Bin Laden's address primarily serves as an attempt to justify Al-Qaeda in Iraq's activities and present the organization as the only legitimate jihadist group on the ground in Iraq. Much of the statement is dedicated to supporting the contention that all other jihadist groups should unite under the Al-Qaeda umbrella. The failure of nationalist insurgent groups to do so, he argues, has severely damaged Al-Qaeda's ability to fight U.S. and Iraqi forces and counter Shi'ite expansionism.
The statement comes on the heels of a December 22 46-minute audio statement by Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, the head of Al-Qaeda in Iraq -- which is more widely known in Iraq by the name Islamic State of Iraq -- which argued that nationalist insurgents and the Iraqi people are practicing a false Islam. The loss of the "true" tenets of Islam, he contended, has placed Muslims on the same side as infidels (a reference to the United States). Moreover, al-Baghdadi argued, Iraqi insurgents have given precedence to nationalism and pan-Arabism rather than to their religion.
Both bin Laden and al-Baghdadi are aware that the majority of nationalist insurgent groups in Iraq, though they espouse the establishment of an Islamic state in their rhetoric, do not in reality want to live under an Islamic state as defined by Al-Qaeda. Moreover, both men realize that the significance placed on the nationalist struggle by these groups over the greater jihadist struggle, coupled with the increasingly vocal criticism of Al-Qaeda by these groups, has contributed as much to the success of the surge as have coalition military operations.
The al-Baghdadi statement also called on Iraqis to attack the so-called awakening councils. The councils, which are mostly Sunni-led and now operate in eight Iraqi governorates, have pledged to fight Al-Qaeda alongside U.S. and Iraqi forces. Describing the awakening councils as apostates, al-Baghdadi said they have become agents of the cross and knights against the mujahedin, and as such should be slaughtered like animals. He advised Muslims not to miss "this great honor." Bin Laden's statement also reiterated the call to target awakening council members through terrorist attacks.
The decision of nationalist insurgent groups to openly take up arms against Al-Qaeda in recent months in reaction to Al-Qaeda's targeting of both civilians and nationalist insurgent leaders has dealt a major blow to Al-Qaeda's ability to maintain support on the ground. For bin Laden and his supporters in Iraq, losing the ideological battle is perhaps more destructive than losing operational capability, for the latter can be rebuilt far more easily than the former.
Bin Laden's statement however, comes a bit late. For more than two years, insurgent groups in Iraq and their supporters on the Internet have appealed to the Al-Qaeda leader to weigh in on the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). The failure of bin Laden to take a definitive position on ISI and its activities has damaged the group's credibility. The fact that the group was never viewed by Iraqis as an indigenous movement also impeded its ability to gain broad support from the population. For bin Laden to weigh in only now, when ISI is on the defensive and according to some reports, largely defeated, constitutes a severe miscalculation on the part of Al-Qaeda's leadership.
Defending Islamic State Of Iraq
In his December 29 statement, bin Laden praised the performance of the ISI, saying its leader, al-Baghdadi, upheld his principles by refusing to fall under the patronage of neighboring states as "some groups and parties have done." The reference is aimed at Sunni Arab nationalist insurgent groups who have allegedly received financial and material support from abroad. The decision to take such support, bin Laden contended, compromised the independence of these groups.
Bin Laden excused the behavior of the ISI, which has routinely targeted nationalist insurgents for assassination, pillaged, plundered, and killed civilians in massive market bombings and other attacks, saying the group's leadership cannot be held responsible for incorrect decisions taken by local cell leaders. He blamed the security situation for the breakdown in leadership, as the movement of leaders was restricted for months in some cases. In what appeared to be his only operational instruction to ISI, bin Laden advised the group to be disciplined in its targeting of the enemy so as to incur as few civilian casualties as possible.
The Al-Qaeda leader further contended that "all neighboring countries without exception are targeting" the ISI. Bin Laden also accused Saudi Arabia of launching a media campaign to smear the image of ISI. Several Saudi clerics in recent months have questioned ISI's tactics, and said it is not a legitimate organization.
