January 18, 2005 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 202

Iraqi Elections (III): The Islamist and Terrorist Threats

January 18, 2005 | By Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli*
Iraq | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 202

The approaching elections in Iraq have pitched against each other the most senior Shi'ite cleric in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and Osama bin Laden. Al-Sistani has called on his followers to vote en masse and decreed that those who boycott the elections are "infidels." His picture appears on election placards in most Iraqi provinces indicating his support for the elections.

In a video aired on Al-Jazeera TV,in what appears to be a response to al-Sistani, Osama bin Laden warned against the participation in elections: "Anyone who participates in these elections … has committed apostasy against Allah." He also endorsed the killing of security people in Allah's name: "Personnel of the [Iraqi] military, security apparatus, and national guard … their blood is permitted. They are apostates whose deaths should not be prayed over." [1] In the same video, he designated the Jordanian terrorist AbuMus'ab al-Zarqawi as "Amir," or head, of the Al-Qa'ida organization in Iraq and, as such, the chief enforcer of bin Laden's decree.

Elections as Apostasy

Islamist terrorist organizations share a profound conviction that elections are apostasy. Muslims should be governed by Islamic religious laws ( Shariah )as interpreted by the likes of bin Laden or al-Zarqawi, and not by man-made laws promulgated by elected officials. This Islamist world's view was largely defined by Sayyid Qutb in his book ' ma'alim 'ala al-tariq ' ('Signposts on the Road'), published in 1957 by the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo. The book was predicated on a perfect dichotomy between believers and infidels, between Islamic religious laws and the laws of the infidels, between tradition and decadence and between violent change and sham legitimacy. To quote Qutb himself: "In the world there is only one party, the party of Allah; all of the others are parties of Satan and rebellion. Those who believe fight in the cause of Allah; and those who disbelieve fight in the cause of the rebellion." In short, voting in elections, or making a choice is, according to the followers of Qutb's thoughts, a defiance of Allah's ultimate jurisdiction over the conduct of human beings.

Islamist Terrorist Groups in Iraq

In the current lawless landscape in Iraq there are numerous Islamist terrorist organizations or groups determined to frustrate the conduct of free national elections and the subsequent rise of a democratic regime. These organizations/groups interact with, and support the activities of, the secular "resistance movement" made up of the remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime. These organizations are too numerous to list; however, the following are some of the major ones identified by the London daily Al-Hayat: [2]

Monotheism and Jihad (al-Tawheed wa-al-Jihad)

This group is headed by the Jordanian-born Ahmad Fadhil al-Khalayla, also known as abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, age 37. It has recently changed its name to "Al-Qa'ida in the Land of the Tigris and the Euphrates." Al-Zarqawi has earned his reputation for violence through relentless terrorist acts with the help of suicide bombers and for beheading some of his victims and displaying them on video. He draws his supporters primarily from jihadist volunteers who seek martyrdom in the fight against the multinational forces and their Iraqi supporters.

Al-Zarqawi represents the most extreme version of Saudi Wahhabism, which is profoundly anti-Shi'ite. He has committed many crimes against the Shi'ite community in Iraq, including the murder of Ayatollah Baqir al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and has recently taken credit for an attempt on the life of Abd Al-Aziz al-Hakim, the ayatollah's brother and successor as head of SCIRI. In the same attack 13 Iraqis were killed and another 66 injured, in addition to the damages caused to SCIRI's office building which, incidentally, used to be that of Tariq Aziz, Iraq's deputy prime minister under Saddam Hussein. Al-Hakim called on his followers for restraint. [3]

Al-Zarqawi has referred to the Shi'a as "the lurking snakes and the crafty scorpions, the spying enemy and the penetrating venom." The Shi'a, wrote al-Zarqawi, are "the most evil of mankind." [4] Al-Zarqawi is trying to provoke the Shi'ite community to take action against the Sunnis as a preamble to a full scale civil war which could generate more violence and chaos--conditions which would play into the hands of the terrorists. The Shi'ite community has so far avoided the bait. Rather, their response has been measured. One of the main Shi'ite press agencies referred to al-Zarqawi's organization as "The Group of Atheism and Apostasy" which represents the Salafite, Ba'thist, and Wahhabi thought." [5]

American intelligence sources maintain that as al-Zarqawi gains more notoriety he is able to attract more followers, particularly from among Iraqi Islamists and from Ansar al-Islam, with which he was associated when he first came to Iraq in 2001. [6]

Ansar al-Islam (Companions of Islam)

This group was established in the mid-1980s in Iraqi Kurdistan by Najm al-Din Faraj Ahmad, also known as Mullah Kraikar. The group's camp in Biyara (Iraqi Kurdistan) was destroyed by U.S. Air Force in March 2003. Many of the members of Ansar al-Islam were killed and the survivors were arrested and taken to prison in Assyish prison in Suleimaniya, Iraqi Kurdistan.

