous franchises. His timing and sureness of purpose in the appointment of the Iraqi operations chief, known also as Abdallah a-Shefi, indicate not just that he is in full command of all al Qaeda’s warfronts and networks, but that he is fully apprised week by week of their activities and that his decisions are guided as much now as ever before by an acute sense of strategy. It is also becoming apparent that the second generation of commanders bred in Afghanistan in the eighties is only now taking up positions in the organization’s command hierarchy.
The new appointment serves to confirm the waning influence of the Egyptian Jihad Islami leader Ayman Zuwahiri in operational decision-making. Our experts see him as relegated to the role of ideological analyst who offers theological advice in taped sermons to anyone who wants to listen. Active field commanders are not thought to be in his audience.