Looking to the Levant: Internationalizing the Iraqi Insurgency
Volume 6, Issue 5 (March 7, 2008)
By Pascale Combelles Siegel
A number of Iraqi insurgents are increasingly turning their
guns outward—rhetorically at least—toward the Levant
(Jordan, Gaza, the West Bank, Israel and Lebanon) in
general and Israel in particular. It is no secret that Osama bin
Laden has renewed calls for the destruction of Israel and the
liberation of Palestine, and has also stepped up efforts to set up
bases of operations around the Levant in its attempt to restore the
Caliphate over every former territory of Islam, from Spain to Iraq.
At a time when al-Qaeda is enhancing its Israeli-Palestinian
agit-prop and is developing networks in Lebanon and Palestine, the
rhetoric of Iraqi insurgents—whether involuntarily or by design—might
play into the hands of al-Qaeda’s master plan for the region.
Iraq a Cornerstone for al-Qaeda’s Expansion Toward the Levant
Since 2003, Iraq has become the main front of al-Qaeda’s war against
the West. Iraq has served as a recruiting poster for would-be jihadis
from all over the world and as a training ground for thousands of
foreign and Iraqi fighters. Maybe more importantly, it appears clear
now that al-Qaeda has skillfully exploited the situation in Iraq to
establish a base in the heart of the Middle East—something it had
never accomplished before—a conveniently located stepping-stone from
which to launch the liberation of Jerusalem through the infiltration
of operators into the Levant and the spread of its brand of
In his July 2006 commentary on Israel’s war against Lebanon, al-Qaeda
ideologist Ayman al-Zawahiri said:
By Iraq being near Palestine it is an advantage; therefore the
Muslims should support its mujahideen until an Islamic Emirate of
jihad is established there. Subsequently it would transfer the jihad
to the borders of Palestine with the aid of Allah, then the
mujahideen in and out of Palestine would unite and the greatest
conquest [i.e. that of Israel] would be accomplished .
In May 2007, al-Zawahiri reinforced the same point:
The jihad in Iraq today, by the grace of Allah, is moving from the
stage of defeat of the Crusader invaders and their traitorous
underlings to the stage of consolidating a mujahid Islamic Emirate
which will liberate the homelands of Islam, protect the sacred things
of the Muslims, implement the rules of the sharia, give the weak and
oppressed their rights back, and raise the banner of jihad as it
makes its way through a rugged path of sacrifice and giving toward
the environs of Jerusalem, with Allah’s permission .
Al-Qaeda in Iraq Calls for Jihad in Palestine
Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) logically appears to be al-Qaeda’s greatest
ally in its plan to subvert the Levant. The group, echoing al-Qaeda’s
leaders and ideologues, has consistently claimed the suffering of the
Palestinians epitomizes the suffering of Muslims around the world,
treating their plight as a symbol of the so-called Western war on
Islam. Consequently, AQI has made it clear that its enterprise in
Iraq was one of the struggles that will lead to the liberation of
Jerusalem. In an April 2006 speech, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi declared:
“In Iraq we are very close to al-Aqsa Mosque of the Messenger of
Allah, so we fight in Iraq and our eyes are on Jerusalem which can
only be restored by the guiding Quran and sword of victory” .
More importantly, AQI’s development in Iraq seemed to follow the path
outlined by al-Qaeda’s leaders. After al-Zawahiri announced that the
mujahideen should unify and create an emirate in Iraq, AQI formed the
Islamic State of Iraq, an emirate designed to unify all the
mujahideen fighting in Iraq under the banner of Islam . When
al-Zawahiri called on Iraq to become a consolidating base from which
to launch the liberation of all Muslim lands last May, the leader of
the Islamic State of Iraq, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, made similar
references while emphasizing the duty of Iraqi Muslims to join the
ranks of the mujahideen and reject the Coalition’s engagement
mechanisms—such as Awakening Councils, political parties and local
concerned citizen groups .
Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq in Collusion
The rhetorical and operational collusion between the two plans has
become even more apparent in recent months. First, al-Zawahiri has
repeatedly condemned the Palestinian factions—Fatah and Hamas—for
either endorsing negotiations to achieve a two-state solution (Fatah)
or for engaging in the democratic political process (Hamas).
Al-Zawahiri contends that these actions are a betrayal of jihad and
true Islamic tenets. Second, Osama bin Laden reminded his supporters:
I reassure my people in Palestine specifically that we will expand
our jihad, Allah willing, and will not acknowledge the Sykes-Picot
border, nor the rulers installed by colonialism… if [America] and its
agents are defeated in Iraq, then hopefully not much will remain
before the mujahideen from Baghdad, Anbar, Mosul, Diyala and Salah
al-Din will go to liberate Hittin  for us—Allah willing—and we
will not acknowledge the Jewish state's existence on one inch of
Palestinian land like all the Arab rulers did when they accepted the
Riyadh initiative years ago.
During remarks on the Israeli blockade of Gaza, ISI leader
al-Baghdadi expressed views perfectly congruent with al-Qaeda’s
leadership: “Our conversation today is our view of terminating the
struggle with the Jews in the Land of Congregation and Resurrection
[Palestine].” According to Baghdadi, because Israel is a religious
state and because there is “no difference between Judaism and
Zionism,” Israel has no claim to statehood. Like al-Zawahiri, he
heavily criticizes Fatah and the secularist-nationalist Palestinian
leadership who he says has achieved nothing after years of lying.
Like al-Zawahiri, he repudiates Hamas as betraying Islam and the
ummah (Islamic community) .
