Unconventional thinking about the Middle East.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Abu Hamza al-Muhajir’s Interview: Very Revealing

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW:

-The interview was released as an audio file on October 24 by the Al-Furqan Institute for Media Production. The audio runs for a total of 44 minutes. Al-Muhajir answers eighteen hard-hitting questions; his responses appear prepared.

-Abu Hamza al-Muhajir is the Minister of War for the so-called Islamic State of Iraq. Previously, he was the leader of ‘Al-Qaeda in Iraq,’ a role he assumed upon the death of Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi (killed in a U.S. airstrike during June 2006).

-Al-Muhajir was appointed Minister of War on April 19, 2007 by the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.

-Al-Muhajir pledged allegiance in his name and in the name of Al-Qaeda’s “12,000 strong army” to al-Baghdadi in November 2006.

-There’s a near consensus among intelligence agencies and analysts that al-Muhajir is just another alias for Abu Ayyub al-Masri. I am not fully sold on this idea. Al-Muhajir is definitely not Iraqi, but I can’t place his accent—he speaks in classical Arabic, but pronunciations differ from one region to another—and to my ears it could be Egyptian, but there’s room for speculation (maybe even Libyan). The main reason that I’m still unconvinced is that had al-Muhajir’s cover been blown, then the jihadists would get better propaganda mileage by releasing his speeches as videos where he can speak directly to his followers. I’d say that the voice of this latest audio is the same voice that we’ve heard associated with other audio releases attributed to al-Muhajir.

TRANSLATION, ANALYSIS, OPINION:

Al-Muhajir is remarkably candid in providing answers to these hard-hitting questions—they’re certainly more hard-hitting that what certain U.S. presidential candidates have faced from the American media.

There’s plenty that I find revealing, and not only in the answers: the questions themselves give us an insight as to what the jihadists believe is the most stinging criticism directed against them. I will attempt to cover most of them.

Of course, I have a stake in getting all this out, since I believe it vindicates many of my arguments I’ve made over the years as to how the jihadists think and strategize, and how they perceive the world around them.

The format I’ve decided to follow is to translate the full text of the questions (‘cause they’re short!) and summarize the answers:

Q-“Dear sheikh, can you summarize for us the conditions that preceded your declaration of the Islamic State?”

A: Al-Muhajir argues that the Islamic State of Iraq was always a “dream” for the jihadists, but that it was appropriate at the time because the Kurds and Shias were heading for secession, and the Sunnis needed their own state. Furthermore, the jihadists had reached the point where they were at their military and political best, and the Americans were at their worst, and the opportunity had to be seized.

Q: “Most people [think] that you should have waited until the occupiers left, and then [you should have] agreed on declaring the project of the Islamic State. What is your response?”

A: Al-Muhajir cites “confirmed reports” about a “conspiracy that was being hatched by the Islamic Party with a faction of the resistance” to declare a “Sunni [federal] region within the state of the rafidha [Shia]” and that this conspiracy was pushed for by the Americans, thus a decisive decision had to be taken by the jihadists to thwart it. Al-Muhajir also alludes to a second incident, less dangerous than the one he cited, as further proof that something was afoot, but he doesn’t elaborate.

Al-Muhajir adds that the Afghan experience showed that waiting until the “occupiers” left was the worst timing possible, since there would be “nationalist” forces that had preserved its strengths (“they would fire one missile and [stockpile] another ten”) vying for control against jihadist forces that had been bled dry while fighting the “occupiers.” In the Iraqi case, al-Muhajir includes seculars and Ba’athists as “nationalist” forces that would seek to undermine the Islamic State of Iraq.

Q: “Did you try to contact other resistance factions before declaring the State?”

A: Al-Muhajir claims that they had tried to contact some factions two months prior to the declaration to get their perspective, while some others were contacted four months before the Islamic State came into being in October 2006. However, this timeline shows that Al-Qaeda’s decision to go ahead with this project came after al-Zarqawi was killed (in June). This revelation runs counter to some claims made by the jihadists that the decision to declare the Islamic State of Iraq was taken during the time of al-Zarqawi’s leadership.