Likewise, bin Laden criticized Sunni Arab awakening councils, political parties, and "groups of dissention" led by Iraq's Sunni Arab vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, saying they "betrayed the faith and the Ummah," a reference to the Islamic community. "I believe that all these ferocious campaigns against mujahedin [belonging to] the Islamic State of Iraq are staged because these mujahedin are deeply committed to righteousness and to the Prophet [Muhammad's] teachings," Bin Laden contended. ISI leader al-Baghdadi "and his brothers are not the kind who would bargain their faith and accept half-solutions, or who would meet their enemies halfway," he added, implying that nationalist groups and Sunni politicians and tribesmen have traded their principles for deals with the U.S. and Iraqi governments.
In his address, bin Laden weighed in on a long-standing dispute between ISI and Sunni nationalist insurgent groups over whether the ISI's declaration of an Islamic state in 2006 came too soon, and caused harm to the jihadist efforts of homegrown insurgents. Addressing nationalist insurgents, he argued that those insurgents who refused to join the ISI have neglected their duties as Muslims. "A Muslim that delays the establishment of an Islamic state is more sinful than he who quits his group or abandons Islam, because by doing so he would let hundreds of millions of Muslims live under the tyrant and pagan regimes," bin Laden argued. "Unless Muslims are brought together under one group and imam, the religion of God will not be applied, paths will not be safe, and seditions will not be repressed."
Bin Laden praised ISI's attempts to unify insurgent groups in Iraq under the ISI banner, and said those groups that refused to join ISI ignored a "sacred duty." Declaring that God prohibits Muslims from taking unilateral positions, he challenged the refusal of nationalist groups to join ISI based on the premise that ISI's leadership was foreign and therefore not loyal to the goals of nationalist insurgents.
According to bin Laden, ISI's current leadership came highly recommended by deceased Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi and others. "Refraining from pledging allegiance to one of the [leaders of ISI] after their recommendation by trusted, fair persons based on the pretext of not knowing [their credentials] leads to great evils, one of the gravest of which is obstructing the establishment of the great Muslim nation," bin Laden maintained.
Iraqis 'Deceived' By Americans
Throughout his address, bin Laden warned Muslims in Iraq that they were misled because of their inability to distinguish between truth and falsehood. The premise seeks to persuade -- rather than directly challenge -- Muslims to "correct" their path, forego worldly goods and principles, and take up God's path, as championed by ISI. Doing so would require a change in political and religious leadership, because Iraqi political and religious leaders, he maintained, are corrupt and driven by a desire for power, rather than a desire to serve God.
Addressing the formation of awakening councils by tribal leaders, bin Laden said the tribes were deceived by U.S. political and media efforts, which tempted the tribes into dissention by buying tribal allegiance. He praised the "many free and proud tribes" that "refused to form" awakening councils "and sell out their religion and honor."
Bin Laden claimed Abd al-Sattar Abu Rishah, the first head of the Al-Anbar Awakening Council who was assassinated by ISI in September, brought disgrace to himself and his tribe by aligning with the Americans. "They sold out their religion in return for a mortal [monetary] world. Despite this, they have not enjoyed themselves in this world after the lions of Islam [ISI] killed them as a punishment [for their behavior] and a deterrence" to others that would follow in their footsteps.
Regarding U.S. and Iraqi efforts to form a national-unity government, bin Laden said Muslims should understand the true nature of such a government, which puts earthly values ahead of godly values. "The national-unity government means that all groups of people agree to glorify the homeland more than glorifying anything holy to them," he contended. "Thus, all sides meet in the middle and accept half-solutions. This means the Ba'athists and the other parties should give up some of their principles and the Muslims should give up some of their religion...the Muslim should accept the rule of manmade laws and these manmade laws should share the Islamic Shari'a [law] in enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong."
According to bin Laden, such behavior takes one out of his religion and puts him in hell forever. Sunni Arab leaders who are men of religion, such as Vice President al-Hashimi should not have been misled by such matters, he said. Moreover, Arab states and their Sunni religious leaders lent support to the U.S.-Iraqi national-unity project, thereby "pulling the rug out from under the feet of the mujahedin."
