New Zarqawi video online

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has doffed his mask and gone public with a new video released on the Internet. But the real audience isn’t the West.

Zarqawi holding weapon
Photo Courtesy of “IntelCenter”:

Al Qaeda in Iraq has released a video of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi on a jihadi web site, which is the first time he’s been seen in video since the Nick Berg beheading video.
“Your mujahideen sons were able to confront the most ferocious of crusader campaigns on a Muslim state. They have stood in the face of this onslaught for three years,” Zarqawi said on the video.
I’m working on getting a copy of the video, but so far, this is the first time AMZ (as he’s called in U.S. military parlance) has appeared in a video without a mask. (He was concealed in the Berg video.) It’s a well-produced video, with slick graphics and professional titling, of a kind with many videos from insurgent and jihadi groups. I’ve seen pictures of AMZ and this video appears authentic.
So the question now is why the video and why now? There are a number of factors. There have been persistent rumors that AMZ was replaced as the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) on Jan. 20 by an Iraqi, Abdullah Rashid al-Baghdadi, on the orders of the Mujahadeen Shura Council, the umbrella organization for the jihadi groups in Iraq. I’ve never quite believed that, and instead thought it was a ploy by AQI to make itself more palatable to nationalist Iraqis who don’t follow the extreme Islamism of Al Qaeda. AMZ has been catching a lot of flack for the last year or so because of his suicide bombers and brutal tactics. This is why you no longer see the gruesome beheading videos. There are still a lot of suicide bombings, but there are likely less than there were, and they seem aimed more specifically at American and Iraqi security forces with more care taken to reduce civilian casualties. So, by releasing this video, he’s showing the world — and Iraqis, insurgents and civilians alike — that he’s still around, still the man and still commands the loyalty of AQI.
Secondly, by literally putting a face on himself, AMZ is humanizing himself and attempting to quell the discord with the Ba’athist groups that has been splitting the Sunni insurgency — a split that has been exploited with limited success by the Americans. By putting himself forward less as a spectral bogeyman and more of a heroic leader — as the images in the video do — the thinking may be that when the civil war finally breaks out, as many in Iraq anticipate, AMZ will be seen as a leader among the Sunnis, and not as an outsider among Iraqis. While the Ba’athists and jihadis generally despise one another, they despise the Iraqi Shi’ites who hold power more. The Ba’athists see them as Iranian stooges (not entirely inaccurate, frankly) and the jihadis have adopted a toxic anti-Shi’ite ideology that holds the sect as unbelievers (_kafirs_.)
But this video’s audience is not primarily the West. Many people think the insurgents produce videos and stage attacks in sight of western media to influence the populations back home. This is only partially true. By creating the impression — and the reality — of chaos, they can undermine support for the U.S. presence in Iraq among Americans. But the real purpose of these videos is recruitment. Instead of scared westerners, the real audience is the disaffected and angry young men of the Muslim world. They will download this video, like they do all the others, and pass it among their friends and watch it at Internet cafés in Jakarta and Riyadh over and over again.
In the 1970s and ’80s, you couldn’t claim to have any juice as a terrorist group unless you had a decent media arm. This is why Hezbollah pioneered the filming of its attacks against the Israelis and started al-Manar, its broadcast arm. The need for an effective media campaign is still true, but there is no longer really a need for Western media to publish a screed or air a tape. It can be distributed online for less money, with more reach and hit a more targeted audience than before.
It’s likely not a coincidence that the video was released now, just a couple of days after the deadlock over PM Ibrahim al-Jaafari was broken with the selection of Jawad al-Malaki, the brains of Jaafari’s Dawa Party. While the Iraqi government remained in limbo, the political chaos allowed the Sunni groups room to move. But with the deadlock broken, the formation of the new government will probably proceed apace, with the further strengthening of the Shi’ite-dominated security forces. The Sunnis have to pre-position themselves if they’re to stand a chance in the coming civil war, and AMZ’s video is part of his effort to position himself with the Sunnis.
*UPDATE 4/26/06 8:58:50 AM +0200 GMT:* Interesting. According to “IntelCenter”:, in the video, AMZ is briefed on two new rockets allegedly developed by the insurgents in Anbar province. The two rockets are the “Qaeda 1” and the “Quds 1.” The first allegedly has a range of 40km and is capable of carrying a 50kg explosive, while the second is designed to be fired horizontally and is designed to pierce armor. “God willing, these rockets will be used in the next phase,” the briefer tells Zarqawi.

The Qaeda 1 rocket
Photo Courtesy of “IntelCenter”: