The Connection between Iraq and Al-Qaeda
In October 2002, the Saudi paper Al-Riyadh reported al-Qaeda’s statements in response to the Bush administration’s allegations that al-Qaeda and Iraq were connected. According to the paper, the organization claimed that Saddam Hussein was “on al-Qaeda’s assassination list,” and its spokesman, who called himself Abdulrahman al-Rashed, said that Saddam was just like Bush in terms of “barbarism, brutality, and [religious] disbelief,” adding that Bush made allegations against Saddam “to control the oil of Iraq.”
Generally, the Arab media’s coverage of alleged links between Saddam Hussein’s regime and al-Qaeda was fairly neutral leading up to the Iraq war. Al Jazeeradedicated the bulk of its reporting to U.S. President George W. Bush’s State of the Union address in late January 2003 on Iraq’s suspected weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The only mention the network made of al-Qaeda was a brief portion of the speech where Bush claimed that there was intelligence and secret communications showing that Saddam “aids and protects terrorists, including members of al-Qaeda.”
Leading pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat also dedicated scant coverage to the al-Qaeda connection. On top of the same lines from Bush’s speech that Al Jazeera reported, the paper included comments from the British Foreign Office saying that al-Qaeda agents had taken refuge in Iraq. “We believe that there have been al-Qaeda operatives in parts of Iraq controlled by Baghdad. It is hard to imagine that they are there without the knowledge and acquiescence of the Iraqi Government.” Al-Hayat noted that it was the first time London had discussed connections between al-Qaeda and the Hussein regime. According to the paper, Prime Minister Blair had only spoken of the existence of “relationships” between the two, but that he “was not sure of the true extent of these relationships.”
Zarqawi Pledges Allegiance to Al-Qaeda
When Abu Musab al-Zarqawi pledged his allegiance to Osama bin Laden, Al Arabiya noted that the announcement reinforced analysts’ reports that Zarqawi’s organization was indeed subordinate to al-Qaeda’s central leadership. The network said that Zarqawi’s pledge represented a trump card for U.S. President George W. Bush’s election campaign claims that he was fighting a war in Iraq against al-Qaeda. An analyst interviewed for the article noted that pledging allegiance to bin Laden would enhance Zarqawi’s legitimacy among jihadi groups in Iraq.
Middle East Onlinereflected several points of view in its coverage. The outlet quoted Yasser Sirri, director of the Islamic Observatory in London, who said that the pledge proved the “invalidity of American allegations about the relationship between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein [who are allegedly connected through] al-Zarqawi.”
However, Abdel Bari Atwan, who was then editor of Al-Quds Al-Arabi, said that the pledge removed all doubt about “al-Zarqawi’s connection with Bin Laden… Al-Zarqawi is a graduate from Bin Laden’s school, trained in Afghanistan. He went to Iraq and founded a wing of the organization… Al-Qaeda is a horizontal organization and not vertical. Bin Laden is the spiritual father.”
While Al Jazeera televisionreported details of the airstrike that killed al-Zarqawi in Diyala Province and remarks from Iraqi and U.S. leaders, the network also carried an acknowledgement of his death from the Mujahideen Shura Council. The report included a statement from the spokesman of the Islamic Army in Iraq, who said that his group and Zarqawi’s were “brothers in religion and unity of purpose.” Curiously, the network dedicated part of its reporting to his family’s reaction in Jordan, noting that they set up a tent at their home where they could grieve his martyrdom. According to the network, Jordanian authorities also briefly detained Al Jazeera’s Amman bureau chief and technical crew while they were interviewing Zarqawi’s brother-in-law live in Zarqa.
Al Arabiya devoted even more space to the reactions from Zarqawi’s family in Jordan. After first reporting on Mujahideen Shura Council’s statements, the network transitioned to the scene in Zarqa where Zarqawi’s elder brother was accepting condolences. The women at the family home were sobbing, wearing all black. Several of the men told them not to cry because “al-Zarqawi is a martyr, and [you] should not cry over the martyrs.” According to the network’s sources, the women described those who killed Zarqawi as “traitors and criminals.”
Coverage from London-based Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awsat,in both English and Arabic, omitted the reaction from Zarqawi’s grieving family. Instead, the paper reported statements from top U.S. and Iraqi officials and details of the raid. The paper wrote that “Suicide car bombers sent by Zarqawi have targeted Shiite mosques in the past as part of a campaign to plunge Iraq into sectarian civil war.” The paper also noted a “boost of confidence among American and Iraqi officials” following his death.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq’s Decline
In May 2008, Al Arabiyareported that Iraqi military operations in Ninevah province, home to Mosul and one of the most dangerous cities in Iraq, had achieved their objectives of “dismantling al-Qaeda” and “weakening armed groups” by arresting senior leaders affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). According to Iraq’s Interior Ministry spokesman, the army had arrested 1480 men during its operations, half of them from ISI, Ansar al Sunna, the Mujahideen Army, and the Naqshbandi Brigades. According to the spokesman, “large numbers of those wanted surrendered to our forces and were released after making pledges through clan elders.”
