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al-Qaeda: The Many Faces of an Islamist Extremist Threat

109th Congress
2d Session
Union Calendar No. 355
Report 109-615

al-Qaeda: The Many Faces of an Islamist Extremist Threat







The Growing Insurgency in Iraq


In 1998, Usama bin Laden laid out his reasons for formally declaring war against the United States. In addition to the United States' continued support for Israel, bin Laden said:

"for over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples."31

In subsequent statements, Usama bin Laden repeatedly returns to the issue of America's military presence in Muslim countries. These statements suggest al-Qaeda feels obligated to confront Western forces present in the region. Al-Qaeda also felt compelled to engage the 200,000 coalition forces entering Iraq, which it considers part of the sacred Muslim world. Usama bin Laden said, "terrorizing you, while you are carrying arms on our land, is a legitimate and morally demanded duty."32 Al-Qaeda views a ground war in Iraq, similar to the Jihad in Afghanistan in the early 1980's, as a critical opportunity to drive Western forces from the region.

In his July 2005 letter to the late Abu Mucah al-Zargawi, which he believed could be accomplished in four stages. First, expel the Americans from Iraq. Second, establish an Islamic authority, then develop it and support it until it achieves the level of a Caliphate-over as much territory as you can to spread its power in Iraq. Third, extend the jihad wave to the secular countries neighboring Iraq. And finally, eliminate Israel and the possibility that an Israeli state would challenge any new Islamic entity.33

If Islamist extremist groups are successful in preventing a legitimate government from flourishing in Iraq, the country could become a permanent base for al-Qaeda to recruit, train and conduct operations against non-Islamic governments in the region, and eventually the United States. It would be seen as a tremendous success for Islamist extremist groups and boost terrorists ability to recruit new members far beyond the current rate.


In December 2004, Usama bin Laden named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as emir in charge of al-Qaeda operations in Iraq.34 Zarqawi rose from the ranks of mediocrity to become the most dangerous terrorist in Iraq, and subsequently the leader of Tawhid and Jihad (Monotheism and Holy War) in Iraq. Zarqawi's group is responsible for a number of attacks against Westerners in Iraq. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed on June 7, 2006 by Coalition forces. This is a tremendous success story for Coalition forces. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was a committed terrorist, who was planning further attacks against innocent Iraqis, as well as Western civilians. However, Zarqawi's death will not affect the long term fight in which we are involved. In fact, it did not take al-Qaeda in Iraq much time to name Abu Hamza al-Muhajir as al-Zarqawi's replacement.

Although Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Usama bin Laden shared a similar ideology, the two differed on how to remove U.S. and Western influence from Muslim territories Zarqawi declared an all out war on Shia Muslims in Iraq, and is believed to be responsible for masterminding suicide attacks targeting Shias across Iraq. This drew criticism from core al-Qaeda officials and other Sunni Muslims. In his July 2005 letter, Usama bin Laden's chief lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri warned al-Zarqawi that his actions were eroding support for al-Qaeda in Iraq. Al-Zawahiri questioned whether it was a wise decision to open another front, especially with over 100 al-Qaeda personnel being held by the Iranians, who are predominantly Shia.

Although he declared an all out war against Shia Muslims in Iraq, al-Zarqawi apparently listened to advice and showed a willingness to change some of his tactics to retain his stature and influence as the leader in Iraq. Prior to his death, Zarqawi apparently directed his supporters to change certain tactics to deflect negative press from al-Qaeda and other extremist groups. For example, al-Zarqawi created a Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC) in Iraq to downplay al-Qaeda's role in these attacks and put an Iraqi face on the insurgency. In addition, he directed his supporters not to indiscriminately attack Shias, but only to target Shia who support the Iraqi government. With Zarqawi dead, it is unclear how his followers will treat Shia Muslims in the future.

Regardless, Usama bin Laden continues to capitalize on the popularity of the insurgency in Iraq to muster further support for al-Qaeda and the defeat of the Coalition. With the loss of its major training camps in Afghanistan the war in Iraq became a major rally point and a fertile recruiting ground for al-Qaeda.35

In addition, Usama bin Laden may use Islamist extremists fighting in Iraq to launch attacks outside of the country. A memo from bin Laden to Zarqawi in 2005 indicates that bin Laden was encouraging Zarqawi and his group to consider plotting terrorist attacks in the United States.36 Although there is nothing to suggest Zargawi's supporters currently are preparing attacks within the United States, they eventually may look to target the United States, or our interests abroad. In August 2005, al-Qaeda supporters claimed responsibility for firing three missiles from a Jordanian port that missed a U.S. Naval ship in the area. Then, in November 2005, three suicide bombers conducted simultaneous attacks in Amman, Jordan that left sixty dead. Jordanian officials report that Zarqawi's group in Iraq is responsible for the attacks.37


Besides Zarqawi's group, al-Qaeda benefits from the support it receives from foreign fighters who have traveled to Iraq to destabilize the region and prevent Coalition forces from spreading democratic values to Iraq and its neighbors. Foreign fighters use Iraq to gain battle experience before returning home to conduct terrorist attacks against governments and civilians. They appear to be working to make the insurgency in Iraq what Afghanistan was to the earlier generation of jihadists-a melting pot for jihadists from around the world.38 Unlike the mujahideen who returned home from Afghanistan in the 1980's trained in rural guerilla warfare, the fighters who leave Iraq will have acquired f irst-hand experience in urban warfare-including the use of improvised explosive devices. Upon returning home, they have the potential to use their knowledge, credibility and popularity to recruit and train younger generations to fight against the United States and our allies.

At this time, there is no reason to believe foreign lighters are ready to withdraw from Iraq. Iraq continues to provide al-Qaeda and its supporters the best opportunity to attack the United States and our interests. Although the death of Abu Musab Zarqawi represents a huge symbolic victory, the insurgency is still very dangerous and terrorist attacks continue. These terrorist groups continue to present a considerable threat to coalition forces, Iraq's new government and neighboring countries.

31 Usama bin Laden. "Jihad Against Jews and Crusaderrs," February 23, 1998.
32 Usama bin Laden. "Declaration of War Against the American Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places," August 1996.
33 Ayman al-Zawahiri. "Letter from al-Zawahiri to al-Zarqawi," Reprinted by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, October 11, 2005.
34 Usama bin Laden, Audio Tape, December 2005.
35 James Phillips, "Thee Evolving Al-Qaeda Threat," The Heritage Foundation, March 17, 2006.
36 Bret Baier and Nick Simeone, "Officials: Bin Laden Urges Zarqawi to Hit U.S.,", March 1, 2005.
37 James Phillips, "Zarqawi's Amman Bombings: Jordan's 9/11," The Heritage Foundatino, November 18, 2005.
38 State Department, "Country Reports on Terrorism 2004," April 2005, p.7.



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