On March 19, the second anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq, a 38-year-old Egyptian computer expert detonated his explosives-laden Land Cruiser inside the compound wall of the Players Theater in the Farij Kulaib neighborhood in Doha, Qatar, setting off a massive explosion that killed one British national and wounded twelve other attendees of the play. The name of the group that claimed responsibility for the bombing was Jund as-Sham, “Soldiers of the Levant.”
This little-known organization first surfaced on the global terrorism scene in 1995 as a splinter from the Palestinian terrorist group Asbat al-Ansar (“League of the Followers”), a small, salafi-inspired network loosely affiliated with Al-Qaeda and based in the Ayn al-Hilwah Palestinian refugee camp near Sidon, in southern Lebanon. Following a string of assassinations of Lebanese religious leaders and small-scale bombings in the early 1990s, the group split into three factions: Asbat al-Nour, Jama‘at al-Nur and Jund as-Sham, the latter retaining only a small part (no more than thirty) of the group’s original members and operational capabilities.
According to Jordanian government sources and European intelligence documents, Jund as-Sham and many of its members then resurfaced in Afghanistan in 1999, when the group was given $200,000 of Al-Qaeda’s money and placed by one of Osama bin Laden’s key lieutenants, Abu Zubaydah, now in U.S. custody, under the command of fellow Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. While the relationship between the Lebanese Jund as-Sham and its “Afghan branch” is still unclear, Jordanian security sources claimed in 2004 that the group’s name was displayed on a large banner at the entrance of Zarqawi’s Al-Matar training facility near the Afghan city of Herat. German intelligence has determined that this organization was not the only one being trained at the camp: Zarqawi’s own groups, Al-Tawhid wal Jihad and Bayt al-Imam were also present, federating the efforts of Zarqawi’s small band of associates from Jordan with a patchwork of Al-Qaeda recruits from Europe and the Middle East.
Zubaydah’s idea was to build Jund as-Sham as an Al-Qaeda affiliate, while broadening its activities to the entire Levant (Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan) where Al-Qaeda’s presence was deemed too feeble. Placed under Zarqawi’s direct command and operating autonomously from Al-Qaeda, Jund as-Sham federated about 150 jihadis, including Palestinian refugees from Jordan, as well as various recruits from Syria (holdouts of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood), Egypt (members and sympathizers of the Takfir wa Hijra group), and Lebanon (about two dozen holdovers from Asbar al-Ansar).
Under Zarqawi’s close supervision, these militants were trained in explosives, counter-intelligence, passport forgery, guerrilla warfare and chemical weapons production by an “Abu Qassam” at the Al-Matar camp. Jund as-Sham and Al-Tawhid’s stated objectives, according to Jordanian security sources, were a combination of Zarqawi’s obsessions (destabilizing the Hashemite monarchy) and Bin Laden’s ambitions (conducting major terrorist operations in Israel), a far cry from the group’s original focus on Lebanon. From Herat and Kabul, where Zarqawi’s organizations had their headquarters, Jund as-Sham started planning several operations, including the “Millennium Bombings” that would occur in Jordan in late December 1999. These plots were fortunately uncovered by the Jordanian General Intelligence Directorate, which had sent its own “recruits” to join Zarqawi in Afghanistan in 1999. After 9/11 and the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, Jund as-Sham and Al-Tawhid were presumed disbanded. Most of their members, including Zarqawi himself, fled through Pakistan and Iran to Europe, Iraq, Syria or Lebanon.
Yet, both organizations survived in 2002–03 with help from Zubaydah’s financial and logistical networks in Europe, Jordan and Syria, as well as individual or institutional “donors” in the Gulf and Iran. Indeed, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Afghan terrorist “mogul” and then-protégé of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Al-Quds corps, provided extensive help to Zarqawi during their contacts at the former’s farmhouse near Tehran between December 2001 and January 2002.
As a result, in summer 2002, according to Jordanian court documents, Jund as-Sham (under Zarqawi’s command) organized a second plot to attack Western and Jewish targets in Jordan and began training a small cell at a facility in Syria. On October 28, 2002, the group staged its first strike, killing U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley in Amman, Jordan. The same documents allege that Foley’s assassins met with Zarqawi in Syria and received money for the operation from his network in Iraq. In its subsequent investigation of the April 2004 bomb plot against Western and Jordanian government targets in Amman (alleged by the Jordanian government to have involved chemical weapons), Jordanian intelligence learned that Zarqawi had even been smuggled into Jordan a few days before the operation to meet the assassins of Lawrence Foley.
