Abstract: In 2005, al-Qa`ida’s one-time security chief Saif al-`Adl chronicled a key period in the Islamic State’s origin story—the initial engagement between Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Usama bin Ladin in 1999. His history, which describes al-Qa`ida agreeing to help al-Zarqawi establish a training camp near Herat without demanding al-Zarqawi swear allegiance to bin Ladin, is a seminal text in our understanding of the Islamic State’s history. But how reliable is the story? Even though most analysts believe the account was genuinely written by al-`Adl, bin Ladin was so unhappy with its contents he called it a fraud. And newly available jihadist documents suggest al-Qa`ida’s rationale for supporting al-Zarqawi was more complex and more Machiavellian than al-`Adl, or bin Ladin, ever admitted.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the godfather of the Islamic State, arrived in Afghanistan from his home country of Jordan in late 1999. He quickly struck a deal with al-Qa`ida to build an independent, Levant-focused jihadist camp near the western Afghan city of Herat. Al-Zarqawi did not swear allegiance to Usama bin Ladin for another five years, and the two men had very different visions of jihad. But al-Qa`ida nonetheless provided critical financial, logistical, and political support for the new project. The question is why. Why did al-Qa`ida provide such extensive assistance with so few strings attached?

The accepted history of this period largely comes from an account attributed to al-Qa`ida’s security chief  Saif  al-`Adl. In a letter to the Jordanian journalist Fuad Husayn, al-`Adl explained that al-Zarqawi and bin Ladin clashed initially, but that he (al-`Adl) negotiated an agreement between the two factions.a According to this version, al-Zarqawi came to appreciate (but not accept) al-Qa`ida’s more nuanced ideological outlook, while bin Ladin and his eventual successor Ayman al-Zawahiri overlooked al-Zarqawi’s extremism because they wanted the Jordanian’s help in rebuilding jihadist networks in the Levant.

Al-`Adl’s version of this history was originally published in Husayn’s seminal 2005 book Zarqawi: The Second Generation of al-Qaeda,b and this very Jordan-centric storyline has informed most histories of al-Zarqawi’s initial engagement with al-Qa`ida. Much of the story holds up. But it is also deeply incomplete. Al-`Adl’s history forms the basis of public understanding of al-Zarqawi’s initial engagement with al-Qa`ida, but it omits key issues, exaggerates other details, and gets key facts wrong.

Perhaps most importantly, the veracity of al-`Adl’s story was explicitly rejected by none other than bin Ladin himself.

This article contextualizes al-Qa`ida’s first engagement with al-Zarqawi and thereby reframes the Islamic State’s origin story. First, it explains and analyzes bin Ladin’s objections to al-`Adl’s version of history. Second, using internal al-Qa`ida correspondence described and cited here for the first time, it contextualizes al-Qa`ida’s initial wariness and ultimate embrace of al-Zarqawi by describing the counterintelligence challenges the group faced at the time.c Those investigations reveal the depth of al-Qa`ida’s rivalry with the independent Syrian jihadist strategist Abu Musab al-Suri in 1998 and 1999 and suggest that this intra-jihadist squabble was a primary motivation driving al-Qa`ida’s initial support for al-Zarqawi. Finally, the article argues that this fuller story offers new perspective on the more contemporary development of both the Islamic State and its enemies in Syria and Iraq.

The Trouble with al-`Adl’s History
Bin Ladin thought the document that has informed virtually every history of al-Qa`ida’s initial engagement with al-Zarqawi was fraudulent. “After reviewing [the history],” bin Ladin wrote, “it became clear to me it was falsely attributed to our Brother Sayf Al-‘Adl as it included an offense to our Brother Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi.”1

Al-`Adl’s history was initially published in 2005, but bin Ladin seems to have ignored it—or not learned of it—until much later. (It began to recirculate on jihadist web forums in 2009.)2 The document annoyed bin Ladin so much that on September 26, 2010, he fired off a letter to Libyan al-Qa`ida operative Atiyah abd al-Rahman, a key aide, with instructions for repudiating al-`Adl’s history.

Bin Ladin pointed to an inconsistency in al-`Adl’s story to prove it was fraudulent. Al-`Adl claimed that al-Zarqawi met with bin Ladin and al-Zawahiri in 1999 to broker a deal with al-Qa`ida. Bin Ladin rejected that claim because “unity was not achieved between [al-Qa`ida] and [Zawahiri’s] Jihad Group” at the time he negotiated with al-Zarqawi.3 Essentially, bin Ladin argued that if al-`Adl’s history got such a basic fact wrong, it could not have been written by him.

