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Zarqawi: Why ISIS Targeted the Shia

In 2003, with war waging in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda prepared to mount a resistance against the expected invasion of Iraq. The resistance organised itself around the former street thug and sadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Semi-literate and semi-religious, he was in direct contradiction to the devout and highly educated leaders of Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and Ayman al-Zawahiri. However, Osama bin Laden was being systematically hunted and needed a proxy to fight in Iraq.

The region now known as Iraq has seen sectarian strife since the seventh century, instigated by the conflict surrounding the prophet’s successor. These fault lines run deep, and the arbitrary borders created by the British saw a state whereby a numerically superior Shia population coalesced with a significant minority of Sunni. By 1979, Saddam Hussein had taken control of the Ba’ath party and the Sunni minority presided over the majority Shia populace. It was clear then when the United States spoke of imposing democracy at the close of the invasion who would lose out on their positions of privilege.

Whilst this may have provided the incubatory context for sectarian strife in Iraq, strategic directives from Al Qaeda leadership advised strongly against targeting Shia Muslims. Osama bin Laden had wilfully collaborated with the Shia since the 1990s with The Washington Institute reporting that this cooperation extended to such lengths to include, “The two groups have overlapping contacts in South America, Africa, and the Middle East, and have cooperated in fundraising and training. Iran has provided financial support to al-Qaeda operatives; facilitated the travel of several of the September 11 hijackers; provided safe haven to al-Qaeda operatives, including bin Laden’s son Saad; and may have assisted in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia.”

Ayman al-Zawahiri corroborated the central leadership’s stance and upon succeeding bin Laden as head of Al Qaeda, issued a document on jihadist principles in September 2013 stating “Avoid fighting the deviant sects such as Rawafidh (Shia), Ismailis, Qadianis, and deviant Sufis…Our basic confrontation is with the enemies of Islam and those who hold animosity towards Islam.”

Zarqawi’s personal prejudices were such that they verged on the genocidal, declaring in 2005 “The al-Qaeda Organisation in the Land of Two Rivers (Iraq) is declaring all-out war on the Rafidha (a pejorative term for Shia), wherever they are in Iraq.” He also viewed the central leadership’s tolerance of Shia Muslims as grounds for total secession of his group from the central leadership, writing to them in 2004 that “we will be your readied soldiers,” but this is inferred under the condition that “This is our vision, and we have explained it…If you agree with us on it,” with regards to Zarqawi’s dehumanised view of the Shia “is for us to strike the Shi’a with blow after blow.”

Zarqawi’s temperament and personal prejudices seeped into his running of Al Qaeda in Iraq. His campaign of indiscriminate horror aimed at Shia Muslims culminated in the bombing of one of the holiest and revered sites for Shi’ites, the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra. The connection between Zarqawi and what would become ISIS is important, as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and ISIS’ treatment of the Shia, as well as other groups, was an extension of Zarqawi’s blood-soaked legacy and divergence from Al Qaeda central’s leadership.