Meanwhile, according to German intelligence documents, Al-Tawhid resurfaced in Iraq and Europe, where its operatives were used to facilitate Zarqawi’s escape through Iran, Iraq and Syria, providing money and passports. These documents, based on the 2003 confessions of Jordanian militant Shadi Mohd Mustafa Abdallah, an Al-Tawhid operative in Germany, show that the organization sent 41 forged passports—25 of them British—through Turkey to Iran to help this collective escape in exchange for 47,000 deutschemarks brought from Tehran by “two Kurdish messengers.” These operatives, according to the same documents, were meant to travel to Spain, Australia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.
However, if Jund as-Sham had “vanished” as an organization, its agenda (the establishment of a caliphate in the Levant) was merely postponed to a later date, when the jihad in Iraq would have, as Afghanistan did in the 1980s and 1990s, produced a cadre of battle-trained militants experienced enough to go back to their home countries and provide the nucleus of a new, regenerated “Jihad International”, able to serve as a vehicle for Zarqawi’s regional and global ambitions. The March bombing in Doha, which came roughly a year after Zarqawi’s failed “chemical” plot in Jordan, may signal the beginning of that phase.
This renewed “global retail infrastructure” is particularly strong in Europe, where, despite the blows that they suffered in the hands of security services there, jihadi networks have expanded in the past two years, especially in northern and eastern Europe, according to French and British counter-terrorism officials. Italian police documents from 2003–04, as well as the transcript of the interrogation of a Jordanian militant from Al-Tawhid named Shadi Mohd Mustafa Abdallah by German intelligence in 2002 and 2003, confirm the extent of Zarqawi’s networks there. First in September 2001 and again in 2002, the Jordanian militant instructed Al-Tawhid to conduct terrorist attacks against Jewish and American targets in Germany. His name also surfaced repeatedly in investigations following the May 2003 bombings in Casablanca, Morocco, which killed 44 people, as well as the subsequent terrorist attacks in Turkey (November 2003, 62 killed) and Madrid (March 2004, 190 killed). While his personal involvement in these plots is still unclear, some German and Italian intelligence officials now believe that most of the European networks (through individuals such as Mohamed al-Gharbuzi, a suspect in the Casablanca bombings, and Amer al-Azizi, considered to have been the mastermind of the Madrid bombings) involved in these and other operations (such as a truck bomb plot uncovered by British authorities in March 2004) are part of Zarqawi’s global infrastructure of recruits and associates. These are a collection of “holdovers” from pre-9/11 Al-Qaeda, Al-Tawhid operatives, militants affiliated with the Kurdish group Ansar al-Islam (now called Ansar al-Sunnah), and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, whose networks in Italy, Spain and Germany seem to have a greater profile in Al-Qaeda than previously thought, according to German security sources.
Since summer 2003, this network of recruiters, passport forgers, financiers and logistical experts has quickly started moving away from local operations and gravitating toward Zarqawi’s Iraqi insurgency. Combined with a seemingly endless ability to raise funds—now largely dependent upon Al-Qaeda’s benefactors in the Persian Gulf—this infrastructure has been active in recruiting dozens if not hundreds of volunteers, providing them with forged passports, and sending them though Turkey, Syria or Iran to join Al-Tawhid in Iraq. (The group was renamed Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn, or “Al-Qaeda in Iraq”, following Zarqawi’s public “pledge of allegiance” to Bin Laden in October 2004). In France alone, according to French counter-terrorism officials, about two dozen recruits were sent through this jihadi pipeline to Iraq, where most of them died.
The larger question facing experts and intelligence analysts alike is whether Zarqawi’s new profile is a result of the U.S. government’s obsessive “personalization” of the War on Terror (and the resulting media coverage), or indicative of a more fundamental shift in the command structure of a “terrorist Internet” that still calls itself Al-Qaeda but whose increasingly disconnected structure has earned the label of “Jihad, Inc.”
There is little doubt that the most recent developments in the War on Terror, specifically the arrest of Abu Faraj al-Libbi in Pakistan on May 2—which, according to the Pakistani government, is expected to lead to “major breakthroughs” in the hunt for Bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri—have only furthered the structural revamping of Al-Qaeda’s leadership, communication techniques and overall character.