The basic facts of bin Ladin’s critique are accurate. Al-Zawahiri was not a member of al-Qa`ida when al-Zarqawi arrived in 1999; Egyptian Islamic Jihad did not unify with al-Qa`ida until June 7, 2001, when bin Ladin and al-Zawahiri formally signed a merger agreement.4 Bin Ladin argued that Abu Hafs al-Masri, al-Qa`ida’s military commander in 1999, not al-Zawahiri, would have joined him in any negotiation with al-Zarqawi. Indeed, as explained below, Abu Hafs al-Masri did manage al-Qa`ida’s difficult engagements with other jihadist groups in Afghanistan. But by the time al-`Adl’s history was written and published, Abu Hafs al-Masri was dead and al-Zawahiri had become bin Ladin’s deputy.

Bin Ladin’s case against al-`Adl’s history is not open and shut, however. Researchers have long noted that al-Zawahiri played a major role in al-Qa`ida long before joining the organization, to the chagrin of some members of the group. But it is odd that bin Ladin would turn to al-Zawahiri rather than Abu Hafs al-Masri, who was widely respected and central to al-Qai`da’s relations with other jihadis in Afghanistan. Indeed, al-Zawahiri was not fully trusted until he joined al-Qa`ida—bin Ladin did not inform him about the plans for 9/11 until the two groups merged.5 Moreover, if al-Zawahiri was part of the negotiation with al-Zarqawi, it is strange that bin Ladin would remain committed to covering it up a decade later in private correspondence with a trusted aide—and after al-Zawahiri had actually become al-Qa`ida’s second-in-command. Either bin Ladin’s calculation was quite complex—perhaps he did not trust al-Rahman or was committed to undermining al-`Adl’s influence in 2010—or al-`Adl’s history gets a fundamental fact wrong.

Bin Ladin also had a theory about how al-`Adl’s history might have been manipulated. “Deny its attribution to Sayf and remind them he is in jail,” bin Ladin explained to al-Rahman. “There are individuals, as well as services belonging to countries in the area whose mission is to defame the Mujahidin and disfigure their [image].” Indeed, al-`Adl was living in an apartment confined on an Iranian military base both when his history was originally published and in 2010 when he remained in Iran.6

First page of letter from Saif al-`Adl to journalist Fuad Husayn, obtained by author

But bin Ladin did not accuse Iran specifically of fabricating the story. He may have wanted to avoid a confrontation with Iran, which still held many al-Qa`ida members in 2010, but he also may have suspected other intelligence services. If so, Jordan was almost certainly at the top of the list. Al-Qa`ida had long parried with Jordanian intelligence services, and the Jordanian journalist Fuad Husayn first published al-`Adl’s story.d

There is no dispute about the arrangement that al-Zarqawi eventually reached with al-Qa`ida, but the details as we know them were generally provided by al-`Adl. Al-Zarqawi and his allies would undergo specialized training with al-Qa`ida; in return, al-Qa`ida would provide financing, training, and support for al-Zarqawi’s training camp near Herat.

The lopsided deal favored al-Zarqawi; he received critical assistance but maintained his independence, all while embracing radical jihadis that complicated al-Qa`ida’s political position in Afghanistan. Al-`Adl suggests that he convinced bin Ladin to accept al-Zarqawi’s extremism in order to foster jihad in the Levant. The broader historical record does not refute that logic, but it suggests there was more to it than that.

For starters, the domestic context in Afghanistan likely influenced the decision to place al-Zarqawi’s camp in Herat. According to al-`Adl, Herat was chosen because of its proximity to the Iranian border, which was useful for moving people and materiel in and out of Afghanistan. True enough, but it was also politically convenient. The Taliban leadership was divided over the value of Arab jihadis in Afghanistan—especially extremists like al-Zarqawi—but the Taliban governor in Herat, Mullah Jihadwal, was a strong supporter of the Arab movements. One of the very few Taliban leaders to have left Afghanistan for jihad, he was more aligned with radical foreign jihadis than most of the Taliban leadership.7 Herat was not just close to Iran; it was governed by the perfect Talib to host someone like al-Zarqawi.

Indeed, if not for Mullah Jihadwal’s quick decision-making after 9/11, al-Zarqawi might have been killed in Herat. After 9/11, Shi`a tribesmen besieged some of al-Zarqawi’s followers. Al-`Adl credited al-Zarqawi with leading a courageous counterattack and escape, but other jihadis, and the official Taliban biography of Mullah Jihadwal, say it was Mullah Jihadwal’s quick decision to send his nephew, Gul Mohamed, into battle that facilitated the escape.8 Bin Ladin critiqued al-`Adl for being disrespectful of al-Zarqawi, but in this case he favored the young Jordanian.

After al-Zarqawi’s escape from Herat, al-`Adl’s basic storyline is confirmed by other jihadist sources, including the story of a U.S. attack on a jihadist meeting in Kandahar where al-Zarqawi was almost killed.9 Al-Zarqawi eventually fled Afghanistan where he reconnected with al-`Adl in Iran before moving on to Iraq. Al-`Adl’s account of this period is vague and obscures discussion both of al-Zarqawi’s route to Iran and of the jihadis’ interaction with Iranian security services. That is a major omission—and one that is consistent with bin Ladin’s suggestion that al-`Adl’s story was influenced by intelligence sources.

But both al-`Adl and bin Ladin neglected to mention the counterintelligence challenge that probably most influenced al-Qa`ida’s initial engagement with al-Zarqawi.

Counterintelligence and Intra-Jihadist Conflict 
Al-`Adl was al-Qa`ida’s security chief, which means he investigated reports of subterfuge by foreign governments and other militants trying to undermine al-Qa`ida. In 1998 and 1999, al-`Adl investigated potential espionage cases involving Jordan, the United States, the United Arab Emirates, and Iraq.10 The veracity and viability of these threats varied, but they reinforced al-Qa`ida’s sense of siege, which al-`Adl embodied. As one Jordanian jihadi investigated by al-Qa`ida for being a spy lamented, “Sayf, may Allah avenge against him, he is capable of doing many things. He knows Kabul’s director of intelligence, knows Kandahar’s director of intelligence, and he is very close to the Sheikh [bin Ladin] because he is loyal to him … [Sayf’s] word is it as far as the Sheikh is concerned.”11 Al-`Adl also used alliances to mitigate the threats he perceived to bin Ladin and al-Qa`ida.

In 1998, Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, the director of al-Qa`ida’s guesthouse in Kabul and coordinator of Arabs fighting with the Taliban, grew suspicious about new Iraqis in town, so he reached out to al-`Adl. Abd al-Hadi explained that the men were affiliated with the Iraqi opposition leader Ahmed Chalabi, who later emerged as a leading voice encouraging the United States to invade Iraq.12 But in November 1998, Abd al-Hadi was worried that the Chalabi men were impious (they would not give up smoking) and, like many Iraqi opposition figures, had spent extensive time in Iran. The Chalabi men seemed motivated by Arab nationalism rather than jihadist ideology and would not acknowledge any difference between Sunni and Shi`a Muslims. “They believe that there is no difference between the two sects,” lamented Abd al-Hadi “and the important thing is that they are all Arabs.”13 Al-Qa`ida kept a close watch on the men and endeavored to keep them separate from other fighters.14

But the Iraqis were only the tip of the iceberg. Al-`Adl was also investigating broader allegations that Jordan’s intelligence service was working with the United Arab Emirates and the United States to infiltrate al-Qa`ida in Afghanistan.15 The details, all unproven, were lascivious: a Syrian recruit, presumably under physical threat, declared to al-Qa`ida that he had been recruited via group sex in Dubai, and described alcohol, drugs, and homosexual trysts among jihadis in Afghanistan. He named a series of jihadis, including Abu Musab al-Suri, as threats to al-Qa`ida.16 Al-`Adl’s investigation was not exactly professional; some of the claims read like a jihadist conspiracy nightmare more than a real-world threat. In the end, the accuser formally retracted his accusations, including against Abu Musab al-Suri.17 Regardless, the investigation seems to have concluded that gay jihadis from Dubai were not a major threat, but Abu Musab al-Suri was.

Abu Musab al-Suri is one of the most fascinating jihadis of the past 40 years. A Syrian veteran of the Muslim Brotherhood uprising against Hafez al-Assad in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Abu Musab al-Suri strongly supported the Taliban and collaborated off and on with various Arab jihadist groups, including al-Qa`ida.18 In 1997, he arranged bin Ladin’s interview with CNN, but the two men’s relationship soured after al-Qa`ida’s attack on two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998.19 Abu Musab al-Suri worried that by striking the United States, al-Qa`ida might provoke a counterattack that would threaten the Taliban regime. In 1999, he and a long-time friend and collaborator, Abu Khaled al-Suri, complained to bin Ladin that he “had caught the disease of screens, flashes, fans and applause.”20

Around the same time, Abu Musab al-Suri started to reposition himself as a potential alternative to al-Qa`ida.21 He wanted to lead the “Ansar Battalion”—the jihadist contingent fighting with the Taliban north of Kabul, and he wanted recognition as the leader of new jihadist arrivals from the Levant. Neither was acceptable to al-Qa`ida, but Abu Musab al-Suri had strong ties to certain elements in the Taliban. So the threat was not easily dismissed.