Maybe more worrisome, anecdotal evidence suggests that both al-Qaeda
and the ISI have moved beyond the motivational phase and into a more
operational one. A document calling for the implementation of a
three-year plan to move from Iraq into the Levant recently surfaced
on the web. The document calls for the establishment of
Salafist-jihadist cells in Jordan, Palestine and Lebanon
(al-boraq.info, January 28). Meanwhile, al-Baghdadi is recommending
actions that fit within that plan. In particular, he calls for the
creation of a Salafist creed and belief group in Palestine and
advises the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades—Hamas’ military wing—to
secede from Hamas and act on its own according to sharia principles.
Finally, U.S. military commanders have recently noticed that several
ISI leaders are leaving Iraq in response to the increased U.S.
military pressure there (AFP, February 11). Although their
whereabouts and future plans remain unknown, their escape from Iraq
at a time when al-Qaeda/AQI have established the liberation of
Jerusalem as their ultimate goal begs the question of their potential
role in making this happen.
Are Nationalist and Islamist Insurgents Joining the International
At the same time, non-al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents in Iraq have
increasingly commented on international issues and affairs as they
relate to Islam or the Palestinians. In effect, these groups are
using selected events to show that Islam is under existential attack
and/or that the West does not care about Muslim suffering. For
example, the Islamic Army in Iraq (IAI), a large insurgent group
which has cooperated temporarily with the United States on the ground
in Iraq, recently delivered a vitriolic indictment of Western
policies in the Middle East, accusing the United States of seeking to
control the economic wealth of Muslims, facilitating Western cultural
domination and enabling the establishment of a “Greater Israel” that
would include Iraq . A larger alliance that includes the IAI along
with more nationalistic movements—such as the Islamic Front of the
Iraqi Resistance and the Mujahideen Army—the Political Council of the
Iraqi Resistance (PCIR) condemned Denmark for the re-publication of
cartoons that seemed to equate the Prophet with terrorism. The group
says that retaliatory strikes are to be expected . Central to
al-Qaeda’s strategy, such stories reinforce the idea that the West in
general and the United States in particular are seeking to dominate
and subjugate the Islamic world.
The continuously stalled peace process between Israel and the
Palestinians as well as Israel’s deadly incursions into Gaza and the
month-long Israeli blockade all figure prominently in the nationalist
and Islamist insurgents’ propaganda. In late January, the Reformation
and Jihad Front, Hamas-Iraq and the Islamic Front for the Iraqi
Resistance (JAMI) strongly condemned the Israeli blockade of Gaza
. Meanwhile, the Jihad and Change Front (JACF), along with
al-Furqan Army, the Conquering Army, the Brigades of Martyrs in Iraq
and the Army of Ansar al-Mujahideen issued a statement of support to
the Palestinians, claiming that they “will strike the occupier on our
land [i.e. the United States] and give him a taste of defeat and
shame” while their “eyes are on al-Aqsa” . Recently, the IAI
released a documentary equating the U.S. occupation of Iraq with the
Israeli blockade of Gaza . The visuals are well done and
professional and their subtext speaks to all—Arab and non-Arab,
Muslim or non-Muslim—who view what Israelis do in Gaza and what
Americans do in Iraq as oppression. The visuals can be both
interpreted within a secular/anti-imperialist framework—most common
in Europe and parts of Asia—or within an Islamist framework—most
common in the Middle East. However, the speech accompanying the
images, in Arabic, calls for jihad against the infidels and vows to
liberate Palestine from Israeli aggression.
This use of radical Islamist rhetoric by nationalist and Islamist
Iraqi insurgents will most probably have a pernicious effect in the
future. Whether the leadership of these groups actually intends to
transform their operations into international jihad is not yet known.
However, regardless of the intentions of these leaders, their use of
such rhetoric, their focus on the resemblance between Iraq and
Palestine and their use of religious justifications to examine the
“crimes” committed by the West against Muslims play exactly into the
hands of al-Qaeda’s plan for the Middle East.
1. Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, “The Zio-Crusaders’ War on Gaza and
Lebanon,” As-Sahab Media Production Company, July 27, 2006.
2. “Third Interview with Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri,” As-Sahab Media
Production Company, May 5, 2007.
3. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, “A Message to the People,” Mujahideen Shura
Council, April 25, 2006.
4. The Mujahideen Shura Council in Iraq, “Announcing the
Establishment of the State of Iraq,” October 15, 2006.
5. See for example, “Between Perversion of Creed and Tenets of
Jihad,” Statement by the Islamic State of Iraq, August 27, 2007.
6. The former Palestinian town of Hittin was the site of Salah
al-Din’s 1187 victory over the crusaders that allowed the re-conquest
7. Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, “Religion is Sincere Advice,” Islamic State
of Iraq, February 14.
8. “A message from the Islamic Army leader\Bush and Sarkozy…Political
alliance or wealth and power share,” Islamic Army in Iraq, January
9. “Response to Denmark,” Political Council of the Iraqi Resistance,
10. “Formation of a campaign of the Iraqi resistance to support
Gaza,” Political Council of the Iraqi Resistance, January 21.
11. “Start of the Campaign of the ‘Twins’ Operation in support for
our brothers in Gaza and All of Palestine,” Joint statement by the
Furqan Army, the Conquering Army, the Brigades of Martyrs in Iraq and
the Army of Ansar al-Mujahideen, January 23.
12. The video is available on the video-sharing website LiveLeak: