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Meet The New Jihad

12 minute read
Michael Ware/Fallujah

The safe house lies on the outskirts of Fallujah in a neighborhood where no Americans have ventured. Inside, a group of Arab sheiks has gathered to discuss the jihad they and their followers are waging against the U.S. The men wear white robes and long beards and greet each other solemnly. They are all Iraqi, but their beliefs are those of the strict Wahhabi strain of Islam repressed under Saddam Hussein. Unlike most Iraqi sitting rooms, this one has no pictures adorning its walls or a television or radio nestled in a corner. Such luxuries are forbidden, just as they were under the Taliban in Afghanistan. At the back of the room are a few men from Saudi Arabia, who stand silently as one of the sheiks, the group’s leader, addresses me in Arabic and stilted English. The war in Iraq, he says, is one of liberation, not just of a country but of Muslim lands, Muslim people, Islam itself. There is no room for negotiation with the enemy, no common ground. What he and his men offer is endless, righteous resistance. “Maybe this war will take a long time,” he says. “Maybe this is a world war.”

After the meeting, they adjourn to the garden and drink sweet black tea in the twilight. As they lecture me on Islam, a roar cuts across the conversation. From the other side of the farmhouse, less than 50 yds. away, a missile soars over us with a thunderous screech–bound for a nearby encampment housing U.S. Marines. “Allahu akbar,” they all mutterGod is great. Minutes later, the imam makes the evening call to prayer. The 50 militants gathered at the safe house form tight lines behind one of the imams and bow reverently in prayer. Then some leave to get ready to try to kill more Americans.

While the U.S. hopes that the fighting and dying in Iraq will begin to dissipate after the hand-off of power to an interim Iraqi government this week, militants like these sheltered outside Fallujah are just as determined to wreak more carnage. The ruthlessness of the insurgents was evident across Iraq last week, as guerrillas launched a wave of attacks that were stunning in their scale and coordination. In a single day, insurgents attacked in six cities, blowing up police stations, seizing government buildings, ambushing U.S. forces and killing more than 100 people, including three American soldiers. Though U.S. commanders continue to say they can contain the insurgency, Iyad Allawi, the incoming Iraqi Prime Minister, said he may impose martial law once he takes office, a move that would at least temporarily suspend many of the liberties the U.S. ostensibly intended to bring to Iraq. “We were expecting such an escalation, and we will witness more in the next few weeks,” Allawi said. “We will deal with it, and we will crush it.”

The insurgents have no intention of laying down their arms. Indeed, the nature of the insurgency in Iraq is fundamentally changing. TIME reported last fall that the insurgency was being led by members of the former Baathist regime, who were using guerrilla tactics in an effort to drive out foreign occupiers and reclaim power. But a TIME investigation of the insurgency today–based on meetings with insurgents, tribal leaders, religious clerics and U.S. intelligence officials–reveals that the militants are turning the resistance into an international jihadist movement. Foreign fighters, once estranged from homegrown guerrilla groups, are now integrated as cells or complete units with Iraqis. Many of Saddam’s former secret police and Republican Guard officers, who two years ago were drinking and whoring, no longer dare even smoke cigarettes. They are fighting for Allah, they say, and true jihadis reject such earthly indulgences.

Their goal now, say the militants interviewed, is broader than simply forcing the U.S. to leave. They want to transform Iraq into what Afghanistan was in the 1980s: a training ground for young jihadists who will form the next wave of recruits for al-Qaeda and like-minded groups. Nearly all the new jihadist groups claim to be receiving inspiration, if not commands, from Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, the suspected alQaeda operative who the U.S. believes has masterminded the insurgency’s embrace of terrorism. Al-Zarqawi’s group kidnapped three Turkish workers last Saturday and threatened to behead them within 72 hours unless Turkish companies withdrew from Iraq. And now the conditions are ripening for the insurgents to turn their armed struggle into a political movement that aims to exploit the upheaval and turn parts of Iraq into Taliban-style fiefdoms. A potential leader is Sheik Mahdi Ahmed al-Sumaidai, a hard-line Salafi imam recently released from Abu Ghraib prison and now based in Baghdad’s radical Ibn Taimiya Mosque. Mujahedin leaders and U.S. military and intelligence officers in Iraq say many jihadists are also rallying behind Harith al-Dhari, who leads the Association of Muslim Scholars, Iraq’s most significant Sunni organization. Al-Dhari, who operates out of the Mother of all Battles Mosque, is said to have played a key role in mobilizing fighters during April’s uprising in Fallujah; during a gathering of militants there on April 9, one of his lieutenants called on Muslims outside Iraq to join the fight. As a result, al-Dhari has built support among both Iraqi and foreign insurgents, who believe he may emerge as a figure akin to Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