In February 2008, an article in Egypt’s Al-Ahram highlighted the pros and cons of leveraging the Awakening Councils to weaken ISI. The article noted that the councils had become an important cornerstone of the Iraqi security equation by reducing levels of violence in certain areas by as much as 60 percent, and achieving unexpected success in defeating ISI.
However, the article raised several concerns about the councils. One worry was that the councils would turn against the Shiites after American forces withdrew from the country, noting that council formations had begun taking the place of regular military formations. Another concern was that arming thousands of Sunnis would prompt the rise of Shiite militias in response, while failing to integrate the Sunnis into the government may push them back into insurgency. Finally, the article cautioned that the councils could maintain their own agendas separate from the central government in Baghdad, imposing their control over provinces and further dividing Iraqi society.
Death of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri
Unlike several reports on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s death, Arab media reports on the deaths of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri offered little more than details on the raid and statements of praise from Iraqi and U.S. leaders. According to a statement from then Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki carried by Asharq al-Awsat, Iraqi and U.S. forces also arrested a majority of ISI’s senior leaders who “were planning a large criminal act during the last two days, planning to target a large number of churches.” Maliki also claimed that “[ISI] has become weaker than ever after this strike…”
Egypt’s Al-Masri Al-Youm carried slightly more hyperbolic statements from Prime Minister Maliki, including his assertion that the intelligence operation was able to “achieve a quality blow that broke the back of al-Qaeda.” Furthermore, Maliki described their deaths as a “rush of good news to all of the Iraqi people and the civilized world….”
Al Jazeeranoted that the timing of the announcement was important for Maliki’s credibility, pointing out that his government had declared al-Baghdadi dead the previous year on official TV, only to have those claims denied by al-Qaeda. Mustafa al-Ani, a security advisor from the Gulf Research Centre, was quoted saying that he didn’t believe “Maliki is going to risk losing his credibility a second time without verifying the identity.” At the same time, the article pointed to the importance of the operation for Maliki as he tried to gain support for his State of Law coalition after parliamentary elections.
AQI: Neutralized or Resurgent?
In June 2010, Asharq al-Awsat carried reporting from the New York Times that alleged AQI’s communication with al-Qaeda Central in Pakistan had been cut off. The report ran General Ray Odierno’s statement that due to losses inflicted on the network, “it would be difficult for them to continue to recruit new members.” Iraqi Defense Minister Abdel Qader Jassim also noted in the story that security forces were in the final stages of clearing al-Qaeda members from Basra Province after numerous senior leaders were arrested.
After Osama bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011, Egypt’s Masrawyquoted Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari saying that bin Laden “got what he deserved” and that his death would be a blow to his followers. Zebari alleged at the time that Iraq was weakening al-Qaeda there. “Al-Qaeda lost the ability to carry out terrorist campaigns permanently. Terrorists can no longer work from…liberated regions…They no longer have control over any cities – they now need a month or two for preparing attacks.”
However, by the following July, Asharq al-Awsat quoted Iraqi intelligence sources when stating that there had been a resurgence in al-Qaeda activities, particularly in western Iraq. The outlet pointed out that the organization’s return to Iraq aligned with a recent statement from its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, calling on young Muslims to begin returning to parts of Iraq that the organization had left.
In October 2012, BBC Arabichighlighted an intelligence report from U.S. Inspector General Stuart Bowen that noted Iraq’s security had deteriorated significantly over the past year amidst a revival of ISI. The report claimed that when American forces were leaving Iraq in late 2011, there were less than 800 al-Qaeda members in Iraq; as of late 2012, there were “at least 2,500” members who were living and training in five camps in Anbar Province and Salahuddin Province.
Emerging in Syria or Regime Propaganda?
Two weeks after car bombs struck the State Security Directorate in Damascus on December 23, 2011, Asharq Al-Awsatran a story titled “Syria: The Lie of Al-Qaeda,” which featured Syrian opposition members pinning the blame for the attacks on Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The article quoted Hani al-Sibai, director of the Al-Maqrizi Studies Center in London, saying that the explosions were strange “in a country governed by a totalitarian regime based on a security machine,” and that the regime was using the al-Qaeda boogeyman to suspend its failure in dealing with demonstrators peaceful requests. The article also featured the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s former Supreme Guide, Ali Sadr al-Deen al-Bayouni, who claimed that several days before the bombings, one of the regime’s media outlets carried a fabricated intelligence report on al-Qaeda elements infiltrating Syria from Lebanon. According to al-Bayouni, there were also leaked reports inside Syria that the regime had transferred hundreds of civilian detainees to the security centers that were bombed, and then buried them before identifying the bodies.
Writing in Al Arabiyathe day of the attacks, however, Faris Bin Hazam observed that the “presence of suicide bombers in the heart of Damascus is not a surprising step, and it is not possible for any sane person to rule it out. Didn’t Damascus control the passage of suicide bombers to Iraq?” Hazam concluded by saying that it was only natural for the Syrian regime to reap what it sowed over the years, citing an “established fact that the regime, which supported and nurtured killing in Iraq, will one day live the same scene.”
