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Afghanistan/Iraq: Al-Zarqawi, Al-Qaeda, And The New Islamist Front --> Mus'ab Al-Zarqawi (file photo) By Amin Tarzi and Kathleen Ridolfo

Recent published accounts of the relationship between fugitive Jordanian terrorist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda terrorist network illuminate the relationship between the two men and their movements' vision of establishing an Islamic caliphate across the Middle East. The sudden rise in terrorist attacks against coalition forces in Afghanistan supports the theory that Arab terrorists in that country have regrouped in an effort to provide a reinvigorated Arab front against the United States, while the continuing insurgency in Iraq shows no signs of abatement, despite recent reports that al-Zarqawi may be near death as a result of a recent injury.

The Afghan Front

Almost immediately after the 1 June suicide bombing of a Kandahar mosque that killed mourners of an anti-Taliban cleric, Afghan officials said that it was carried out by Arab members of Al-Qaeda. "We have found documents on [the bomber's] body that show he was an Arab," Kandahar governor Gul Agha Sherzai told reporters, adding that intelligence indicated that "Arab Al-Qaeda teams had entered Afghanistan and had been planning terrorist attacks. Mohammad Hasham Alikozay, director of the Public Health Department in Kandahar, said that the "features found" at the explosion site indicated that the suicide bomber seemed "to be an Arab."

In line with the expectations of Afghan authorities and U.S.-led coalition forces, disruptive activities and terrorist acts either committed by or in the name of the neo-Taliban and their allies have increased since the weather improved in southern and eastern Afghanistan. In April, U.S. Major General Eric Olson said that there "has been an increase in Taliban and enemy activity in the spring [compared to the winter months]. And we anticipate that the enemy has the intention of trying to raise the level of activity this spring." However, Olson predicted that these activities would lack cohesion and fade in traditional neo-Taliban strongholds.

However, what has been different in recent months is the sophisticated coordination of the disruptive activities and the new methods employed by their perpetrators.
The second and more urgent factor for al-Zarqawi and his backers to reopen the Afghan front is most likely linked to the official signing of the "strategic partnership" between Kabul and Washington in May.

The student-led demonstrations that began peacefully on 10 May in the eastern Nangarhar Province and spread to at least 13 other provinces around Afghanistan were the first indication that a new, well-organized plan against the government of President Hamid Karzai, but especially against the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, was under way. While the demonstrations were triggered by a report alleging that some interrogators at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, desecrated the Koran, the rallies quickly and with a coordination not seen in Afghanistan, became violent and spread to several Afghan cities.

Coinciding with the student demonstrations, a night letter reminiscent of the days when Afghans were fighting Soviet troops was circulated in parts of Kabul. Without making any reference to the events in Nangarhar, the letter announced that the "principle duty of the Mujahedin has just started." The unsigned letter condemned the possibility of the establishment of U.S. military bases in Afghanistan and alleged that Karzai and former Taliban members are in an alliance with the purpose of turning Afghanistan into a U.S. satellite.

Karzai's government initially blamed "enemies of peace and stability" for fueling and politicizing student anger, in particular directing it towards U.S.-Afghan ties and Kabul's offer of amnesty to many former Taliban members. The Afghan president said that "students of medical and engineering faculties of Pakistani and Iranian universities attend classes and continue their lessons as usual, but Afghan university and school students are taken out of their classes and provoked to stage demonstrations" to destroy lives and property in Afghanistan. While Karzai did not accuse a specific country by name, Kabul's main pro-government daily "Anis" on 17 May wrote that Iran is spending "large sums of money and [has] hired scores of mercenaries" to undermine stability in Afghanistan. "Anis" alleged that the demonstrations were planned by "reckless" Afghans in consultation with the Iranian Embassy in Kabul.

The possible role of the Neo-Taliban is unclear. No one has pointed a finger at the neo-Taliban for fueling the demonstrations and the militia's spokesman, Mufti Latifullah Hakimi, has denied any involvement.

The neo-Taliban did claim responsibility for the 29 May murder of Mawlawi Abdullah Fayyaz, head of the Council of Ulema of Kandahar and an ardent opponent of the neo-Taliban. However, Hakimi, commenting on the suicide attack in the mosque during services held for Fayyaz, said: "This shouldn't have occurred. We strongly condemn this act."

