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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AT LEAST 13 IRAQIS were killed in fighting with U.S. soldiers in the Iraqi city of Falluja on July 30, part of the ongoing U.S. offensive against fighters loyal to Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the man Bush administration officials claim is the most dangerous terrorist in Iraq today. Critics, however, contend that the Jordanian-born Zarqawi is a Washington-made bogeyman who is not worth the $25 million bounty on his head. They doubt the strength of Zarqawi's Tawhid and Jihad (Unity and Holy War) group, citing intelligence officials who generally agree that no more than 1,000 foreign fighters are active in Iraq.

A memo acquired by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy from Iraqi intelligence sources, however, provides a first glimpse into the configuration of Zarqawi's Iraqi network, which may be more dangerous than previously imagined. The memo, "Structure of Tawhid and Jihad Islamic Group," details several days of recent interrogations of one of Zarqawi's captured lieutenants. Umar Baziyani, Zarqawi's number four, a member of the Tawhid legislative council, and the "emir" of Baghdad, was captured by U.S. forces in late May 2004. The account of his confessions details the hierarchal structure of Zarqawi's group, its ties to Syria and Iran, the number of fighters it commands in Iraq, the names of the regional emirs, its media strategy, and more.

The memo explains that Zarqawi, who had allied himself with the Kurdish al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al Islam in northern Iraq, lost his lifeline to al Qaeda in January 2004 when U.S. intelligence arrested Hassan Ghul. Ghul, according to U.S. officials, was carrying a message from Zarqawi to Osama bin Laden. Ghul, who was reportedly a lieutenant of 9/11 planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was considered to be the top al Qaeda operative captured in Iraq. Baziyani explains that after Ghul's arrest, Tawhid and Jihad was cut off from al Qaeda. Recent reports, citing U.S. intelligence agencies, indicate that Zarqawi may have been trying to reconnect with bin Laden "in the last few weeks."

Baziyani explains, however, that Zarqawi's group did not wither when it fell from the al Qaeda vine. He claims that there are nine regional leaders of the Falluja-based Tawhid and Jihad under Zarqawi. His deputy, also based in Falluja, is known as Mahi Shami. If U.S. intelligence manages to catch up with these two top leaders, there are still regional "emirs" fanned out around Iraq, which could make the network incredibly difficult to break. For instance, Baziyani explained during his interrogation that he had been replaced as emir of Baghdad after his arrest. There are also regional emirs in the Kurdish north (Hussein Salim), the western Anbar province (Abdullah Abu Azzam), and the city of Mosul (Abu Tallah). In this way, Tawhid and Jihad can execute spectacular terrorist attacks throughout the country. These include the Baghdad-based bombing of the Jordanian embassy; suicide bombings against Shiites and an attack on Basra's oil infrastructure in the south; suicide bombings against Kurds in the north; attacks against police recruiting centers throughout the country; and the beheading of American Nick Berg in an unknown location.

In addition to its regional bases, Zarqawi's group has a specially designated media department. Baziyani claims that a man named Hassan Ibrahim heads this department, along with lieutenants Khadi Hassan and "Adil," who were responsible for taping and releasing the May 11 beheading of Berg.

Baziyani also details the military strength of Tawhid and Jihad. He lists seven military commanders under Zarqawi's control throughout Iraq with about 1,400 fighters at their disposal. Not surprisingly, Baziyani stated that the Falluja group, headed by Abu Nawas Falujayee, has the most fighters with 500. Second to Falluja is Mosul, with 400 fighters. (Analysts believe Mosul is a haven for former Ansar al Islam fighters.) There are also strongholds in Anbar (60 fighters), Baghdad (40 fighters), and Diyala, the province just northeast of Baghdad (80 fighters). According to Baziyani, most of the fighters in Tawhid and Jihad are Iraqi Arabs and Kurds--not foreign jihadis--which corroborates reports by U.S. intelligence that the foreign fighter presence is much smaller than previously imagined.

One senior administration official, however, doubts Baziyani's claim that Zarqawi has 1,400 fighters under his command. A more realistic figure, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity, might be 500. But the official admitted, "I'm not sure how anyone would really know. If we knew more, we would have probably rolled up this group by now. It could be wrong for us to think we know better than the man we debriefed."