Insurgents also say al-Zarqawi may have intended last week’s onslaught to be even more catastrophic. As militants attacked in cities like Fallujah and Baqubah, a cell of an Iraqi resistance group working with al-Zarqawi roamed Baghdad, insurgent sources told TIME. Working in small teams in separate cars, the insurgents cased targets and waited for their commanders, including al-Zarqawi himself, to issue strike orders. When the cell didn’t receive the call, it withdrew and waited for another opportunity to attack.

U.S. intelligence officials say they now believe Iraq is a magnet for fanatical Muslims around the world. “It’s become the proving ground,” says a senior U.S. intelligence official. The jihadists are convinced they can continue fighting indefinitely. “Jihad is not made by us,” says a midlevel insurgent leader. “It is made by the Prophet and will continue to Judgment Day.” With the U.S. ceding political power to Iraqis this week, here’s an inside look at how the new jihadists operate and the threats they pose to stability in Iraq.


Before the U.S. invaded IRAQ last spring, al-Zarqawi was a fringe player on the global terrorist stage. According to U.S. intelligence officials, the 37-year-old Jordanian spent months traveling from Afghanistan to Iran to Georgia, offering his services as a terrorism consultant to Islamist groups. His firmest prewar connections were with Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish-based militant group associated with al-Qaeda. Intelligence officials suspect that last spring al-Zarqawi fled to Iran and joined the terrorist group’s leadership there before slipping back into Iraq.

Over the past six months, al-Zarqawi’s profile in jihadi circles has risen with the increase in terrorist attacks in Iraq, including suicide bombings. Through aggressive use of the Internet, al-Zarqawi has promoted himself and his group, Attawhid wal Jihad, or Unity and Holy War. A senior U.S. military official says the U.S. believes that al-Zarqawi played a chief role in the coordination of last week’s violence and is gearing up for more. “This guy knows his [stuff],” says the official.

From what Iraqi members of jihadist groups closely affiliated with al-Zarqawi’s network describe, the Jordanian operates more as a godfather-style mafioso than a traditional military commander. Insurgent commanders told TIME that al-Zarqawi does not direct day-to-day operations but guides strategy and is involved in the planning of major operations. Al-Zarqawi possesses an unmatched ability to persuade and indoctrinate. “Some of the emirs just have to sit with him and listen,” says a senior Fallujah-based commander, “and they walk away committed to him.”

Al-Zarqawi’s role at the center of the insurgency was cemented in April, during the standoff between militants and U.S. Marines in Fallujah. Foreign fighters from throughout the Middle East, including Syria and Saudi Arabia, manned the barricades alongside Iraqi fighters during the Marines’ offensive. This kind of on-the-ground cooperation was rare in the past, according to Iraqi cell leaders, in part because foreigners were viewed as terrorists interested only in major attacks against civilian targets. Now foreigners team up with Iraqis to employ more traditional guerrilla tactics, such as roadside ambushes and mortar attacks against U.S. forces.

Despite al-Zarqawi’s efforts to attract Iraqi insurgent groups into his network, his inner circle of lieutenants and bodyguards is said to consist entirely of foreign fighters. No one can pinpoint how many are operating in Iraq, partly because they remain shadowy even to those who work with them. “The foreigners trust no one, not even their own clothes,” says an Iraqi resistance fighter. He adds that al-Zarqawi has become an inspirational figure, like Osama bin Laden, for militants who espouse his methods and religious fervor. “Most are not members of his group in a formal sense,” says the insurgent. “But everyone, especially the foreigners in Iraq who share his ideals of jihad, considers himself part of Attawhid wal Jihad.”