Kurdish security officials maintain that two leaders of the movement, Mullah Kraikar, (who sought and received asylum in Norway) and Ali Babir (arrested by the U.S. after the fall of Saddam), had contacts with Al-Qa'ida. American officials indicate that the group had experimented with chemical weapons. [7]

Ansar al-Islam appears to be expanding its activities into Europe. The German authorities have arrested 20 supporters of Ansar al-Islam in 2004 and estimate that there are 100 supporters remaining in Germany and another 500-1000 are in Europe. [8]

According to a survey by a reporter of the London daily al-Sharq al-Awsat,there are numerous sub-groups which operate under the umbrella of Ansar al-Islam, including:

Army of the Companion of Sunna (Jaysh Ansar al-Sunna): This group is believed to be a splinter group from Ansar al-Islam and is reportedly headed by abu Abdullah al-Hassan bin Mahmud. He is the person who announced on the internet that he had beheaded the Marine soldier of Lebanese descent Wassif Ali Hassoon, which turned to be a false statement. The group has also taken responsibility for two major suicide bombings. The first, which was in the Kurdish city of Erbil in February 2004, resulted in the death of 109 and the injury of many others. The second, which was directed at a U.S. army mess hall in Mosul, resulted in the death of 22, including 18 American soldiers and the injury of scores of American soldiers and Iraqi employees. In August, the group took responsibility for the execution of 12 Nepalese workers including one who was beheaded and displayed in a video. [9]

In a joint statement with two other terrorist groups, Jaysh al-Majuhideen (the Army of the Holy Worriers) and al-Jaysh al-Islami al-Iraqi (the Iraqi Islamic Army) Ansar al-Islam issued a declaration on its website under the title "The Comedy of the Democracy and the Elections."

Starting with a "clarification," the declaration gives the Greek origin of "democracy"meaning the "rule by the people" and "legislation by the people." "Democracy" means, the declaration continues, that the people legislate for themselves the laws they find suitable for their desires and purposes. Such a concept, it warns, is atheism and apostasy and contrary to the concept of monotheism, which is the religion of the Muslims. The declaration continues: "This is a comedy staged by the enemies to confer what they allege as the legitimacy on the new government which is the servant of the crusaders and the executioner of their schemes. The effort to render these elections successful and the participation in them is the biggest gift to America, the enemy of Islam and the tyrant of this generation."

The declaration concludes by calling on Muslims who are zealous for their religion to avoid the participation in this "atheistic exercise" designed to legitimize the apostasy and adopting atheistic laws imposed by the crusaders. It threatens that the polling stations and anyone to be found there will be the target of "Allah's courageous soldiers." [10]

Operating under the umbrella of Jaysh Ansar al-Sunna are multiple smaller groups with such names as: The Martyr Aziz Taha, Katibat al-Tawheed, Sa'ad ibn abi Waqqass, Asad al-Islam, abu Hanifa al-Nu'man, and Abdullah ibn-al-Zubayr.

The Iraqi Islamic Army (al-Jaysh al-Islami): Fayaliq [Brigades] Khalid ibn al-Walid

There is no available information on this group. However, it had threatened to execute a Philippine national unless the Philippines withdrew its small contingent of 60 soldiers from Iraq. The threat was taken seriously and the Philippines withdrew its soldiers.

Recently, the group has threatened to carry the "battle" inside the United States. In a message to the American people, published on the group internet website, it threatened that 2005 will be a calamitous year for America, "Allah willing." [11]

The National Council of the Iraqi Resistance

The National Council of the Iraqi Resistance, also known as the United Council of the Iraqi Resistance, was born in June 2003, and comprises Ba'th activists (referred to as militants), remnants of the Iraqi army, and the Republican Guard, and what are described as the "heroes of the national security apparatus." [12]

The structure of the leadership of the Council remains secret, although in an interview by the Jordanian weekly al-Majd with the former Iraqi vice president, Izzet Ibrahim al-Duri, he was identified as the leader of the resistance. General Abu Mu'tassim ( nom de guerre ) was also identified as "a leader of the Resistance" and "a field general" of the now defunct Republican Guard. [13]

Unlike the previous terrorist groups, the National Council is a secular organization made up entirely of Iraqis and its opposition to the elections is grounded more in political ideology than in theology. The group shares a common loyalty to Saddam Hussein and a belief that Iraq should continue to be run by the Sunnis. [14]

Donations from Gulf countries and Iraqis overseas finance the activities of this group. According to General John Abizaid, the Chief of U.S. Southern Command which oversees the military activities in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is a level of tactical coordination originating from Syria and from Saddam's former birthplace, Tikrit. The U.S. is seeking the detention of 34 former Ba'th officials who are reportedly running the rebellion from Iraq and Syria [15]

