The Magazine

Inside the Zarqawi Network

From the August 16 / August 23, 2004 issue: An interrogation memo sheds light on the top terrorist in Iraq.

Aug 16, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 46 • By JONATHAN SCHANZER
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Interestingly, Baziyani's interrogation reveals that Tawhid and Jihad maintains a strong military presence (150 fighters) in the town of al-Qaim, which is close to the Syrian border, just west of the Euphrates River. One Pentagon official believes that the number of fighters Baziyani put in al-Qaim is likely inflated, but says that the importance of the town cannot be overstated. Al-Qaim, to the bewilderment of U.S. officials, was where the Iraqi army put up some of its fiercest resistance during the 2003 Iraq war. A senior administration official calls Qaim "critical" and "the key to understanding how Syria is involved" in the insurgency.

With the help of Zarqawi, the town is said to be a depot for weapons, cash, and fighters supplied by Zarqawi's financiers--the bulk of whom are now believed by U.S. intelligence to be operating out of Syria. Abu Muhamed, whom the memo fingers as the military emir of the Baghdad cell, is a former Lebanese military officer who once lived in Denmark. According to Baziyani, he was smuggled into Iraq via Syria. Many other fighters, including Zarqawi's driver and bodyguard, are of Syrian descent.

There are other foreign links. Baziyani explained to his interrogators that the Zarqawi network received a great deal of assistance from Iran. One Tawhid and Jihad militant, Othman, was reportedly responsible for transferring former Ansar al Islam fighters and other jihadis back and forth from Iran to Baghdad once the U.S. occupation was underway. In other words, Iran has been involved in supplying fighters to tangle with U.S. soldiers. This should come as no surprise, given the 9/11 Commission's recent report that Iran was a transit state for 9/11 plotters.

Looking back, Sunni-Shia enmity has never been a concern for Iran when it comes to providing logistics to al Qaeda, or even supporting Sunni groups such as Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza. Iran, it is also worth noting, provided assistance to the Sunni and Kurdish Ansar al Islam on the eve of the 2003 U.S. invasion. Tehran allowed Ansar fighters to cross the border to escape the U.S. assault. According to several Ansar prisoners, Iran allowed fighters to remain there, and then later helped them back into Iraq to join the insurgency.

Interestingly, the Baziyani memo is not all bad news. The captured militant says that U.S. forces have hammered the Falluja bases of his organization in recent months. This, he said, has caused the network's leadership to disperse. Thus, Baziyani states, some of Zarqawi's deputies have considered Samarra as a new base. According to one Iraqi source close to the new Iraqi security cabinet, there has been some indication of "command and control in the Samarra area." Several U.S. officials, however, believe this assertion to be untrue--perhaps wishful thinking or even disinformation on the part of Baziyani.

The information in the Baziyani interrogation memo needs to be further vetted by U.S. and Iraqi intelligence. Still, the memo provides an unprecedented look into the mind of one of Zarqawi's lieutenants. It also provides a view of the small but powerful network that may or may not be at the center of the Iraqi insurgency, but has established itself as its brutal, public face.

Jonathan Schanzer is a Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of the forthcoming Al-Qaeda's Armies: Middle East Affiliate Groups and the Next Generation of Terror.