On this matter, al-Muhajir cites his experiences with the leader and the deputy leader of the Mujaheddin Army faction as an example: after 18 hours of talks, both pledged to al-Muhajir that they would join the Islamic State of Iraq and fight under its banner, forgoing their titles and the names of their organizations. But three months after this pledge was made, al-Muhajir was surprised to find that the leader of the Mujaheddin Army had turned against him, and had thrown in his lot with the Awakening groups. Al-Muhajir even adds that his new foe would spend the night at the home of the leader of the Awakening Group of the Al-Taji area north of Baghdad.

There’s another interesting revelation here: al-Muhajir clears the higher leadership of the 1920 Revolt Brigades—ostensibly meaning Harith al-Dhari—of giving any specific orders to his fighters to join the Awakening Groups and fight against the Islamic State of Iraq, but for reasons that al-Muhajir would not get into, nobody listened to al-Dhari. Al-Dhari had been in secret talks with U.S. officials since 2005 to reconcile his faction with the political process in Baghdad. He’s still at large, hiding in the Jordanian capital Amman; he’s unable to return to Iraq for fear of arrest.

In response to a follow-up question, al-Muhajir asserts that in the first few weeks after the declaration of the Islamic State of Iraq, the rate of insurgents joining it numbered around 1000 per week. Eventually, 80 percent of all insurgents threw in their lot with the Islamic State of Iraq, according to al-Muhajir.

Q: “Did a number of tribal sheikhs pledge allegiance to the State?”

A: Repeating an earlier claim, al-Muhajir claims that 70 percent of the tribal leaders in the Sunni areas pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and its leader, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, and that some of these pledges were handwritten or recorded in some other manner. Al-Muhajir cites one meeting whereby forty sheikhs from Baghdad and Anbar Province met with Muharib al-Juburi, spokesman of the Islamic State of Iraq (killed during May 2007), and all of them pledges allegiance in a “tear-jerking” ceremony. It is interesting that al-Muhajir qualifies al-Juburi as a former member of the Mujaheddin Army, before joining the Islamic State of Iraq.

However, some sheikhs were swayed by American dollars and those who did went on to rescind their pledges. Al-Muhajir singles out the sheikh of the Jmeilat tribe (he’s mentioned twice in this interview, and I believe he means Mishhin Abbas al-Jumeily, who was killed in a suicide attack in June 2008), and the sheikh of the Albu Fahed tribe. The latter is a confusing case, since it would seem to indicate a reference to Nasr Abdul-Karim (“he was one of the first to pledge allegiance”), but Abdul-Karim was killed during January 2006, almost a year before the declaration of the Islamic State of Iraq. I know the Albu Fahed tribe quite well, and I can’t think of anyone of Abdul-Karim’s prominence that had subsequently turned against Al-Qaeda to warrant a mention such as this.

Q: “Did you force people and armed factions to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq?”

A: Al-Muhajir gives an interesting answer here: No, the jihadists knew that the concept of the Islamic State was new to most people, and hence they had to go slow in introducing its tenets. But what the jihadists did was to try to curb the excesses of some of the armed factions, such as banditry and kidnapping for ransom, and that may have set some of the rival factions against them.

Q: “Some people criticize the declaration of a ministerial cabinet by the Islamic State, and they deride such things as the formation of a ministry portfolio for agricultural and fishing resources?”

A: [This cabinet was announced by al-Baghdadi in April 2007] Al-Muhajir responds to such derision by saying that the jihadists had seized almost two hundred villages from the Shias—thousands and thousands of fertile and arable fields—together with about 500 fish farms south of Baghdad and in Diyala Province and in Salahuddin Province. An administrative body was needed to manage these resources, as well as to settle displaced Sunnis in these lands; that was the job of the Islamic State of Iraq’s Agriculture Minister. The ministry was also responsible for paving roads into these rural areas, according to al-Muhajir.

Q: “Some claim that you target the laypersons of the Sunnis and the sheikhs of the tribes, and the clerics of the mosques, and former officers of the Iraqi Army. What’s your response?”

