The recent torrent of Internet and print media stories about the wounding and demise, and then the resurrection and return to battle, of al-Qaeda’s commander in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, kicked up a great deal of dust but little solid information. After the initial announcement of al-Zarqawi’s wounding was circulated on the Internet on May 24, 2005 (posted on www.alhesbah.org among other sites), little has been clear except that he was wounded “lightly,” is still fighting, and has reported to Osama bin Laden that all is well with him and the mujahideen in Iraq. What conclusions should be draw from this episode that — as reported in the Western media — reeks of melodrama?
Two weeks on there are several conclusions that can be based on the material now available. First, it does indeed seem that al-Zarqawi was wounded in a battle that occurred in May in the area of al-Qaim, near the Syrian border in Iraq. That multi-day engagement featured an offensive near al-Qaim pitting a force of U.S. Marines against the Iraqi Mujahideen, including al-Zarqawi and his group. The media reports that fighting was intense around al-Qaim, and that casualties were heavy: U.S. military spokesmen claim that nine Marines were killed and 40 wounded, while 125 insurgents were killed. No total for insurgent wounded was given, but al-Zarqawi was among them.
Initial reports on 24 May said that al-Zarqawi was shot in a lung and offered little hope for his survival; his organization‘s website soon confirmed the news of his wounding and asked Muslims worldwide to pray for him. (See “Reports of Zarqawi’s Injuries Continue amidst Talk about Possible Successor” in Terrorism Focus, Volume II, Issue 10) On May 25, a user by the name of Abu Doujanah al-Tunisi of the “media committee of al-Qaeda in Iraq,” posted a statement on an Islamist website reporting that because of the seriousness of Zarqawi’s injuries, he had been “temporarily” replaced by Shaykh Abu Hafs al-Qarni, a senior military adviser of al-Qaeda‘s military committee in Iraq. Al-Qaeda quickly shot back with a message that al-Qarni had not replaced al-Zarqawi — temporarily or otherwise — but did not clear-up the condition of his health. There the matter stood until al-Qaeda, with its traditional sure flair for surprise and drama, announced on the afternoon of May 30 that al-Zarqawi would speak via tape to Osama bin Laden, a statement that was advertised as “A Message from a Soldier to His Commander.” 
Al-Zarqawi’s message to bin Laden suggests that the former took advantage of his injury to achieve at least six important objectives:
- Zarqawi acted to assure his own fighters and al-Qaeda’s supporters around the world that he was physically able to continue the war. Following al-Qaeda’s tradition, neither the group nor al-Zarqawi himself sought to hide his wounding; saying “my wounds are light” and all other reports “which left minds boggled … are sheer rumors, which are baseless.” It also seems likely that the confusion over whether al-Qaeda had named a temporary commander to replace al-Zarqawi arose more from the difficulties of communicating inside Iraq than from a deliberate effort to misinform. Parenthetically, al-Qaeda’s ability to handle al-Zarqawi’s wounding deftly, and then exploit it for propaganda successes, speak volumes about the quickly developed quality and physical security of al-Zarqawi’s media apparatus.
- Zarqawi used his message to bin Laden to tie his wounding to the recent battle between insurgents and the U.S. Marines in al-Qaim. Al-Qaeda has long identified the Marines as the only courageous and respectable U.S. fighters, and al-Zarqawi focused attention on the battle against the Marines at al-Qaim, describing it “as one of the greatest battles of Islam.” “O beloved commander [bin Laden],” al- Zarqawi wrote, “your soldiers are, by the grace of God, writing remarkable chapters about sacrifice and the defense of religion and the honor of Muslims in the city of al-Qaim….” While the Marines cleared al-Qaim area, al-Zarqawi used the survival of his forces as evidence of victory, a tactic al-Qaeda consistently employs in the media to show Muslims that its fighters can battle the best American forces and survive. “Al-Qaim,” al-Zarqawi told Muslims, “is the battleground and arena of men; the legend of the Marines collapsed in it… The goals of their crusade vanished at the gates of al-Qaim”
- Zarqawi also told the Muslim world about the developing cooperation among insurgents groups in Iraq. He explained that in the fighting at al-Qaim, insurgent forces included the “Muhajiroun” (emigrants) — fighters who came to Iraq from other Muslim countries — and the “al-Ansar” (supporters), from among the native Iraqi insurgents. This is an important issue for the West to watch because, if true, it suggests that non-Iraqi fighters are integrating with native Iraqis at a rate that far exceeds that at which Arab fighters integrated with the Afghan mujahideen during the jihad against the Soviets. The language employed by Zarqawi also seems intended to evoke the setting of the first Muslim community in Medina, which was similarly made up of al-Ansar and Muhajiroun. Interestingly, Zarqawi’s statements also appeal to the modern takfir wal-hijra ideology, which calls for a period of isolation from unbelievers and a hijra, or emigration, to create a pure community, as occurred for the earlier generation of mujahideen in Afghanistan. Whether Iraq will become a long-term training ground and safe haven for mujahideen is yet to be determined, but a higher rate of foreign fighters entering Iraq to join the insurgency will certainly bolster the community of mujahideen for the short-term.