The case of one Syrian jihadist volunteer exemplified the growing rivalry between Abu Musab al-Suri and al-Qa`ida. Basim Umar al-Suri was raised in Latakia by an Alawite family, but became a salafi in high school. Inspired by radio broadcasts from jihadis in northern Lebanon, the 23-year-old Syrian left for Afghanistan in early 1999.e In Kabul, he moved into an al-Qa`ida guesthouse while attending classes at the al-Faruq training camp.f The young Syrian took the kunya “Marwan Hadid,” presumably to honor a man of the same name who led a militant Muslim Brotherhood uprising against Hafez al-Assad 25 years earlier.

Abu Musab al-Suri had fought with the real Hadid, but the young Syrian testified he had never heard of the jihadist theorist until he stumbled on some of Abu Musab al-Suri’s writings at al-Qa`ida’s guesthouse in Kabul. He eventually met the elder jihadi during a training session at al-Faruq, which focused on military training and supported numerous Arab jihadis, not just those in al-Qa`ida. “Abu Mus`ab-al-Suri, who was in charge of organizing the security at the camp, was sitting next to me,” explained Hadid.

And then Abu Musab al-Suri seems to have tried to recruit the young Syrian for a more specialized camp. “I asked him about urban fighting and explosive making,” Hadid went on, “and he informed me that his camp focuses on urban fighting. He informed me that some people believe that he is a Takfiri, however, he is not like that but he is somewhat extremist and does not respect the scholars.”22

Al-Qa`ida’s leaders thought Abu Musab al-Suri was poaching recruits. Years later, al-`Adl’s father-in-law, the legendary jihadist journalist Mustafa Hamid (better known as Abu Walid al-Masri) would recall that:

“Abu Musab al-Suri and al-Qaeda were … in heavy competition. Abu Musab was trying to recruit people to his brigade on the Kabul front, which al-Qaeda did not like. To reduce his influence al-Qaeda put up flyers for its brigade in all of its guesthouses, and also banned Abu Musab al-Suri from entering them. Abu Musab had earlier gone into al-Qaeda’s guesthouses and recruited some youth who were working on its front under Abdul Hadi al-Iraq. Abu Musab al-Suri convinced them to join him instead. This made al-Qaeda crazy.”23

Indeed, Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi was irate at the apparent effort to recruit under his nose, and he pushed his chain of command to respond. Abu Hafs al-Masri, al-Qa`ida’s military commander, managed al-Qa`ida’s relationship with Abu Musab al-Suri and aimed first to deescalate the situation in Kabul. A public confrontation might compel direct Taliban intervention, which was dangerous because Abu Musab al-Suri had strong relations with some Taliban factions. So, Abu Hafs al-Masri first ordered Abd al-Hadi to “take things in stride, do not get too upset,” and instructed him to “completely avoid [Abu Musab al-Suri].” Worried that Abd al-Hadi might attempt to debate the intellectual Syrian, Abu Hafs al-Masri ordered him to “avoid back and forth dialogue.”24

Behind the scenes, however, Abu Hafs al-Masri was actively working to undermine Abu Musab al-Suri with the Syrian’s most trusted ally: Abu Khaled al-Suri. In the months prior to March 1999, Abu Khaled asked al-Qa`ida for help leaving Afghanistan so that he could tend to his wife, who had grown sick. “We helped him,” Abu Hafs al-Masri explained to Abd al-Hadi in March 1999, and “as far as I know brother Abu-Khalid (sic) has abandoned [Abu Musab al-Suri].”25 It was a startling statement: the two Syrians had been brothers-in-arms for 25 years.

Abu Musab al-Suri did not want a direct confrontation with al-Qa`ida either, but he deemed himself a peer of bin Ladin’s and demanded a meeting with al-Qa`ida’s emir directly to smooth things over. Abu Hafs al-Masri took the meeting instead—and reported hopefully to Abd al-Hadi afterward that “the brother requests coordination and cooperation, what is important is that he is in agreement with us.”26

Abu Hafs al-Masri probably overestimated both Abu Musab al-Suri’s alignment with al-Qa`ida and his own success undermining Abu Khaled’s allegiance to Abu Musab al-Suri. In July 1999, the two Syrians co-signed a letter to bin Ladin urging him to respect Mullah Omar’s leadership in Afghanistan.27 Instead of routing the note through Abu Hafs al-Masri and the al-Qa`ida chain of command, however, they sent it via Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was not yet a member of al-Qa`ida. Was this the moment, six months before al-Zarqawi arrived in Afghanistan, when al-Zawahiri supplanted Abu Hafs al-Masri as bin Ladin’s chief advisor toward other jihadis? The answer remains unclear.