A: Al-Muhajir gives a standard response to this one: Why would the jihadists target their base? But with regards to ex-officers, al-Muhajir reveals that more ex-officers joined Al-Qaeda than any other insurgent faction, and that the Commander-in-Chief of the Islamic State of Iraq, Abul-Basha’ir al-Juburi, was himself a former colonel in Saddam’s army. This is the second time that I know of whereby a big deal is made of Abul-Basha’ir, who al-Baghdadi recently cited (in his 12th speech) as one of the Islamic State of Iraq’s top martyrs—al-Muhajir clarifies matter even further by asserting that Abul-Basha’ir was an Iraqi, not a Syrian according to other reports. Little is known about him, and I would appreciate anyone’s help on this topic.

Q: “They say that holding down land is a failed military practice. What’s your response?”

A: Al-Muhajir dismisses such talk as the talking points of the feeble, and cites the experience in Fallouja in 2004, and how all the other insurgent groups took advantage of that safe refuge, which had been secured through the “sacrifices” of al-Zarqawi’s fighters.

Al-Muhajir attributes such talk to one rival insurgent group in particular, the Islamic Army of Iraq, and although he doesn’t mention them by name, the inference is made through an anecdote that al-Muhajir relates regarding two French journalists taken hostage by the Islamic Army and brought to Fallouja for “safe-keeping”. This is a reference to Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot who were abducted in August 2004. Al-Muhajir claims that both French nationals were ransomed for “millions of dollars” that the Islamic Army pocketed without sharing with anyone else.

Two other important points are made in response to this question: the point of jihad is to secure territory in which to enforce God’s law, and the jihadists need not be afraid of being surrounded by enemies, and they should take heart by the precedent set by the Prophet Muhammad in Medina. These are two recurring points that the jihadists cite as reasons and justifications behind the declaration of the Islamic State of Iraq.

Q: “Some accuse you of being the reason behind the Awakening projects. What’s the validity of that?”

A: Al-Muhajir says that the Awakening Groups were formed as a direct response to the challenge posed by Islamic State of Iraq, since the latter offered Sunnis an alternative political blueprint for the future other than a return to nationalist politics.

Q: “Would you accept the repentance of the Awakening members?”

A: Al-Muhajir cites what al-Baghdadi had said: the door to repentance is open, as long as it follows the rules laid out by the first caliph (Abu Bakr) for the apostates who had turned against Islam following Muhammad’s death. Al-Muhajir adds an interesting caveat to nudge the ex-insurgents back into the ranks of the jihadists by appealing to their sense of social standing and asks, “Who will marry your daughter? …What will your grandchildren say about you? …Be careful not to be [in the situation] whereby your son spits on your grave.”

Q: “You are accused of having a relationship with the Iranian regime, and the case of the Iranian Consul who was released in the days of the Monotheism and Jihad Group is cited as evidence.”

A: [Iran’s consul in Karbala, Freidon Jahani was abducted by the Islamic Army in Iraq in August 2004, and was released in the following month] Al-Muhajir begins by citing all the incidents in which his organization had targeted Iranians: assassinating three Iranian diplomats near the Karkh Hospital, numerous attacks on the Iranian Embassy, and killing Iranian intelligence officers posing as Shia pilgrims.

