November 10, 2004 No.

Former Jihad Fighter in Afghanistan: Al-Zarqawi's Group Adopted the Worst Practices of the Algerian GIA; Their Brutal Actions will Lead to Their Isolation

The London daily Al-Hayat published an interview with Nu'man ibn 'Uthman, a former Jihad fighter in Afghanistan. In the interview, he explained the circumstances surrounding Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi's relocation from Afghanistan to Iraq, contended that Al-Zarqawi's group is not part of Al-Qa'ida, and claimed that their brutal modus operandi, which recalled that of the GIA [1] in Algeria, is not suited to a war of liberation against a foreign power. In addition, he maintained that the Ba'thists are the dominant factor in the Iraqi resistance. The following are excerpts from the interview: [2]

Al-Zarqawi's Group is not Part of Al-Qa'ida

Al-Hayat: "Did you have a chance to meet Abu Mus'ab Al-Zarqawi when you participated in the Jihad in Afghanistan at the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s?"

Nu'man ibn 'Uthman: "Naturally, the period of Jihad fighting in Afghanistan was almost [entirely] centered in Khost, when the city was under a siege that continued for many months, at the beginning of the 90s. At that time Al-Zarqawi was not as well-known as he is now. He was [just] one of the Arab Jihad fighters, bearing in mind that the majority of the Jihad fighters in the battlefront of Khost were Arabs, especially Jordanians from the city of Al-Salt."

Al-Hayat:"Who was their commander?"

Nu'man ibn 'Uthman: "The commander at that time was Abu Al-Harith Al-Salti, 'Farouq,' and there was another Palestinian with him, called Abu Mu'adh Al-Khusti, who was later killed while fighting the Shi'ites in Kabul. These two were the most prominent, but the frontline included many Jordanian young men, and I remember among them the brother-in-law of Abu Mus'ab [Al-Zarqawi]. He was working as a correspondent for Al-Jihad magazine, which was published in Afghanistan [at the time]. His name was Abu Saleh Al-Hami, and he was the husband of Al-Zarqawi's sister. He lost his leg in a mine explosion. Al-Zarqawi was one of the Arab Jihad fighters who rushed to help the Afghani people against the Soviet communist invasion."

Al-Hayat: "Did he in fact join the Al-Qa'ida organization and swear allegiance to Osama bin Laden while he was in Afghanistan…?"

Nu'man ibn 'Uthman: "This is totally untrue. When the Taliban managed to control most of Afghanistan and when they established their state in the second half of the 90s, many people [who had left Afghanistan] began to return. Some of them intended to start practicing Jihad again. Others had no clear plan to wage Jihad, but were used to living in camps and to being in training. Afghanistan was a suitable environment for this kind of life. Hence there were many Arab groups at that time, without well-defined projects. You may find a group with approximately 20 people and another with only seven, with a house and a guesthouse [ madafa ]. At that time Abu Mus'ab was able to gather around him 80-100 people, all Palestinians and Jordanians. They did not have a madafa of their own, but they did have a center in the town of Lougar, which was not on the frontline. This was during the time of the Taliban. They stayed at that place and Al-Zarqawi was the commander of this group, which did not have a name or an agenda of its own. What united them all, however, was that they all shared the idea of Jihad …"

Circumstances Surrounding Al-Zarqawi's Relocation to Iraq

Al-Hayat: "The American strike on Afghanistan occurred in 2001 and Al-Zarqawi moved to Iraq. Why?"

Nu'man ibn 'Uthman: "Moving to Iraq had general causes and specific causes. The general causes have to do with the fact that a group of Arabs – they didn't number thousands as the Americans claimed – moved from Afghanistan to Iraq because the region could no longer accommodate them and they could no longer find shelter… They did not belong to any tribe or any combat unit affiliated with the Taliban and therefore they sought refuge in other countries such as Iran. Iran, however, put pressure on them and some of them, therefore, had to leave Iran. Their only refuge was Iraq. This happened before the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime but those groups that had moved to Iraq did not have any contact with Saddam Hussein's regime. In fact, they tried not to disclose the presence of its members in Baghdad and they tried to avoid friction with the Iraqi authorities.