Regardless, al-Qa`ida’s support for Abu Khaled did pay off eventually. Fifteen years later, when Abu Hafs al-Masri was long dead and al-Zawahiri had both joined al-Qa`ida and become its emir, he named Abu Khaled his personal representative in the Syrian civil war.28

The appeal to Abu Khaled was not al-Qa`ida’s only effort to undermine Abu Musab al-Suri, who was a powerful persona but did not command a strong organization of his own. Al-`Adl wanted to make sure things stayed that way—and that is where Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the young jihadi from Jordan, came in.

Al-Qa`ida had never been particularly successful recruiting in the Levant, which created a potential opening for a Syrian like Abu Musab al-Suri. In late 1999 and early 2000, just as al-Zarqawi arrived in Kandahar, there was an influx of Levantine fighters to Afghanistan. Bassam al-Kanj, an old acquaintance of al-Zarqawi’s, had led a short-lived uprising in Syrian-occupied Lebanon. The movement was quickly crushed and many young Syrian and Lebanese fighters fled to Afghanistan.

Per his history, al-`Adl thought a productive relationship with al-Zarqawi would allow al-Qa`ida to strengthen the jihadist networks in the Levant. But if that was the only goal, Abu Musab al-Suri would have been the most natural and experienced ally. According to Mustafa Hamid, however, al-`Adl was “very much against Abu Mus’ab al-Suri.”29 Al-Zarqawi’s arrival offered al-`Adl a mechanism for empowering the Levantine jihadist diaspora while simultaneously sidelining Abu Musab al-Suri. The Levantine jihadis might not join al-Qa`ida when they joined al-Zarqawi, but at least they would not join Abu Musab al-Suri.

As Hamid put it, Abu Musab al-Suri had effectively challenged al-Qa`ida, saying, “You are not alone in Afghanistan, you are not the only option here. I am here.” In return, Hamid explained, al-Qa`ida, “went to [the Levant] with Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, and said to Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, ‘We are here [with a Levantine support base in Afghanistan], it is not only you.’”30

This explanation helps explain why al-Qa`ida would agree to sponsor al-Zarqawi so extensively without requiring that he swear allegiance. It suggests that an otherwise lopsided agreement with al-Zarqawi actually met al-Qa`ida’s proximate political needs. The primary sources from inside al-Qa`ida at the time do not explicitly confirm this rationale, but they emphasize the depth of the conflict between al-Qa`ida and Abu Musab al-Suri that lends it significant credibility.

Regardless, al-Qa`ida’s victory was limited. Al-Zarqawi remained his own man. Al-`Adl implied that al-Qa`ida had leverage over al-Zarqawi because it intervened with the Taliban to ensure al-Zarqawi would not “face obstacles.” But al-Zarqawi was independently named as one of six Arab interlocutors to the Taliban’s “Arab Liaison Committee” (Abd al-Hadi and Abu Musab al-Suri were as well), which indicates he was not bound to work through al-Qa`ida.31 Al-Qa`ida might have helped set al-Zarqawi up, but he established his own political network in Afghanistan.

But even al-Zarqawi’s radicalism and independent streak held a silver lining for al-Qa`ida. The young Jordanian would not swear allegiance to bin Ladin, but he also would not align with Abu Musab al-Suri. At the time, that was good enough.

Eventually, however, al-Qa`ida was forced to confront the demon it helped create in Afghanistan.

The Legacy of an Ill-Fated Alliance
The dispute between al-`Adl and bin Ladin over al-Qa`ida’s initial engagement with al-Zarqawi—and the full history of that engagement—suggests several lessons. First, al-`Adl’s history and bin Ladin’s critique of it are both self-serving. Writing in 2004 or 2005, al-`Adl emphasized his own diplomatic skills; writing in 2010, bin Ladin downplayed reports of conflict with al-Zarqawi after the Jordanian had emerged as a legendary figure in his own right.

