Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was most famous for leading Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). In fact, his first organization was called Tawhid wal Jihad, which he formed in the 1990s before he had joined al Qaeda. In 2002, Zarqawi travelled to Iraq to prepare for the U.S. invasion. It wasn’t until January 2004 that he asked for assistance from Al Qaeda central, and then in October 2004 he finally pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden. Zarqawi proved to be a much more bloodthirsty terrorist than even bin Laden was used to as AQI became committed to attacking Iraqis, and especially Shiites to start a civil war, which was hoped would destabilize the country and lead to the failure of the American effort in Iraq. To help explain Zarqawi’s career in Iraq is former CIA analyst Nada Bakos. She was part of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center who was sent to Iraq shortly after the 2003 invasion to track Zarqawi’s activities.
Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi turned his Tawhid wal Jihad into Al Qaeda In Iraq in 2004 (Institute for the Study of Violent Groups)
1. When did the CIA send you to Iraq?
That was right after the invasion in May 2003.
2. When you were sent there were you tasked with following the insurgency or just intelligence gathering in general?
Remember in May 2003 we hadn’t experienced an increase in violence yet. The uptick started while I was there.
I was sent to Iraq as an expert for my team [the CIA’s Iraq Counterterrorism unit] because they needed someone who could evaluate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s network, and if he had a connection to Al Qaeda. They wanted at least one expert on the ground in case something came up, but also at that point the CIA was just trying to find out what Zarqawi’s network was doing.
3. Zarqawi had his own group Tawhid wal Jihad that he started in the 1990s. After he came to Iraq in January 2004 he asked Al Qaeda for aid, and then in October 2004 pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden. Why did he decide to make that connection to Al Qaeda?
At the time everyone thought of course Zarqawi was going to join Al Qaeda, because it’s Al Qaeda, it’s a bigger brand. Yet he had all the money. He was galvanizing all this support and new recruits because he was gaining ground, not unlike what the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) is doing now. Al Qaeda at the time was still the big dog on the block. They were worth joining from his perspective because they would have more consistent funding, weapons, people, and give him a broader reach. Yet, he managed to do it on his terms.
4. In the HBO documentary “Manhunt, The Search for Bin Laden” you said that Zarqawi was different from others leaders in Al Qaeda. What was the big difference that led AQ to criticize him in 2005-2006 in two letters saying that he was hurting their cause?
The tactics that ISIS are using today stem from Zarqawi’s strategy. He took advantage of the sectarian divide, using it purposely to cause more destruction. He knew that was going to cause a huge disruption for U.S. troops, which it did.
The differences that emerged with Al Qaeda was how Zarqawi was waging jihad. Al Qaeda was disgruntled with how he was going about killing Muslims and civilians seemingly at random. They wanted to reign him in, but he wasn’t having it. He had figured out his strategy early on, and this was how he was going to approach jihad, and he was actually going to take advantage of the insurgency. That’s what ISIS is doing now.
5. It seems like ISIS is trying to do the same things Zarqawi did. ISIS cooperates with different insurgent groups, and it sees itself as the vanguard leading all these other organizations. What kind of cooperation did Zarqawi have with other militant groups?
Zarqawi ran a very different organization than core Al Qaeda. He wasn’t as stringent about the hierarchy in his organization. He started out with what we termed as a network. His nodules of contact were more like concentric circles whereas Al Qaeda has a hierarchy. He wasn’t as concerned with that. He ended up working with random insurgent groups just from an opportunist perspective versus worrying about whether they were pledging allegiance to him or really why they were fighting. His concern wasn’t the same as what Al Qaeda does when they join allegiance with someone. He was taking advantage of the insurgency just depending upon the territory. That was a big distinction. That was a strength and a drawback. When you look at ISIS today it appears that they are more military like in the way that they approach what they’re doing. They seem to have more of a structure, more of a hierarchy. In large part probably because these are Iraqis that were probably in the military or the Baathist regime at one point, so that’s their background and experience.
6. Did Zarqawi get into arguments with other insurgent groups as well?
Yes, I think I vaguely remember some. It wasn’t on the scale of Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. Not even remotely close. There were certainly plenty of arguments. Look at the arguments between him and core Al Qaeda, Zarqawi wasn’t someone who was going to give up his stance. How much inter-jihadi violence there was I’m not really sure.
7. How about Zarqawi’s funding. Today a lot of Iraqis talk about how ISIS is funded from donations from the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia. Where did Zarqawi’s money mostly come from?
ISIS has a lot of its own funding. I don’t think even the U.S. government thinks most of their funding is coming from the Gulf States. Zarqawi began his start up in the 1990s, it was a $200,000 loan from bin Laden. He continued to galvanize more support as time went on because he was focusing on the Jordanian government. He was getting support from people that supported that cause. He was really looking at the Levant at that time. Then of course once Iraq popped up that was an opportunity for him. He ended up getting a lot of money from different sources and donors because he was the main player. Al Qaeda wasn’t doing anything on the same scale as Zarqawi after 9/11. So he ended up attracting a lot more funding at that time.
8. Was he getting most of that money from within Iraq or from foreign sources?
The majority of his network was foreign fighters. He pulled from all sorts of areas. He pulled guys from the Maghreb, from the Levant. He had some fighters from the Caucuses. He had a global network not unlike Al Qaeda, so they were tapping into a lot of the same sources.
9. Zarqawi had a plan called the Baghdad Belts. It seems like ISIS is trying to follow the same thing today, get into Babil province, Anbar, etc. surround Baghdad and head for the capital. Did you get any information about Zarqawi’s strategy?
We didn’t have the same open source visibility that you have today about ISIS. It was not like that with Zarqawi. It was much more clandestine and compartmented. The basic information that ISIS shares all over social media was treated as classified by Zarqawi’s organization. Zarqawi released videos that revealed some of his political messages, and military capabilities, but not on the same scale as ISIS. Obviously we had clandestine sources as well. Zarqawi’s battle plan looks very similar to what ISIS is doing today.
10. Could you tell the story of how the U.S. finally tracked down Zarqawi?
This is the ironic part of my experience, I spent five years focusing on Zarqawi and two months before he was killed I decided to move onto another assignment. I was just ready to go. Everyone I had known who had worked on this topic had largely moved onto something else, so I decided to do the same at that time too. In the end it doesn’t matter, it was a team effort from the beginning and I was relieved after hearing the news.
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HBO, “Manhunt, The Search For Bin Laden” May 2013
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- “Harmony: The Attyia – Zarqawi Letter,” Long War Journal, 9/27/06
- “Islamic Army of Iraq splits from Al Qaeda,” Long War Journal, 4/12/07
Ware, Michael, “The Enemy With Many Faces,” Time, 9/27/04