He further argued that Arab states lent their support to the Iraqi government because they feared Iranian-backed Shi'ite expansionism. He maintained that although Sunnis in Iraq were dealt "fierce shocks" by Shi'ite-led security forces and militias, who he claimed hold "ambitions to expand their crimes outside Iraq," Arab states could have countered Shi'ite expansionism through other means, such as facilitating the travel of jihadists to Iraq.
Bin Laden likened Vice President al-Hashimi to Afghan leaders who sold out their Islamic principles for the sake of monetary and political gain. "The Islamic Party and some [Sunni] groups support America against Muslims," he argued. "This is a clear infidelity and an open apostasy." Bin Laden advised members of al-Hashimi's Iraqi Islamic Party to "disavow their leaders and correct the course of their parties and groups." If this is not possible, he said, then they should leave those groups and join the "honest mujahedin" fighting under the ISI banner.
Bin Laden appealed to the greater Islamic community for support, telling Muslims: "Wake up and take lessons because the issue [of jihad] is enormous and grave.... The heat of the battle is increasing and very little separates you from what has been plotted against you." He pledged that while today's jihad is being carried out in Iraq, tomorrow it will be in Damascus, Amman, and Riyadh.
He begged Muslims to support the mujahedin financially, very cleverly suggesting that the deeds of just one person could be enough to save the Al-Qaeda movement. "Your brothers need little money for the ammunition and weapons by which they fight for God's sake -- amounts that one merchant among you can afford that will lead to defeating the head of global infidelity."
Finally, bin Laden outlined Al-Qaeda's priorities for jihad. "The support of the true mujahedin, particularly in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Islamic Maghreb, and Somalia is the main project for the entire Ummah and its first line of defense against all its enemies." He ended his diatribe by saying that if Muslims are to preserve their security, social values, sustenance, and economic survival, they must support the mujahedin, "so that [their] oil and wealth will be preserved as well as [their] money, which is being robbed because of its unjust linkage to the dollar."
Falling On Deaf Ears
While Iraqi officials did not appear to comment publicly on bin Laden's statement, the responses of a number of nationalist insurgent leaders interviewed by the mainstream Arab press were overwhelmingly negative, with many saying they weren't persuaded by bin Laden's rhetoric.
In an interview published by the London-based "Quds Press" on January 3, the spokesman for the Iraqi Islamic Resistance Front (Jami), Sayf al-Din Mahmud, said that bin Laden changes his position every time he addresses Iraq. "Once he attacks, once he advises, and once he admits the fatal mistakes that Al-Qaeda in Iraq has made," Mahmud said. He further argued that bin Laden's logic was off. "If the position of Al-Qaeda on the [nationalist] forces that joined the political process is to reject them, how can Al-Qaeda be justified in its war against resistance groups that refused to join the so-called Islamic State of Iraq?"
Mahmud also questioned why bin Laden did not raise the issue of the Iranian presence in Iraq, which Mahmud contends "has been a firm factor in ripping Iraq apart." "Was Iran forgotten by mistake or what?" he asked. He contended that he knows of no nationalist groups that have pledged allegiance to ISI, and asked why bin Laden would make such a demand, when Al-Qaeda militants follow several leaderships -- including al-Baghdadi and Mullah Muhammad Omar. Mahmud argued that Al-Qaeda should work to put its organization under a single leadership before demanding the same of all other jihadist groups.
Abd al-Rahman al-Qaysi, the spokesman of the Mujahedin Army in Iraq, chose not to counter Al-Qaeda directly, telling Al-Jazeera television on December 30: "We believe that attaching the name Al-Qaeda to all jihadist factions in Iraq is not in [Al-Qaeda's] interest because this will rally the enemies inside and outside Iraq against these factions."
Abu Ahmad al-Baghdadi, the media spokesman for another wing of the Mujahedin Army, told Al-Jazeera the same-day that bin Laden was asking for something no one could fulfill. "Al-Qaeda in Iraq has become a hand that destroys the Sunnis. Many Sunnis have been killed by them. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is a source of corruption...they always direct their weapons at innocent civilians." He further contended that Al-Qaeda has become a "tool in Iran's hands." He added that he sees no problem in making a truce with the Americans, "because the Prophet [Muhammad] made a truce" with non-Muslims.