With regards to the case of the Iranian consul, al-Muhajir serves up many juicy details: First, he asserts that this incident occurred during the days of al-Zarqawi’s Monotheism and Jihad Group, and hence the Islamic State of Iraq cannot be held accountable for it. But al-Muhajir adds that he was personally involved in how this incident unfolded and tells us that he first learnt of the abduction through Abu Abdel-Rahman al-Masri (dead, a.k.a. Abu Islam, involved in the USS Cole attack, according to al-Muhajir) and Abu ‘Abir al-Janabi (dead) one of the leaders of the Islamic Army, both of whom shared the information with al-Muhajir before news of the abduction was leaked to the press. Abu Abdel-Rahman came to Fallouja and suggested that the jihadists should trade the consul for some of their comrades being held by the Iranians. Al-Zarqawi apparently liked the idea and delegated Abdel-Rahman to contact one of the commanders of the Islamic Army, Abu Abdul-Qader (dead) to tell him about these terms to be dictated to the Iranians, which he did. Al-Zarqawi also delegated al-Muhajir to go to Yusufiyah to talk this matter over with the leaders of the Islamic Army, but al-Muhajir was surprised to hear the news that the Islamic Army had told the media that the Iranian consul would be traded for any remaining Iraqi POWs that may still be held by the Iranians from the Iran-Iraq War. Al-Muhajir arrived in Yusufiyeh and met with Abu Ayyub, who he describes as the “Military Commander of the Islamic Army, the emir of the South, and a member of the Shura Council.” Al-Muhajir was also introduced to Abu al-Mu’tassim, who was presented by Abu Ayyub as the “Deputy Leader of the Islamic Army.” Al-Muhajir chided Abu Ayyub for not following al-Zarqawi’s recommendation, but Abu Ayyub feigned ignorance and claimed that Abu Abdul-Qader hadn’t told him about it. But shortly afterwards, Abu Abdul-Qader walked in and confirmed that he had indeed told Abu Ayyub about the terms, which made the latter “go red” with embarrassment.

What seemingly happened next is that the Islamic Army handed over the consul to al-Zarqawi’s fighters in Fallouja, but al-Zarqawi felt that “[the Islamic Army] has embroiled us” in a no-win situation: they couldn’t kill or ransom the prisoner lest the Al-Qaeda leaders or fighters being held by the Iranians meet a similar fate. In the end, the jihadists decided to release the consul to the Iranians.

In response to another question, al-Muhajir seems to take credit for the attack on Glasgow airport, and reveals that an even larger operation in the United Kingdom was foiled due to a tradecraft error committed by one of its organizers.

WHAT YOU NEED TO REMEMBER:

-The jihadists are trying to deflect some of the criticisms that have been leveled at them. The very fact that al-Muhajir felt compelled to take such questions and answer them is a testimony to the fact that the jihadists find themselves in very bleak circumstances.

-Al-Muhajir’s revelations about Harith al-Dhari, and the circumstances behind the abduction of the Iranian consul, fill in many gaps in the narrative.

-There's a hint at the end of another interview to follow.

IN OTHER NEWS:

Abu Omar al-Baghdadi released a brief audio eulogy a couple of days ago for slain Islamic State of Iraq commander for Northern Iraq Abu Qaswarah al-Maghrebi. This would mark the thirteenth time we’ve heard from al-Baghdadi, but I wouldn’t count it as a speech.

FURTHER READING:

Talisman Gate: Al-Muhajir supports the US congressional election results of 2006, declares allegiance to al-Baghdadi

12 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nibras,

Please take a look at these two articles: what is going on with JAM in Najaf?

http://www.iraqupdates.com/p_articles.php/article/38655

http://heyetnet.org/eng/amsi-news/3347-raid-the-house-of-sheikh-al-baghdadi.html

8:52 PM, October 27, 2008

 
Anonymous gj said...

Fascinating.

My background is in left politics of the 60s, which explains my neo con streak. Anyway back in 04, 05 and 06 I was extremely perplexed by the US military consistently playing down the strength of Al Qaeda in Iraq? It seemed so obvious to me that AlQI had been setting the insurgency's agenda ever since the triple opening bars in August 03 - Jordanian Embassy, UN compound and the spectacular suicide attack that killed Ayatollah Bakir Al-Hakim. The Baathists had got into bed with AlQI and I had no doubt AlQ would eventually devour them. (I got all this from my time in the 60s when we were fighting the stalinists in the Australian Labor Party.)

So when the ISI was declared it seemed to me this was typical AQI agenda-setting: a coup. There was no doubt in my mind that the youthful rank and file crazy footsoldiers would defect to the ISI (think George Soros and Moveon.org here !) which of course they did.

The rest of the insurgency would tank very fast and rush into the arms of the US. Which it did.

I was therefore very bemused that after the surge the US military started talking non stop about AlQI, instead of minimising it.

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