- Al-Zarqawi’s message to bin Laden also again acknowledged the rules that bin Laden laid down for attacks on Muslims in Iraq; that is, such attacks are permissible under Islamic law if they are aimed at Muslims supporting the foreign and infidel occupying power. Al-Zarqawi explained his attacks on Shi’as and Kurds were religiously justified because these peoples were lead by Shi’a Ayatollah al-Sistani, who was supporting the U.S.-dominated regime and thus is the “leader of infidelity and heresy,” and by Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, who was likewise assisting the U.S. coalition and so had made himself into an “enemy of God and a “Zio-American.” Al-Zarqawi strongly implied that Iraqis taking direction from al-Sistani and Talabani would be regarded by al-Qaeda as heretics and enemies.
- Al-Zarqawi’s message also underscored his status as bin Laden’s lieutenant, not his equal or rival. From the opening line — “From a soldier standing in the line of fire … to his gracious commander” — al-Zarqawi made clear his allegiance to bin Laden, and prayed that God “protect you and give you a long life and make you a thorn in the side of your enemies and grant you martyrdom in the end. We are awaiting your orders and instructions.” Al-Zarqawi even implied that his forces fought the U.S. Marines to avenge the recent loss of a senior member of bin Laden’s inner circle. “O our Shaykh [bin Laden],” al-Zarqawi wrote, “if the Byzantine dog Bush was pleased by the arrest of our brother Abu-al-Faraj al-Libi, he was disturbed by what happened to his soldiers at al-Qaim and elsewhere in the Land of the Two Rivers [Iraq].”
- Al-Zarqawi concluded his message with an attempt to increase U.S. anxiety about al-Qaeda’s future plans in Iraq. Al-Zarqawi told bin Laden that “I think the plan that was drawn up has reached you or is on its way to you,” adding that “the enemy, praise be to God, is proceeding as was planned for it. We, praise be to God, are about to tighten the noose on it.” Al-Zarqawi thus left doubt in his readers’ minds: are his activities in Iraq part of a larger, near-term al-Qaeda attack plan, or was he simply trying to “terrorize” his foes? The brilliant analyst Bruce Hoffman has described al-Zarqawi as a “master of disinformation,”  and no small part of the brilliance is leaving substantial doubt in his enemies’ mind about what al-Qaeda has on tap.
And there may still be another shoe to drop in the al-Zarqawi saga. His message to bin Laden gives al-Qaeda’s overall chief an excellent opportunity to respond, both to congratulate al-Zarqwai on his personal survival and his “success” against the U.S. Marines, and to exploit the uncertainty created by al-Zarqawi’s reference to the attack plan that “was drawn up … and has reached you or is on its way to you.” In this context, it seems fair to conclude that al-Zarqawi and his media committee succeeded in turning his wounding to the clear advantage of the Iraqi insurgency and Osama bin Laden.
- Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, “A Message from a Soldier to his Commander,” lajnah22m3.co.uk/forums, 30 May 05. (All quotes in the rest of the article are from this document except for note 2 below.)
- Katherine Schrader, “Search for al-Zarqawi Highlights Problems,” AP, 31 May 2005.
Published: Terrorism Focus Volume: 2 Issue: 11 (Jamestown Foundation)