Iraq’s Al Qaeda disguises new leader’s identity

BEIRUT — The identity of Abu Hamza Muhajir, named to succeed Abu Mussab Zarqawi as leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, has mystified outsiders wondering if he will replicate the bloody tactics of his slain predecessor.

“That name was completely unknown to us,” said a European intelligence source on Tuesday, a day after the group announced its new chief on a website often used by militants. “It’s an invented name,” said Mustafa Alani, an Iraq analyst at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Centre. The pseudonym would allow Al Qaeda in Iraq to deny its real leader had been killed, however many top militants US forces hunted down, he argued. The group might have learned from the demoralising experience of its counterpart in Saudi Arabia, where no less than seven named leaders of Al Qaeda were killed one after another within a year by Saudi security forces, Alani said.

Other analysts say Al Qaeda would not deceive its followers by naming an imaginary leader. They say the tag Muhajir (the migrant) shows he is non-Iraqi like Zarqawi, a Jordanian.

Some identify him as Egyptian militant Abu Ayyub Masri, who trained in Afghanistan, formed Al Qaeda’s first cell in Baghdad and is sought by the US military as a Zarqawi aide.

“Information circulated says that Abu Hamza is Masri himself,” said a Sunni Arab source in Iraq who is familiar with militants, adding that this signalled a new strategy.

“Zarqawi promised many things and did not deliver. They want to change this,” he said. “This time their targets will be carefully chosen and more focused on the government and US-led forces. The more the government announces its victory against them, the more violent and savage they will be.” 

Zarqawi’s legacy

Muhajir, named after Zarqawi was killed in a US air strike last week, has made no public statement. Al Qaeda in Iraq said he would “continue what Abu Mussab began”, but did not say if this would include the mass killings of Shiite civilians and filmed beheadings that made Zarqawi such a terrifying figure. The Jordanian militant inspired and organised a seemingly endless flow of militants from across the Arab world willing to become suicide bombers to fight the US-led invasion.

His deadly strikes attracted many Iraqis to join his network, but his growing emphasis on killing majority Shiites to foment a sectarian war in Iraq caused rifts with some other Sunni Arab insurgents. It even elicited a reported rebuke from Ayman Zawahri, deputy to Al Qaeda chief Osama Ben Laden.

Toby Dodge, an analyst at Queen Mary College, University of London, said Zarqawi’s death and the recent removal of Shiite hardliner Bayan Jabor from the interior ministry had opened a narrow window of opportunity to ease communal hatreds.

“There could be a downscaling of harsh, sectarian killing,” he said, adding that the new leader would need to earn Ben Laden’s blessing by showing he could successfully mobilise the element of the insurgency inspired by global jihad.

Alani also said he expected Al Qaeda in Iraq to modify the brutal course set by Zarqawi, saying his personality had obstructed chances of improving ties with the rest of the Iraqi resistance and with the Al Qaeda leadership under Ben Laden.

“There could be closer coordination with the Iraqi resistance, and the mass killing of Shiites might reduce,” he said. The group needed to restore its credibility with Sunni Arabs by targeting US forces and their Iraqi allies.

No mountains or jungles

Alani said Diyala province, where Zarqawi was killed, had seen ferocious sectarian violence in the past two months, which he attributed to the earlier expulsion by Sunni insurgents of Al Qaeda militants from the western cities of Fallujah and Ramadi.

“Al Qaeda in Iraq does not have the mountains of Afghanistan or the jungles of Vietnam,” he said. “They depend on the Sunni Arab community to protect them or they won’t survive.” Nevertheless, in the chaos of today’s Iraq, the descent towards sectarian warfare may have gained its own vengeful momentum, whether or not Al Qaeda’s new leader changes tack. “Militants are not killing Shiites today because Zarqawi tells them to,” said Peter Harling, a Beirut-based senior analyst for the International Crisis Group think tank.

But he said seeds of sectarianism sown by Zarqawi had germinated, saying his derisive term “rafida” (rejectionists) for Shiites had gained currency among Sunni clerics in Iraq.

Even so, the Sunni Arab source in Iraq said a gap between Al Qaeda and Iraqi insurgents would remain “because of regional and internal pressure on the Iraqi resistance not to join them.”

Harling said sectarianism had bolstered the insurgency, a view endorsed by another Sunni Arab source familiar with Iraqi militants, who said this made the revolt impossible to defeat.

“Sunni society is getting more and more extremist every day.

The mujahedeen will take advantage of that and it will help them,” said the source, who asked not to be named. 

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