Islamic State of Iraq Merges with Nusra Front
One month after ISI leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced his group’s merger with the Nusra Front in Syria, Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported that Nusra’s influence was waning against the more extreme ISI. The article alleged that Nusra had been gaining support with other Syrian opposition groups because of its discipline and battlefield successes. In contrast, Baghdadi was not popular among the opposition due to his focus on enforcing Islamic rule instead of overthrowing the Assad regime. The article quoted one source close to Nusra Front leader Abu Mohamad al-Jolani stating, “We reject his presence in Syria… He should take his fighters and return to Iraq. We do not accept his methods.”
When al-Qaeda Central leader Ayman al-Zawahri annulled the merger between the groups, Al Jazeera blamed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for Nusra’s hardships, noting al-Zawahiri’s criticism that Baghdadi was wrong to announce the merger without consulting or notifying al-Qaeda’s leadership. The network cited a Nusra militant who said that when the two groups merged, nearly 70 percent of its members—especially the non-Syrians—joined the new organization in Idlib. According to him, the defection rates were even higher in eastern regions of Syria.
Safe Haven for Foreign Fighters
In late 2013, Arabic media outlets picked up a report from the BBC that foreign jihadists were crossing into Syria via safe houses in southern Turkey. Al-Quds Al-Arabi cited the report’s claim that more than 150 people stayed in one particular safe haven over the course of 90 days, including about 15 to 20 Britons. According to one fighter from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that Al-Quds Al-Arabi interviewed, the jihadists were not only fighting the Assad regime, other rebel groups as well. The FSA fighter said that they had “undertaken a revolution for freedom and equality, but the jihadists don’t want that. They have come to destroy Syria.”
In May 2014, Asharq Al-Awsat reported Washington’s increasing fears about the numbers of foreign fighters, including Americans, that were flooding into Syria. These jihadists were getting trained and potentially returning home as national security threats. At the time, intelligence estimates put the number of American citizens fighting in Syria at around 100, though sources indicate the number was likely higher. The report cited figures from Le Monde, which alleged that there were 300 French jihadists, 200 from Belgium, 100 from the Netherlands, 300-400 Britons, dozens of Germans, and 15,000 foreign fighters from 70 other countries.
In January 2014, Al-Quds Al-Arabi documented fighting in Raqqa between ISIS and the Islamic Front, an umbrella group of seven rebel factions. The paper’s report cited numbers from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which claimed that almost 700 people were killed during nine days of fighting between ISIS and rebel groups. Like many other reports, Al-Quds Al-Arabi mentioned that other opposition fighters accused ISIS of kidnapping, detaining, and murdering opponents. The paper also reported that members of an unnamed fighting group attacked an ISIS commander’s house, “kidnapped his mother and sister, and raped his mother…”
In addition to fighting each other on the battlefield, Al Jazeerareportedthat rebel groups were trading insults on social media sites like WhatsApp and Twitter. According to the network, social media accounts that either supported or were affiliated with ISIS would accuse people linked to the Mujahideen Army, Islamic Front, and Syrian Rebel Front, of not supporting jihad in Syria. ISIS targets for such shaming were also compared the Awakening Councils in Iraq, who took money from Arab regimes to fight al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, supporters of the anti-ISIS factions accused ISIS of being an Iranian agent, and call them Kharijites—a slanderous reference to early Muslims who rejected the rule of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Ali.
Nusra Front and ISIS supporters also clashed online, as ISIS supporters accused Nusra and its leader, Abu Mohamed al-Jolani, of betraying the mujahideen and standing on the sidelines while the other factions fought it. In opposition, the Nusra Front’s followers focused on ISIS’s executions of Nusra leaders and members.
Al-Qaeda Central Cuts Off ISIS
After al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri officially cut off ISIS from the organization, Al Arabiya’sInstitute for Studies published an article highlighting the damage the infighting among Syria’s Islamist groups had done to the cause of jihad, similar to the Islamist infighting during Algeria’s civil war in the 1990s. The author hypothesized that, after watching how infighting collapsed Islamist rule in Algeria, al-Qaeda Central decided to “pull the rug [out from underneath] ISIS early on.” However, the author cautioned, ISIS maintains substantial influence inside Syria, and “90 percent of Arab and foreign fighters going to fight in Syria are joining under its banner,” making it the largest fighting faction among all other rebel groups.
Al Jazeera Englishreported the news with the headline, “Al-Qaeda Disowns ISIL (ISIS) Rebels in Syria.” The article highlighted that ISIS “consolidated its grip” on Raqqa, “imposing their strict version of Sharia law on residents.” According to the report, ISIS ordered women to “wear the niqab in public,” banned the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products, and also banned music and made “attendance of Friday prayers compulsory.” Also noting ISIS’s in-fighting with other rebels, the article stated, “[I]nternecine fighting…has undermined the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad and dismayed Western powers pushing for peace talks.”