Among those who have thrown their support behind the jihad is insurgent leader Abu Ali. A ballistic-missile specialist in Saddam’s Fedayeen militia, he fought U.S. troops during the invasion and has served as a resistance commander ever since, organizing rocket attacks on the green zone, the headquarters of the U.S. administration in Baghdad. When interviewed by TIME last fall, he spoke of a vain hope that Saddam would return and re-establish a Baathist regime. But at a recent meeting near a rural mosque, he said he is fighting to rid all Muslim lands of infidels and to set up an Islamic state in Iraq. “The jihad in Iraq is more potent than it was in Afghanistan in the 1980s because the insurgents today have better weapons and are developing new ones,” he says.

The insurgency’s shift toward a religious outlook is in part driven by financial necessity: the capture of Saddam and his henchmen drained the insurgency of its former sources of funding. That forced Iraqi groups to turn to foreign financiers in places like the gulf, and they have demanded that the insurgents adopt a more radical religious identity. “After we rolled up Saddam, we hit them pretty hard, and this is what they turned to,” says a senior U.S. military official. “It would appear there are not only some marriages of convenience but also some groups that have crossed over to the jihadi side.”

One such group, whose leaders met with TIME, is the Kata’ib al-Jihad al-Islamiyah, or Battalions of Islamic Holy War. Founded by frontline officers from Saddam’s intelligence services and the Republican Guard who once shunned terrorist attacks that killed innocent Iraqis, the group represents a significant Iraqi wing of al-Zarqawi’s network. The group’s leaders say they now accept mass-casualty attacks as legitimate; they claim that innocents killed in such strikes go straight to paradise. A fund-raising video made by the group and given to TIME shows its members citing exhortations by bin Laden and referring to fundamentalist interpretations of the Koran. Kata’ib has incorporated foreign fighters into its cells. One member says the group has formed an entirely foreign unit, dubbed the Green Brigade. The group’s commanders say their fighters joined last week’s attacks against U.S. Marines in Fallujah and helped lead the uprising in Baqubah.

Kata’ib has drawn new members from the ranks of former detainees at Abu Ghraib. Scores of men like Abu Mustafa, a former military officer, say they spent their time in jail studying Salafi Islam and receiving lessons in jihad from bearded Iraqis and detainees who came from places like Syria and Saudi Arabia. Abu Mustafa claims that cellblocks have secretly become mini-madrasahs, or religious schools. “We studied hard every day and often into the night,” he says. The U.S. has released hundreds of detainees in recent weeks, supplying the insurgency with a fresh crop of jihadists. “There was one man who didn’t even know how to pray,” says Abu Mustafa. “When he got out, he was like an imam and is one of our most ferocious fighters on the front line.”


The U.S. does not believe that the insurgency has an organized command structure; even al-Zarqawi’s network seems to be less a military unit than a decentralized terrorist operation. Iraqi commanders say the shape of the network shifts constantly, with no formal membership of any one group. The amorphous nature of the resistance also means it has the potential to spread more easily into the Sunni heartland, where U.S. forces are still struggling to maintain order. Fallujah is already a terrorist sanctuary; insurgent sources say the safe haven is set to expand into Baqubah and Samarra.

With U.S. forces stretched thin and Iraqi security forces still months away from being able to assert authority, the fear is that the al-Zarqawi-led jihadists may carve out their own fiefdoms across the country from which they can recruit and train zealots to join their struggle–a version of the northwest province in Pakistan, which al-Qaeda has turned into a safe haven. The insurgents’ aspirations are growing. Abdullah, a midlevel leader of Kata’ib, says he’s happy U.S. troops are staying in Iraq: it means he can be part of the jihad. Asked what the jihadists will do if U.S. forces finally pull out, one of Abdullah’s comrades offers this answer: “We will follow them to the U.S.” With reporting by Massimo Calabresi/Washington and Aparisim Ghosh and Vivienne Walt/Baghdad

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