It is difficult to differentiate between wanton acts of violence in Afghanistan. Some attacks, carried out in the name of the neo-Taliban, are actually committed by drug dealers or other criminals. And the neo-Taliban often claims responsibility for acts of violence that it has not committed. However, what is noteworthy in the student demonstrations and the mosque bombing is the coordination and means of committing these violent acts.

Suicide bombings are very rare in Afghanistan and the neo-Taliban seldom resort to this tactic to achieve their goals. Moreover, there is not a single record of a suicide attack inside a mosque in that country, as has been the case in Iraq. The Kandahar attack may be the beginning of a new front by Al-Qaeda-inspired terrorists, possibly backed by regional countries, to recalibrate their anti-U.S. activities in Afghanistan.

The Iraqi Front

"Al-Zarqawi: The Second Al-Qaeda Generation," a recently published book on Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi -- who pledged his group's loyalty to Osama bin Laden last year -- chronicles al-Zarqawi's presence in Afghanistan and his relationship with the Al-Qaeda network, which funded al-Zarqawi training camps in Herat before the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. Following the invasion, al-Zarqawi and other Al-Qaeda leaders scattered and regrouped in Iran, pledging to reassemble in Afghanistan in seven years' time, Sayf al-Adl, the official in charge of security for the Global Al-Qaeda of Islam Army, recounted in the book.

Al-Zarqawi and his associates' quicker return to the Afghan front before the seven-year hiatus mentioned by Sayf al-Adl may be directly linked to two issues. Firstly, it concerns the ineffectiveness of the neo-Taliban and the low-level Al-Qaeda support provided to them in order to inflict heavy damage on the Kabul government or U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan. Also related to this point is the relative success of the political process in Afghanistan after the neo-Taliban had vowed to disrupt the electoral process there. However, the second and more urgent factor for al-Zarqawi and his backers to reopen the Afghan front is most likely linked to the official signing of the "strategic partnership" between Kabul and Washington in May. The partnership binds the two countries in a formal agreement and allows for an indefinite U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.

Al-Adl further documented al-Zarqawi's decision to establish his network of fighters in Iraq in 2001, an undertaking assisted through his relationship with the Ansar Al-Islam terrorist network based in Iraqi Kurdistan close to the Iranian border. That relationship was reportedly forged in Afghanistan.

"We began to converge on Iran one after the other. The fraternal brothers in the peninsula of the Arabs, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates who were outside Afghanistan, had already arrived. They possessed abundant funds. We set up a central leadership and working groups," al-Adl recounted. "We began to form some groups of fighters to return to Afghanistan to carry out well-prepared missions there. Meanwhile, we began to examine the situation of the group and the fraternal brothers to pick new places for them. Abu Mus'ab and his Jordanian and Palestinian comrades opted to go to Iraq...[an] examination of the situation indicated that the Americans would inevitably make a mistake and invade Iraq sooner or later. Such an invasion would aim at overthrowing the regime. Therefore, we should play an important role in the confrontation and resistance. It would be our historic chance to establish the state of Islam that would play a major role in alleviating injustice and establishing justice in this world," al-Adl said.

Al-Zarqawi has established a vast network of fighters in Iraq and Iraqi authorities have indicated that the network includes Arab nationals as well as Afghan and Pakistani fighters. His Tanzim Qa'idat Al-Jihad fi Bilad Al-Rafidayn allegedly has close ties to the Ansar Al-Sunnah Army, an outgrowth of Ansar Al-Islam. U.S. and Iraqi authorities claim that successes have been made through a string of recent military operations targeting the groups. A Mosul operation on 28 May led to the capture of al-Zarqawi aide Mutlaq Muhammad Mutlaq Abdullah (aka Abu Ra'd). Iraqi Major General Khalil al-Ubaydi announced on 4 June the arrest of an Ansar Al-Sunnah member identified as Mullah Mahdi; al-Ubaydi contended that Mahdi carried out attacks at the direction of al-Zarqawi. Iraqi authorities this week announced a $50,000 reward for information leading to the capture of Ansar Al-Sunnah leader Abu Abdullah al-Shafi'i.