Taliban “Arab Liaison Committee” release designating Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, and Abu Musab al-Suri interlocutors between Arab fighters and the Taliban

Second, the Islamic State has often benefited from alliances with militants—or states—that calculated a temporary alliance with the group or its predecessors would be useful against some more proximate threat. Neither al-`Adl nor bin Ladin mentioned the conflict with Abu Musab al-Suri or al-Qa`ida’s more general counterintelligence worries in the late 1990s. Jihadis are generally loath to air dirty laundry. But jihadist dirty laundry has been fundamental to the Islamic State’s development. At its core, the Zarqawiist movement that became the Islamic State is a populist rebellion against what it considers the false promises and unfulfilled commitments of more compromising jihadist movements and more compromised jihadist leaders. At the same time, it has benefitted over the years from intra-jihadist competition in which one side or the other has endeavored to instrumentalize the Zarqawiists’ radicalism. Exhibit A is al-Qa`ida’s original engagement with al-Zarqawi.

Third, ideological and strategic agreement is insufficient to understand jihadist political alignments. Abu Musab al-Suri and bin Ladin had different ideas about provoking the United States and how jihadis should organize, but they had far more in common with each other ideologically than either did with al-Zarqawi. Al-Zarqawi considered both ideologically lax and embraced jihadist preachers the Taliban evicted from other training camps.32 Abu Musab al-Suri and bin Ladin competed for influence with the Taliban; al-Zarqawi opposed Arabs fighting directly with the rulers of Afghanistan.33  The politics of this jihadist triangle cannot be understood solely as a function of ideology, strategy, or nationality. Both Abu Musab al-Suri and al-`Adl opposed the 9/11 attack,34 for example, but one was in al-Qa`ida and the other was not. Despite agreement on the most important strategic question facing jihadis in Afghanistan, they were not allies. It illustrates that even among jihadis, personality—and personal ambition—matters.

Fourth, ideological extremism does not preclude compromise. Despite al-Zarqawi’s opposition to Arabs fighting with the Taliban, he accepted a relationship with al-Qa`ida (albeit on favorable terms) and was officially appointed to the Taliban’s Arab Liaison Committee even as he supported ideologues the Taliban disavowed. Al-Zarqawi’s extremism has since been institutionalized in the Islamic State, but that institution is also capable of pragmatism when necessary. For Zarqawiists, necessity is the mother of ideological compromise; likewise, ideological extremism is a justification to stab one-time allies in the back.

Fifth, the pre-9/11 jihadist political arrangements were not permanent. Al-Zarqawi eventually swore allegiance to bin Ladin in 2004 but continued to define his own strategic path, much to the frustration of his would-be superiors in al-Qa`ida.35 Meanwhile, the rivalry between Abu Musab al-Suri and al-Qa`ida softened. After the Taliban were overthrown, jihadist rivals rallied together and al-Qa`ida even embraced elements of Abu Musab al-Suri’s vision for a decentralized jihadist movement. In 2002, al-`Adl directed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad to “leave the managerial matters to brother Abu-Mus’ab” so that they could be further transferred to the al-Qa`ida cadre in Iran. If that “Abu Mus’ab” was Abu Musab al-Suri (and it seems likely), then the rapprochement appears to have been extensive.36 In 2005, Abu Musab al-Suri and Abu Khaled were arrested in Pakistan and eventually transferred to Syrian custody.37 According to one account, the Syrian regime agreed to release one of the men in 2011 and Abu Musab al-Suri insisted it be Abu Khaled. If Abu Hafs al-Masri was correct that Abu Khaled “abandoned” his old friend in 1999, such magnanimity is awfully ironic.38

Abu Khaled and most likely al-Zarqawi had been part of al-Qa`ida’s strategy to undermine Abu Musab al-Suri in 1999, but there was no love lost between their movements. In 2013 al-Zawahiri named Abu Khaled his representative in Syria, charged with mediating a dispute between the Zarqawiists in the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and al-Qa`ida-affiliated fighters in Jabhat al-Nusrah. A year later, ISIL assassinated him.

Sixth, al-`Adl is not superman. In 2015, al-`Adl was reportedly released from confinement in Iran, raising questions about whether he could reconcile al-Zarqawi’s descendants in the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida, just as he had between bin Ladin and al-Zarqawi.39 But that original agreement, and the accommodation it represented between distinct ideological positions, is best understood as the product of a particular strategic moment. Al-`Adl is unlikely to recreate that magic.

Of course, al-`Adl is a talented, dangerous man. He is old-guard al-Qa`ida, and in 2004, he conceptualized a startlingly prescient—if not determinative—master plan, which called for the reestablishment of the caliphate in Syria between 2013 and 2016.40 g

Indeed, al-`Adl’s most important credential for today’s strategic environment is not that he is a statesman, which is what he emphasized in his history of al-Qa`ida’s original engagement with al-Zarqawi. Rather, it is that al-`Adl understands how to fight dirty against other jihadis, which is what a fuller account of those events highlights. That is important for thinking about al-`Adl’s potential contemporary influence. If he is again driving al-Qa`ida strategy, he is battling an enemy in the Islamic State far more powerful than Abu Musab al-Suri ever was—and one that he empowered, for reasons more Machiavellian than he acknowledged, long ago.

Brian Fishman is a fellow at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point and formerly its director of research. He is the author of The Master Plan: ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the Jihadi Strategy for Final Victory (Yale University Press, 2016), from which this article was adapted. Follow @brianfishman. For access to the unique sources cited in this article, visit www.isismasterplan.com/sentinel-article.

Substantive Notes
[a] Husayn showed pages of the original letter to two journalists in the wake of publishing al-`Adl’s letter. Yassin Musharbash, “The Future of Terrorism: What al-Qaida Really Wants,” Der Spiegel, August 12, 2005; Urs Gehriger, “Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi: From Green Man to Guru,” Die Weltwoche, October 6, 2005. In 2015, the author found the first page of al-`Adl’s letter in a jihadist archive and confirmed its authenticity with Husayn. It matches a document released with Gehriger’s story in 2005 but no longer available with the story online. However, the document originally released with Gehriger’s story is available via archive.org’s Way Back Machine and is likely the source of the document found by the author in the jihadist archive.

[b] Husayn’s book was serialized in Al-Quds Al-Arabi in 2005. For a translation of this series of articles including al-`Adl’s account of his interactions with al-Zarqawi, see http://atc2005.blogspot.com/2006/06/al-zarqawi-second-generation-of-al.html.

[c] The documents obtained by the author and cited here for the first time were mostly declassified within the past two years as a result of court proceedings, and will be marked ‘NEW’ in the notes. They are available at www.isismasterplan.com/sentinel-article.

[d] That dynamic was first hinted at in a 2006 article by Mary Ann Weaver. See Mary Ann Weaver, “The Short Violent Life of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi,” Atlantic, July/August 2006.

[e] It is possible these broadcasts were made by Bassam al-Kanj, an acquaintance of al-Zarqawi from his first trip to Afghanistan in 1989. NEW. Harmony Document AFGP-2002-800078-001-0071-AFGP-2002-800078-001-0079, “Testimony of Marwan Hadid (Basim Umar al-Sury),” undated.

[f] One of his roomates at the guesthouse was named “Abu Zubaydah,” who was described as a Saudi. This is potentially the Abu Zubaydah currently imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay that has been central to U.S. debates around the use of torture.

[g] Al-`Adl’s seven-stage master plan served as a strategic vision for the al-Qa`ida organization just as it incorporated al-Zarqawi’s organization in Iraq as a formal affiliate. The plan was not followed exactly, but it correctly foresaw numerous developments, including al-Qa`ida in Iraq’s networks outside Iraq, the time and place of the caliphate being re-declared, and that the British would reject integration into a more cohesive Europe. Despite this accuracy, the master plan failed to account for the power, destructiveness, and exclusivity of Zarqawiism, particularly as represented in the Islamic State. As such, its prediction of a jihadist “final victory” by 2020 will not come to pass.

[1] “Letter to Shaykh Mahmud,” Bin Laden’s Bookshelf-Director of National Intelligence, September 2, 2010. 

[2] See, for example, Saif al-`Adl “A Jihadist Biography of Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi.”

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Merger Agreement Between Qaidat Ansar Allah and al-Jihad Group,” June 7, 2001.

[5] Peter Bergen, “Post-Osama, Now What?” New York Magazine, August 27, 2011.

[6] “Statement of Sulayman Abu Ghaith,” Federal Bureau of Investigation, March 6, 2013. See http://kronosadvisory.com/Kronos_US_v_Sulaiman_Abu_Ghayth_Statement.1.pdf

[7] “Mullah Jihadwal Martyr Biography,” Taliban Sources Project. This document was archived by Anand Gopal, Felix Kuehn, and Alex Stricht van Linschoten as part of the Taliban Sources Project. Gopal was kind enough to provide a translation of this document to the author.

[8] Abu Zubaydah Diary Notebook 6, November 3, 2001.

[9] Ibid.; Abu Jihad Khalil al-Hakaymah, “Journeys of a Jihadi,” Promise Keepers Website. This website is now defunct, but the author archived it in full circa 2006.

[10] NEW. Harmony Document AFGP-2002-800078-001-0124—AFGP-2002-800078-001-0137, “Letter to Hatim,” undated-1; NEW. Harmony Document AFGP-2002-800078-001-0319, “Testimony of ‘Abd-al-Rahim ‘Abd-al-Razzaq al-Janku,” undated-1; NEW. Harmony Document AFGP-2002-800078-001-0335—AFGP-2002-800078-0345, “Testimony of ‘Abd-al-Rahim ‘Abd-al-Razzaq al-Janku,” undated-2.

