Confusion swirls over Zarqawi successor

SHAUN WATERMAN, UPI Homeland and National Security Editor

WASHINGTON, June 20 (UPI) -- Confusion continues to swirl around the identity of the successor to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the slain leader of al-Qaida in Iraq -- and it is unlikely to be resolved any time soon.

The U.S. military has said that Egyptian militant Ayyub al-Masri is "probably" Zarqawi's replacement, but other administration officials have cautioned it is too soon to tell.


"It's not clear at this point who is in (control)," National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said. "We've seen a number of different reports... In our view, it's not yet settled."

The confusion has brought hilarity and delight to the denizens of Islamic extremist Internet message boards, and some analysts caution that the apparent eagerness of the U.S. military to get out in front of the story is risking their credibility.

"They're in danger of giving (the jihadis) a propaganda victory," terrorism analyst Evan Kohlmann told United Press International. "They're laughing" at the military, he added.

The uncertainty only deepened last week when a previously unknown extremist -- Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, almost certainly a pseudonym -- was named the group's new emir, or leader, in a statement from the Mujahedin Shura Council, a shadowy umbrella group that claims to speak for al-Qaida in Iraq and five other jihadi groups.


The spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition military Baghdad said they believed the two men "were probably one and the same."

Those comments "were greeted with tremendous derision" on the message boards, said Kohlmann.

"It appears that al-Qaida threw a ghost at them, which will make them dizzy," wrote one contributor to al-Hesbah, a password-protected forum for al-Qaida supporters. "They will stay dizzy for years... How funny to see them confused like that," the contributor added, according to a translation provided by the SITE Institute, a non-profit organization which monitors jihadi communications.

"Oh God, add more confusion to their confusion," agreed another contributor.

There is a similar tone to contributions to another members-only forum, Mohajroon, translations of which were also provided by SITE.

"Ha ha ha ha ha ha," wrote a member calling himself Abu Walid. "You, the CIA and Pentagon hawks, are failures. We don't want to know his name, even by God, if his name was Mark Michael Peter bin Meena. We don't care."

And, adds Kohlmann, they don't know. "No one appears to know who this guy (al-Muhajir) is," he said of the chat board denizens.

By contrast quite a lot is known -- or at least said -- about al-Masri. The U.S. military has said that he is a senior al-Qaida in Iraq operative, who was close to Zarqawi, responsible for infiltrating foreign fighters from Syria into Baghdad.


According to coalition military spokesman Gen. William Caldwell, al-Masri in 1982 joined Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the group led by Ayman al-Zawahiri until he merged it with al-Qaida and became number two to that group's leader, Osama bin Laden.

"We think we have established," Caldwell told reporters last week of al-Masri, "that he probably first went into Afghanistan" in 1999, where he "became an explosives expert, specializing in the construction of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices" -- the lethal truck bombs al-Qaida has used to such deadly effect in Iraq.

Caldwell said that after the fall of the Taliban, he left Afghanistan and made his way to Iraq, where he eventually "became, we think, basically the emir of southern Iraq for al-Qaida in Iraq."

But even Caldwell cautioned that his "ability to effectively exert leadership over the al-Qaida cells remains unclear, and how many al-Qaida senior leadership members and Sunni terrorists may attempt to exert their influence and take charge is unknown at this time."

Part of the uncertainty, say experts, is that no one knows yet exactly how Zarqawi's death -- and the roll up of hundreds of other targets since as a result of intelligence gained, or newly exploitable since then -- will impact al-Qaida in Iraq.


"They're clearly needing a little time to sort out where they go after what is clearly a big blow... And I think we're going to have to see what the fallout is going to be," said Hadley.

But according to analyst Anthony Cordesman, al-Qaida in Iraq "has developed a highly compartmented organization, with regional emirs and cells with a high degree of isolation and security and a high degree of independence." He expects most of the organization to survive.

However the body blows the group has suffered shake out, there is unlikely to be more hard data any time soon. Kohlmann says that some in the jihadi Web forums have called on al-Qaida to deny the U.S. military's claims about al-Masri. But others have urged, in the words of one contributor to al-Hesbah, "our brothers, the Mujahedin, to leave them blind as they are, without any explanation, issues, or statements of denial."

Many analysts point out that the group is likely to be careful about any information it puts in the public domain about its leader -- given the continuing efforts by the U.S. and Iraqi military to find him. "They are going to be wary of releasing more information about him at the moment," said Rita Katz of the SITE Institute, adding that the uncertainty over the identity of any successor was likely to persist as a result.


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