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On June 12, less than a week after a U.S. air strike killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaeda in Iraq website announced the appointment of the group’s new leader, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir. Al-Muhajir is a largely unknown figure; he never appeared on wanted lists published by the U.S. military or Iraqi government, nor was he mentioned in any of al-Zarqawi’s propaganda over the last three years. In fact, his appointment has surprised many jihadis, who expected Zarqawi’s deputy, Abu Abdelrahman al-Iraqi, to take over.
Who is Abu Hamza al-Muhajir?
No one seems to know for certain. The website announcing al-Muhajir’s new post said he is "a good brother, has a history in jihad, and is knowledgeable." On July 13, the Times of London cited "insurgent sources" who described their new leader as an Egyptian national with experience fighting in Afghanistan and against U.S. forces in Fallujah in 2004. Farhana Ali, a terrorism expert at the RAND corporation, says Abu Hamza al-Muhajir may be an alias of Abu Ayub al-Masri, an Egyptian trained in Afghanistan who was identified by the U.S. military as a likely successor to al-Zarqawi.
The nom de guerre al-Muhajir has chosen also offers some clues. As with many terrorists in Iraq, his name begins with Abu, meaning "father of," and is followed by a name that is either his son’s or a pseudonym. The second part of the name usually is a clue to the person’s place of origin, says Rick Francona, a defense intelligence expert. Al-Zarqawi, for instance, named himself for his hometown of Zarqa in Jordan. Al-Muhajir means "the emigrant," which has led most experts to speculate that he is not Iraqi. While this may well be the case, "You cannot deduce from the term ’muhajir’ that he is not Iraqi," says Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at Sarah Lawrence College. He says the term was originally used to describe the companions of Mohammed who left Mecca for Medina, and it could well be a reference to time spent traveling or training in a place such as Afghanistan.
What is the symbolic importance of the post?
"People in the jihad pledge loyalty to the emir," explains Gerges, "It’s close to a sacred position. It’s very unlikely for a jihadist organization to appoint an emir without that person being highly regarded, highly seasoned." For this reason, the experience and knowledge cited on the al-Qaeda in Iraq website is a vital credential.
Why would someone so unknown be appointed?
Most experts agree the announcement of al-Muhajir’s ascension was intentionally vague. "It’s unusual," Gerges says, "It could be tactical deception on the part of al-Qaeda." Ali agrees, suggesting it’s "probably to protect him from capture."
Another source of confusion involves Abu Abdelrahman al-Iraqi, Zarqawi’s former deputy, who declared himself the new leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq last week on his own website. Ali says that while there are rumors of a power struggle between al-Iraqi and al-Muhajir, such a conflict is unlikely.
Despite these vague and contradictory messages, Ali maintains al-Qaeda in Iraq has done a good job of fighting the information war post-Zarqawi. "If anything," she says, "Zarqawi’s death has provided a new impetus for attack."
How might a new leader change the al-Qaeda in Iraq organization?
Al-Qaeda in Iraq was already in the midst of a steady transformation at the time of Zarqawi’s death. The group was initially composed primarily of foreign fighters, but over the last several months it has begun to incorporate many more native fighters in hopes of creating an indigenous home base. "We can no longer talk about a foreign-born al-Qaeda in Iraq," Gerges says. Part of the reason for this shift was many of Zarqawi’s foreign-born lieutenants had been killed off and his ability to gain new recruits was diminishing. If speculation that al-Muhajir is a foreigner is correct, it runs somewhat against this trend. As Gerges explains, "Even if you have a foreign-born leader, the rank and file of al-Qaeda in Iraq is becoming more Iraqi."