[11] NEW. Harmony Document AFGP-2002-800078-001-0124—AFGP-2002-800078-001-0137.

[12] NEW. Harmony Document AFGP-2002-003629-0002—AFGP-2002-003629-0001, “Memo from Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi (al-Ansari) to Saif al-`Adl,” November 8, 1998; Jane Mayer “The Manipulator,” New Yorker, June 7, 2004.

[13] Ibid.

[14] NEW. Harmony Document AFGP-2002-003644-0003—AFGP-2002-003644-0004, “Memo from Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi (al-Ansari) to Saif al-`Adl,” November 17, 1998.

[15] NEW. Harmony Document AFGP-2002-800078-001-0124—AFGP-2002-800078-001-0137.

[16] NEW. Harmony Document AFGP-2002-800078-001-0319.

[17] For retraction, see NEW. Harmony Document AFGP-2002-800078-001-0017.

[18] Brynjar Lia, Architect of Global Jihad (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[19] Peter Bergen, The Osama bin Laden I Know (New York: Free Press, 2006) pp. 185-186.

[20] See Peter Bergen, Holy War Inc.: Inside the Secret World of al-Qaeda (New York: Free Press, 2002), p.5; Alan Cullison, “Inside al-Qaeda’s Hard Drive,” Atlantic, September 2004; and Lia, pp. 32, 123, 165-170.

[21] Mustafa Hamid and Leah Farrall, The Arabs at War in Afghanistan (London: Hurst Publishers, 2015), p. 274.

[22] NEW. Harmony Document AFGP-2002-800078-001-0499—AFGP-2002-800078-001-0503, “Testimony of Marwan Hadid (Basim Umar al-Sury),” September 19, 1999.

[23] Hamid and Farrall, p. 274.

[24] NEW. Harmony Document AFGP-2002-000006-0003, “Ahmed Abd ‘al-‘Aziz (Abu Hafs al-Masri) Letter to Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi,” March 24-25, 1999.

[25] Ibid.

[26] NEW. Harmony Document AFGP-2002-000006, “Ahmed Abd ‘al-‘Aziz (Abu Hafs al-Masri) letter to Abd al-Hadi al-Iraq,” April 12-13, 1999.

[27] Abu Mosab al-Suri and Abu Khalid al-Suri Letter to Usama bin Ladin via Ayman al-Zawahiri, July 19, 1999, excerpted in Cullison.

[28] Ayman al-Zawahiri, “Letter to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Husayni and Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani,” Al-Fajr Media Center, May 23, 2013.

[29] Hamid and Farrall, p. 257.

[30] Hamid and Farrall, p. 258.

[31] Harmony Document AFGP-2002-0001000-0003, “Arab Liaison Committee of the Islamic Emirate.”

[32] Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, “Clarification on the Issues Raised by Sheikh al-Maqdisi in the Interview with Al Jazeera,” Jihadist websites, July 12, 2005.

[33] Weaver.

[34] See Paul Cruickshank and Mohanad Hage Ali, “Abu Musab Al Suri: Architect of the New Al Qaeda,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 30:1 (2007): pp. 1-14; “‘Abd al-Halim (Sayf) Adl Letter to Mukhtar (Khalid Sheikh Muhammad),” June 13, 2002, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.

[35] “Al-Zarqawi Bay’ah to Usama bin Ladin,” October 17, 2004, reprinted in Mu’askar al-Battar Issue 21, December 2004. Available in “Zarqawi’s Pledge of Allegiance to al-Qaeda: from Mu’asker al-Battar, Issue 21,” Jamestown Terrorism Monitor (2:24).

[36] ‘Abd al-Halim (Sayf) Adl Letter to Mukhtar (Khalid Sheikh Muhammad), June 13, 2002.

[37] Aron Lund, “Who and What was Abu Khalid al-Suri Part One,” Carnegie Middle East Center, February 24, 2014.

[38] Charles Lister, The Syrian Jihad: al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency (London: C. Hurst and Co., 2015), pp. 108-109.

[39] Rukmini Callimachi and Eric Schmitt, “Iran Released Top Members of al-Qaeda in a Trade,” New York Times, September 17, 2015.

[40] Brian Fishman, The Master Plan: ISIS, al-Qaeda and the Jihadi Strategy for Final Victory (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016 forthcoming).

Stay Informed

Sign up to receive updates from CTC.

Sign up