"The only shelter [available] in Kurdistan for these [Arabs who left Afghanistan] was with the group of Ansar Al-Islam, formerly known as 'Jund Al-Islam.' Previously, there were many Kurds [who had participated] in the Jihad in Afghanistan. They [Al-Zarqawi's group] were in touch with certain people [in Afghanistan], and their region, Kurdistan, was a natural refuge for many of them and served as their first stepping stone to Iraq. There was also a geographic factor that made the arrival of the Arabs easier. When the American threats first began to appear in September 2002, many companies of Ansar Al-Islam, under the command of a Syrian Jihad fighter who was later killed in battle, took control of the border region with Iran, a rugged mountain region, in order to secure the borders and to secure the passage of those coming from Iran. This was indeed a very clever move. As far as I know, Iran was concerned about it and asked them to distance themselves about 3 miles from the Iranian border so as to avoid any direct contact between its forces and the forces of Ansar Al-Islam. These are, then, the general circumstances: the Jihad fighters started to move to Iraq from Afghanistan and Pakistan through Iran. However, the specific point is this… I believe that Al-Zarqawi had in Kurdistan people from Jordan, who were there from 1998 or 1999, and they had a very important role from the point of view of military experience. One of them was a professional in booby-trapping and the use of explosives. This facilitated Al-Zarqawi's [decision] to relocate first to Kurdistan and not to Baghdad."

Zarqawi's Brutal Actions Resemble Those of the GIA

Al-Hayat:" Some of the operations of Al-Zarqawi's group in Iraq are extremely brutal: incidents of beheadings and boasting of them before the cameras in videos later distributed over the Internet, and car bombs killing dozens of civilians… There is widespread criticism to the effect that this group's operations damage the image of Islam."

Nu'man ibn 'Uthman:"I personally believe that these operations indeed damage [the reputation of] Islam. This is due to a mistake common to those movements categorized as ' Jihadist.' These movements base themselves on a religious-theological dimension, disregarding the present reality and the nature of things… This is the source of the[ir] mistake… For example, the slaughtering of hostages and airing it on the TV screens - I believe that those who perpetrate this consider only themselves and do not consider the effect on those they want to address. They focus on their desire to affirm that they are strong and capable of taking revenge…

"This brings us back to the basic problem, namely, that there is a confusion of strategies … [that were developed by Islamist groups] in Egypt … for the struggle against the existing regime, which they considered illegitimate. This has been going on for at least thirty years in Arab countries and in effect has not succeeded in realizing its aims… This does not suit the reality in Iraq for a simple reason: that Iraq now needs to revert back to the stage of being liberated from colonialism, [a stage] which the Arab and African nations had entered after WWII… The logic of a war of liberation is totally different from the logic of a struggle against the existing regime in one's own country.

"There is now an analogy between Al-Zarqawi's group and the GIA in Algeria. As far as tactics, they, Al-Zarqawi's group, carry out acts that we regard as mass slaughter, and [we see] scenes of the slaughter of military personnel or civilians and the issuing of declarations boasting of these actions and counting the dead. The GIA has made these things a matter of common occurrence and subsequently they pay the price for it. Now it seems to me that the group of Al-Tawhid Wa-Al Jihad [Al-Zarqawi's group, 'Monotheism and Jihad '] have contracted the worse form of this [disease] from the GIA - namely, [mode of] operation of displaying your force and asserting your existence and maintaining continuity by choosing very easy targets, usually unarmed civilians… These methods, in my point of view, will eventually lead to the isolation of Al-Zarqawi's group."

Most of the Iraqi Resistance is Carried out by Ba'thist Cells

Al-Hayat:" Al-Zarqawi's taking an oath of allegiance to Osama bin Laden - what will its effect be on Iraq?"

Nu'man ibn 'Uthman:"You may be surprised by my answer, but I believe that it will have a very negative effect… Once an oath of allegiance to Al-Qa'ida is made public, you in fact confirm that the local commander is Jordanian, and not Iraqi, and that the core group, that includes this commander, are those known as the Afghani Arabs, and that the international leader of that organization, once such an oath of allegiance takes place, is from the Gulf region, and that the most famous personality with him is an Egyptian. So where is Iraq in this stew?… I believe that the Iraqi citizens will distance themselves from such groupings because they are not interested in Al-Qa'ida's plan."

Al-Hayat:" What is the role of Arab Jihad fighters in the Iraqi resistance?"

Nu'man ibn 'Uthman: "I believe that the main fighting effort in Iraq is being carried out by cells affiliated with the Ba'ath party. No less than 80% of the resistance effort is carried out by the Ba'ath regime, which before the American invasion had established cells and units on Saddam Hussein's orders and had distributed weapons to prepare to resist the invasion."

[1] GIA comes from the French acronym for Armed Islamic Group - Al-Jama'a Al-Islamiyya Al-Musallaha

[2] Al-Hayat (London), November 8, 2004.