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Badr al-Ibrahim

The jihadi generation destroying the Middle East

Zarqawi jihadi outfit in Iraq lit the fuse for sectarian strife in the region [AFP]

Date of publication: 2 June, 2015

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Comment: Al-Qaeda's old guard unsuccessfully tried to rein in its more radical young adherents, but now war in Iraq and Syria has taken an overtly sectarian appearance, says Badr al-Ibrahim.
Documents seized from Osama bin Laden's home in Pakistan reveal the cataclysmic shifts that were taking place among jihadi groups. The crisis ran so deep that Bin Laden was forced to respond in more than one bitterly written letter to jihadi leaders.


Bin Laden believed in the religious interpretation of conflict with the West, and in particular the US. To al-Qaeda's leader this was not a war over political or economic issues.He saw it as a clash of civilizations and an ideological war with international "infidels" represented by the "Crusader-Zionist" alliance against Islam.

Civilian targets

In this context, Bin Laden did not distinguish between civilians and combatants: his war was against the entire people of the US. He also cast a wide net when classifying apostates, which caught up the vast majority of Arab and Islamic governments who were infidels for not applying Sharia and for being lackeys of the West.

In his last letters, Bin Laden appeared to call for the restoration of the Islamic caliphate. He saw the Arab Spring as an opportune time implement this plan.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was arguably the man who brought about this shift in the jihadi movement. Zarqawi was the leader of the Tawhid and Jihad group in Iraq and offered to pledge allegiance to Bin Laden and al-Qaeda, if they would in turn approve of his vision for jihad in Iraq.

Zarqawi outlined his plan in a letter published by al-Hayat in 2004. This involved igniting sectarian strife between Iraq's Shia and Sunni communities by attacking Shia religious and political institutions.

There would be no distinguishing between civilians and combatants. The Shia backlash would lead to a Sunni "awakening" and in October 2004, Zarqawi pledged allegiance to Bin Laden. Although there are no letters from al-Qaeda leaders to the Iraqi commander, it appears that they agreed with Zarqawi's overall plan to ignite sectarian strife in the country.

However, al-Qaeda's leadership had some reservations about Zarqawi's actions. This is evident in a series of recently published documents found in Bin Laden's home, including one significant letter sent by al-Qaeda's deputy Ayman Zawahiri to Zarqawi in 2005.

Zawahiri gave a detailed depiction of al-Qaeda's views towards Shia Muslims. Although Zawahiri strongly attacked this community, and stressed that conflict with them was inevitable, he expressed reservations about Zarqawi's targeting of Shia civilians and mosques. This caused aversion to Sunni militants he said, and moved attention away from their real target - the US.

Bin Laden also warned his commanders about clashing with more moderate groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, in letters he sent in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Today, Zarqawi's heir - Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State group, have clashed with such moderate groups in Syria and elsewhere, even declaring their members "infidels".


Old guard

Perhaps the most lasting transformation of the jihadi movement related to the more radical tendency's priorities. Most of Bin Laden's letters focused on the "external enemy" - most notably the US. Bin Laden wrote that his followers needed to cut off the head of the snake, which would lead to the collapse of internal enemies.

He even went as far as calling on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular to conclude a truce with former Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh and focus their attention on fighting the US.

But Bin Laden was far away and unable to exert his control, and he expressed his annoyance at some of his affiliates' focus on internal battles.

Zarqawi was most notable of having his men fight the "internal enemy" - which included not only the Shia, but a broad segment of Iraq's Sunni community - at the expense of the US and coalition forces.

Baghdadi continued in that vein. With the sectarian frenzy being whipped up in the region, the priorities of the current generation of jihadis has been overturned. Today, Zarqawi's disciples in what is now the IS, and in Syria's al-Qaeda franchise, the Nusra Front, continue to fuel the conflicts in the Arab world.

Some of their priorities have changed so much that they are said to be working with US allies in the region, we have seen with the more pragmatic elements in Nusra.

Meanwhile, "political Islam" in the region is divided into two spheres - radical Salafis who often support IS, and a pro-Muslim Brotherhood camp that mostly supports Nusra.

At the same time, there are attempts to whitewash Nusra in the eyes of the West, with the group's leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani having recently having said that the West was not a target.

Yet, despite some painting the picture of Nusra being a moderate outfit, it still a committed sectarian force that murders civilians.

Zarqawi's descendants are spreading sectarianism, distrust and civil war that is tearing apart Arab society. Whether it is IS or Nusra, the jihadis need to be confronted wherever they appear, otherwise the region will continue on its downward spiral into uncontrollable chaos.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

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