There is now an increased consensus among experts and intelligence officials that Bin Laden is still in overall control of his organization through a complex communication system involving couriers and audiotapes, email and verbal codes. Despite this, as well as the fact that the personal differences in ideological and strategic outlook between the Saudi and his Jordanian commander differ widely, there already are some serious indications that Zarqawi’s role in Al-Qaeda has increased considerably in the past twelve months. This shift reflects not only Zarqawi’s efforts in the Iraqi insurgency, his wider global overreach and his global profile in jihadi circles, but more importantly his control of a new base in Iraq around which the technical, financial and human resources of Jihad, Inc., can again coalesce. Just as they once flocked to Afghanistan and Chechnya, international jihadis can now come to Iraq, not only to be “camp trained” but “battle trained.” They can weave the personal and institutional relationships, the feelings of kinship and shared experience, that hold together Al-Qaeda’s virtual umma, or “community.”
This strategic shift, as well as Zarqawi’s larger—some might say “heir apparent”—role in Al-Qaeda, is reflected concretely in the contents of last year’s communications between Zarqawi and Bin Laden, whose relationship had previously been considered fairly antagonistic. From Zarqawi’s written (though unsigned) ”appeal” to Bin Laden, intercepted by U.S. intelligence in early February 2004, to Al-Tawhid wal Jihad’s formal pledge of allegiance to Al-Qaeda posted on the Internet in October, to Bin Laden’s acknowledgement of Zarqawi as “Al-Qaeda’s Prince in Iraq” several weeks after that, emerges the picture of a considerable gravity shift from the “old base” (Afghanistan) to the new base (Iraq), and from the old guard to the new. One can only guess the terms of this partnership, which, in the words of Al-Tawhid wal Jihad’s statement, took “eight months of contacts” and at least one “catastrophic dispute.” There is little doubt that this informal agreement involves a greater access to Al-Qaeda’s financial, logistical and human resources for Zarqawi, against the broadening of his terrorist activities not only to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, but also to Europe and the United States, which the Saudi urged Zarqawi to strike in his speech broadcast in December 2004. As demonstrated once again in the arrest of Abu Faraj al-Libbi, Europe, with its open borders and large Muslim population, is still considered by Al-Qaeda to be a springboard for attacks on the United States.
Already, several of Al-Qaeda’s regional commanders have publicly followed in Bin Laden’s footsteps in acknowledging the Jordanian’s new status. In a taped speech broadcast on March 17, Saleh al-Aufi, named by Saudi authorities as “Al-Qaeda’s new commander in Saudi Arabia”, specifically pledged allegiance to Zarqawi, in terms that left very little room for interpretation about the Jordanian’s new status.
This increased synergy between two of the few remaining organs of Jihad, Inc., has already been reflected in Al-Qaeda in Iraq’s statements and publications, as well as the diversity of Zarqawi’s volunteers in Iraq, according to media reports and foreign security sources. Once mostly composed of recruits from Jordan, Europe, Syria, and Egypt, the ranks of “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” have, for the past 12 months, increasingly included recruits from the Gulf (principally Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Yemen) and even Southeast Asia (mostly Indonesia and Malaysia), where Al-Tawhid wal Jihad’s recruiting efforts were either poor (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia) or inexistent (Asia), but where Al-Qaeda’s presence is well established.
Even if it is early to crown Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as Osama Bin Laden’s replacement, considering the latest pace of his terrorist attacks and the pressure that U.S. and Iraqi forces have put on him and his organization the thread of evidence indicating that he is fast moving in that direction is growing steadily, as are indications that Al-Qaeda has found a new—albeit rather uncomfortable—base in Iraq. But while this increased pressure on Al-Qaeda’s leadership both in Pakistan and Iraq could signal a very encouraging tipping point in the ongoing campaign against the organization, it may also emphasize a set of harsh realities for the not-so-distant future of America’s War on Terror. By opening a new front in the global jihad, which serves as the lifeline of Al-Qaeda’s ideological staying power, the Iraq War, despite its many accomplishments, has provided the organization with a much-needed replacement for its Afghan base. There is ample evidence that the same magnetic force that drew so many jihadis to Afghanistan in the 1990s has re-emerged in Iraq, with greater stealth and amplitude, as well as potentially deadlier consequences. At any given moment, these young recruits will return to their home countries in Europe and the Middle East with not just the crude and generic guerrilla training the was dispensed in Afghanistan, but a deep, battle-tested knowledge of urban terrorist operations and a far greater understanding than their predecessors of clandestine network management, the opportunities presented by the privatization of mass destruction capabilities, and the techniques of a deadlier, stealthier and more global societal warfare.
Alexis Debat is a terrorism analyst, visiting lecturer at Middlebury College and senior terrorism consultant to abc News. He is also a contributing editor to The National Interest and Politique Internationale. A longer version of this piece appears in the summer 2005 issue of The National Interest.