The military arm of the National Resistance Council is Jaysh Muhammad (Muhammad's Army), established by Saddam Hussein shortly before the invasion of Iraq. It was led by Colonel Mu'ayyid Ahmad Yaseen, a former officer in the Republican Guard. Yaseen was arrested in Fallujah in November and so was his successor Ra'ad al-Duri as well as the leader of Saddam's Fida'iyyoun, Hassan al-Saqlawi. The arrest of all three leaders was announced by interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi at a press conference in Baghdad. [16] In a document found in Fallujah after its invasion by the multinational forces, Jaysh Mohammad offered advice to the other terrorist groups about field security. It advised them to avoid contact with anyone from the "enemy side even if he wore the cloak of the Pope or al-Sistani." [17]

In a video played before journalists by the Iraqi Minister of Defense Hazem al-Sha'lan, Col. Yaseen confirms receiving considerable amount of assistance from Iran and Syria. [18]

Terrorism by Vigilantes

There are many other groups which have appeared at one time or another, but they seem to be more unorganized vigilantes than terrorists. These are mainly hard-core criminals who were released from prisons in a general amnesty declared by Saddam Hussein before the invasion. Many of them have been engaged in kidnapping foreigners and eventually "selling" them to one of the terrorist groups who are more interested in terrorizing the foreigners than collecting ransom money.

Pay Incentive

Apart from the hard-core jihadists who seek martyrdom as an extension of life in the idealized hereafter that brings them closer to Allah and a permanent residence in heaven, most of the members of the Iraqi terrorist groups, particularly the so-called resistance fighters, are paid salaries far greater than what they would otherwise earn as government employees or small traders in the bazaars of the Iraqi cities. In the word of one person, while his government salary was not enough to meet his basic needs, his salary as a member of an armed group is "more than enough." [19]

The Implications of Terrorism on Elections

The fear of terrorism in Iraq has had considerable negative impact on the course of the elections and provided encouragement to voices calling for their postponement:

  • Fearing for the lives of their candidates, many of the various political parties and groups which submitted lists of candidates have not advertised their lists. Many potential voters have no idea for whom they may be voting.
  • Public gatherings are all but impossible. Political parties cannot articulate their programs to their potential voters in person. It is a big irony that now when free speech is truly protected by law, candidates must hide their identity or be surrounded by armed guards.
  • The Iraqi National Guard and the national police have promised to protect the polling stations on elections day; however, their failure to protect even themselves effectively against daily terror attacks may cause potential voters to prefer the security of their own home over the risks lurking at the polling stations.
  • Members of the local elections committees in the Sunni areas have resigned under threat by Islamists - a situation which will make the holding of orderly elections in some of the Sunni provinces all the more difficult.
  • Worst of all, those who get elected may be rewarded with physical harm.

Nevertheless, and despite these risks and dangers, elections may be the only way to provide legitimacy to a permanent government. A public opinion poll carried out by the daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat has found a 66% majority supports the elections on schedule to put an end to the occupation. [20] It is a remarkable conversion of interests of both the Iraqi people and the U.S. administration.

* Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli is Senior Analyst of MEMRI 's Middle East Economic Studies Program.

[1] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 837, December 30, 2004, 'Osama Bin Laden to the Iraqi People: It Is Forbidden to Participate in Iraqi & PA Elections; Jihad in Palestine and Iraq is Incumbent upon Residents of All Muslim Countries, Not Just Iraqis and Palestinians; Zarqawi is the Commander of Al-Qa'ida in Iraq;'

Osama Bin Laden to the Iraqi People:It Is Forbidden to Participate in Iraqi & PA Elections; Jihad in Palestine and Iraq is Incumbent upon Residents of All Muslim Countries, Not Just Iraqis and Palestinians; Zarqawi is the Commander of Al-Qa'ida in Iraq.

[2] Al-Hayat (London), July 11, 2004.

[3], December 27, 2004.

[4] Text from Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi Letter,


[6] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), July 11, 2004.

[7] Al-Hayat (London), July 11, 2004.

[8], January 10, 2005.

[9] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 10, 2004.


[11] Al-Zaman (Baghdad), January 3, 2005.

[12] MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis Series No. 197, November 19, 2004, 'Anti-American Ba'th Activities in Paris;' Anti-American Ba'th Activities in Paris.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), July 11, 2004.

[15] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 11, 2005.

[16] Al-Zaman (Baghdad), January 10, 2005.

[17] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 19, 2004.

[18] Al-Mada (Baghdad), January 9, 2005.

[19] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 10, 2004.

[20] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 11, 2005.

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