BAGHDAD (AP) – A new video by al-Qaida’s deputy leader Thursday left no doubt about what the terror network claims is at stake in Iraq – describing it as a centerpiece of its anti-American fight and insisting the Iraqi insurgency is under its direct leadership.
But the proclamations by Ayman al-Zawahri carried another unintended message: reflecting the current troubles confronting the Sunni extremists in Iraq, experts said.
The Islamic State of Iraq, the insurgent umbrella group that is claimed by al-Qaida, has faced ideological criticism from some militants, and rival armed groups have even joined U.S. battles against it. A U.S.-led offensive northwest of Baghdad – in one of the Islamic State’s strongholds – may have temporarily disrupted and scattered insurgent forces.
“Some of the developments suggest that it (the Islamic State) is more fragile than it was before,” said Bruce Hoffman, a Washington-based terrorism expert at the Rand Corp. think tank.
Al-Zawahri “is trying to replenish the Islamic State brand,” he said. “It’s time to reassert its viability, but how connected to reality that is, is another issue.”
In the unusually long video – at just over an hour and a half – al-Zawahri depicted the Islamic State of Iraq as a vanguard for fighting off the U.S. military and eventually establishing a “caliphate” of Islamic rule across the region.
“The Islamic State of Iraq is set up in Iraq, the mujahedeen (holy warriors) celebrate it in the streets of Iraq, the people demonstrate in support of it,” al-Zawahri said, “pledges of allegiance to it are declared in the mosques of Baghdad.”
He called on Muslims around the world to “support this blessed fledgling mujahid garrison state with funds, manpower, opinion, information and expertise.”
But al-Qaida in Iraq – the group that claims allegiance to Osama bin Laden’s goals – has been put on the defensive. Some Sunni insurgent groups have publicly split with it, distancing themselves from its bomb attacks on Iraqi civilians and accusing al-Qaida of trying to strong-arm their members into joining.
One influential faction, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, has openly helped U.S. forces in new offensives against al-Qaida in and around Baghdad, and some Sunni tribes have turned against it in western Anbar province.
U.S. forces have focused on al-Qaida-linked fighters in their security clampdowns in Baghdad and so-called “belts” around the city in recent weeks.
That has brought an increase in American casualties, but insurgent and militia attacks appear to have fallen.
Still, bloodshed can hit at any time. A car bomb Thursday killed 17 people and wounded 28 when it blasted a photographers’ shop in a Shiite part of Baghdad, where a bride and groom were inside getting their wedding photos taken as their relatives and friends waited outside, said an official at the nearest police station.
The bride and groom were among the wounded, with minor injuries, said an official at the hospital where the victims were taken. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
In his video, al-Zawahri did not mention last week’s failed car bombing attempts in Britain, which British authorities are investigating for al-Qaida links.
That suggested the video, posted Thursday on an Islamic militant Web site, was made before the alerts in London and the airport attack in Glasgow.
But Hoffman said the timing of its release suggested al-Zawahri wanted to use the London attacks to call attention to al-Qaida and portray it as at the head of the global jihad.
The al-Qaida No. 2 laid out a strategy, saying in the near-term militants should target U.S. and Israeli interests “everywhere” in retaliation for “attacks on the Islamic nation” in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.
The long-term strategy calls for “diligent work to change these corrupt and corrupting (Arab) regimes.” He said Muslims should “rush to the fields of jihad” in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia “to defeat the enemies of the Islamic nation” and for “training to prepare for the next jihad.”
Al-Qaida’s declaration of the Islamic State of Iraq last year was a dramatic move aimed at staking out its leadership of Iraq’s insurgency. Allying itself with several smaller Iraqi Sunni insurgent groups, it presented the Islamic State as an alternative government within Iraq, claiming to hold territory.
Although groups inspired by al-Qaida have been behind some of the most shocking attacks of the four-year Iraq war – including some against Shiite holy sites – most experts say the fighters comprise only a small part of an insurgency dominated by Iraqi Sunnis.
“The tapes always pretend that everyone is in the al-Qaida column,” said Brian Jenkins, a writer and commentator on global terrorism.
He said the al-Qaida leadership’s “greatest fear is irrelevance.”
Even their declaration of the Islamic State quickly met resistance. Some Islamic extremist clerics in the Arab world said it was too soon to declare an Islamic state because the qualifications were not yet met.
Al-Zawahri dismissed those who refuse to recognize the Islamic State “because it lacks the necessary qualifications” even while he acknowledged it had made unspecified mistakes.
He urged critics to work with the Islamic State “even if we see in it shortcomings,” and said Islamic State leaders should “open their hearts” to consultations. “The mujahedeen are not innocent of deficiency, error and slips,” he said. “The mujahedeen must solve their problems among themselves.”
Rita Katz, director of the SITE Institute, which monitors terrorist-related activity around the world, said she didn’t have “any doubt” that al-Qaida in Iraq is linked to bin Laden’s network.
“It surely seems today that al-Qaida in Iraq is a branch of al-Qaida’s leadership in Afghanistan-Pakistan,” she said.
In other attacks around Iraq on Thursday, two American soldiers were killed and two were wounded by a roadside bombing in south Baghdad, the U.S. military said. It said the bomb was an explosively formed penetrator – a type of weapon which the Americans say is provided to Shiite extremists by the Iranians. Iran denies the allegation.