CAIRO, Egypt (June 12)—Al-Qaida in Iraq named a successor Monday to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and said he would stick to the slain leader's path—attacks on Shiites as well as on U.S. and Iraqi forces.
The new leader, identified by the nom de guerre Abu Hamza al-Muhajer in a statement posted on the Web, appeared to be a foreign Arab, like his predecessor.
But otherwise he is an unknown. The name has not appeared in previous al-Qaida in Iraq propaganda or on U.S. lists of terrorists with rewards on their heads, suggesting he is a lower-level figure or someone more prominent who has taken a new pseudonym.
President Bush said Monday that al-Muhajer would join the ranks of those sought by the U.S. “I think the successor to Zarqawi is going to be on our list to bring to justice,” Bush said.
The lack of detail appeared to reflect a new emphasis on secrecy by the group. U.S. forces have launched a series of raids against al-Qaida in Iraq based on intelligence found in the safehouse where al-Zarqawi was killed by an American airstrike Wednesday. The group may fear infiltration or that al-Zarqawi's public stance led to his downfall.
“Al-Qaida in Iraq's council has agreed on Sheik Abu Hamza al-Muhajer to be the successor of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in the leadership of the organization,” the group said.
The authenticity of the statement could not be independently confirmed. It was posted on an Islamic militant Web forum where al-Qaida in Iraq often posts messages.
The posting said al-Muhajer was “a beloved brother with jihadi (holy war) experience and a strong footing in knowledge.
“We ask Almighty God to strengthen him that he may accomplish what Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, God have mercy on his soul, began,” it said.
That could mean he will continue the strategy the Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi followed: a campaign of brutal attacks on Shiite civilians, aimed at sparking a Sunni-Shiite civil war.
The attacks sparked tensions between al-Zarqawi's group and some Iraqi insurgents who felt the bloodshed hurt the image of their resistance against U.S. forces. They wanted to focus attacks on American and Iraqi troops.
Iraqi insurgents loyal to Saddam Hussein made a rare public acknowledgment of disputes with al-Zarqawi in a condolence letter posted on the same Web site.
“Although there were many matters we differed with him on and him with us, ... what united us was something greater,” said the statement by the Fedayeen Saddam. It said the group had “the honor” of fighting alongside al-Zarqawi and that “our determination is only increased for waging jihad.”
Al-Zarqawi's death raised speculation the group might turn to an Iraqi leader to smooth over the differences with Iraqis. Al-Zarqawi's deputy is an Iraqi known as Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Iraqi. The U.S. military told The Associated Press on Monday that he was not a man identified as “Abdul-Rahman” who was killed with al-Zarqawi.
The name al-Muhajer, Arabic for “immigrant,” suggested the new leader was not Iraqi. The name is often used by foreign Arab militants, referring to the “muhajereen,” Islam's early converts who fled persecution in Mecca to join the Prophet Muhammad in Medina.
Rohan Gunaratna, a terror expert at Singapore's Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, said the choice of a non-Iraqi means the group is “likely to continue the foreign operations.”
Al-Zarqawi had sought to expand his campaign beyond Iraq, including a triple suicide bombing against hotels in Jordan last November that killed 60 people.
Al-Zarqawi also had links to al-Qaida's branch in Saudi Arabia, which in a statement Monday thanked him for helping its fight against the kingdom's rulers. “We will not forget his favors to jihad and the mujahedeen in the prophet's peninsula,” the group said.
The U.S. military had predicted a militant named Abu Ayyub al-Masri would become al-Qaida in Iraq's leader. Al-Masri, an Egyptian associate of al-Zarqawi, has a $50,000 reward on his head.
Militants usually adopt a pseudonym made up of a nickname called a “kunya” in Arabic—“Abu,” meaning “father of,” plus a name that sometimes refers to an actual child of the militant. The second part of the pseudonym is usually an adjective denoting the militant's nationality.
Al-Zarqawi was born Ahmad Fadhil Nazzal al-Khalayleh, but took a pseudonym from Zarqa, his hometown in Jordan. He had a child named Musab, so took the kunya of “Abu Musab.”
The secrecy surrounding the new leader could hurt the group's ability to carry out attacks, said Egyptian analyst Diaa Rashwan. Al-Zarqawi built a reputation as a holy warrior, helping draw foreign militants to carry out suicide bombings.
“Al-Zarqawi's charisma was very important factor for many to join his organization,” Rashwan said. “All al-Zarqawi had was car bombs and people ready to blow themselves up.”
“My feeling is that they are going to have establish a persona for him,” said Evan Kohlmann, a New York-based terror consultant and founder of globalterroralert.com. “They're going to have to introduce this fellow to the world.”