Al-Qaida in Iraq names new leader

Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, an unknown, has already made the US list of targets.

zarqawi dead 298.88 (photo credit: CNN)
zarqawi dead 298.88
(photo credit: CNN)
Al-Qaida in Iraq on Monday named a successor to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and said he would continue in the slain leader's path, moving quickly to show it can keep up its campaign of attacks against Shi'ites and US and Iraqi forces. The new leader, identified by the nom de guerre Abu Hamza al-Muhajer in a statement posted on the Web, appeared to be a foreign Arab like his predecessor. But otherwise he is an unknown. The name has not appeared in previous al-Qaida in Iraq propaganda or on US lists of terrorists who have rewards on their heads, suggesting he is a lower-level figure or a more prominent member who has taken a new pseudonym. US President George W. Bush said Monday that al-Muhajer would join those ranks. "I think the successor to Zarqawi is going to be on our list to bring to justice," Bush said. The unknown name and the statement's lack of detail on al-Muhajer appeared to reflect a new emphasis on secrecy by the group. US forces have launched a series of raids against al-Qaida in Iraq based on intelligence found in the safehouse where al-Zarqawi was killed Wednesday in an airstrike. The group may fear infiltration or that al-Zarqawi's very public stance led to his downfall. "Al-Qaida in Iraq's council has agreed on Sheik Abu Hamza al-Muhajer to be the successor of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in the leadership of the organization," the group said. The authenticity of the statement could not be independently confirmed. It was posted on an Islamic Web forum where al-Qaida in Iraq often posts messages. It said al-Muhajer was "a beloved brother with jihadi (holy war) experience and a strong footing in knowledge." "We ask Almighty God to strengthen him that he may accomplish what Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, God have mercy on his soul, began," it said. That could mean he will continue the strategy that the Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi followed: a brutal campaign of attacks targeting Shi'ite civilians, aimed at sparking a Sunni-Shi'ite civil war. The attacks sparked tensions between al-Zarqawi, most of whose fighters are believed to be non-Iraqis, and some homegrown Iraqi insurgents who felt the bloodshed hurt the image of their resistance against US forces. They wanted to focus attacks on American and Iraqi troops. Iraqi insurgents loyal to ousted leader Saddam Hussein made a rare public acknowledgement of disputes with al-Zarqawi in a condolence letter posted earlier Monday on the same Web site. "Although there were many matters we differed with him on and him with us, but what united us was something greater," said the statement by the Fedayeen Saddam. It said the group had "the honor" of fighting alongside al-Zarqawi and that "our determination is only increased for waging jihad." Al-Zarqawi's death raised speculation the group might turn to an Iraqi leader to smooth over the differences and better build networks within the country. Al-Zarqawi's deputy was an Iraqi with the nom de guerre Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Iraqi, who appears to be still alive. The US military told The Associated Press on Monday that he was not a man identified as "Abdul-Rahman" who was killed alongside al-Zarqawi. The name al-Muhajer, Arabic for "immigrant," suggested the new leader was not Iraqi. The name is often used by foreign Arab insurgents, referring to the "muhajereen," Islam's early converts who fled persecution in Mecca to join the Prophet Muhammad in Medina. Rohan Gunaratna, a terror expert at Singapore's Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, said the choice of a non-Iraqi means the group is "likely to continue the foreign operations." Al-Zarqawi had sought to expand his campaign beyond Iraq's borders, most notably masterminding a November triple suicide bombing against hotels in Amman, Jordan, that killed 60 people. He had urged Sunnis across the Arab world to stand up against Shi'ites, who he branded "enemies of Islam." He also had links to al-Qaida's branch in Saudi Arabia, which in a statement Monday thanked him for helping its fight against the kingdom's rulers - though much of the group's leadership has been killed or captured in a Saudi crackdown. "We will not forget his favors to jihad and the mujahedeen in the Prophet's peninsula," the group said, without elaborating. The US military had predicted a gunman named Abu Ayyub al-Masri would be named al-Qaida in Iraq's leader. Al-Masri, an Egyptian associate of al-Zarqawi, has a $50,000 reward on his head. Militants usually adopt a pseudonym made up of a nickname called a "kunya" in Arabic - "Abu", meaning "father of," plus a name that sometimes refers to an actual child of the operative. The second part of the pseudonym is usually an adjective denoting the gunman's nationality. Al-Zarqawi, for example, was born Ahmad Fadhil Nazzal al-Khalayleh, but took a pseudonym from Zarqa, his hometown in Jordan. He had a child named Musab, so took the kunya of "Abu Musab." The secrecy surrounding the new leader could hurt its ability to carry out attacks, said Egyptian analyst Diaa Rashwan. Al-Zarqawi garnered a cult of personality around himself as a holy warrior, helping draw insurgents from other countries to carry out suicide bombings. "Al-Zarqawi's charisma was very important factor for many to join his organization," Rashwan said. "All al-Zarqawi had was car bombs and people ready to blow themselves up." "My feeling is that they are going to have establish a persona for him," Evan Kohlmann, a New York-based terror consultant and founder of, said. "They're going to have to introduce this fellow to the world."