Al-Qaida in Iraq said in a Web statement posted Monday that a militant named Abu Hamza al-Muhajer was the group’s new leader.
Al-Muhajer succeeds Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed Wednesday by a U.S. airstrike on his hideout northeast of Baghdad, Iraq.
Senior U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials told NBC News that they are uncertain whether al-Mujahir, named as successor to al-Zarqawi by al-Qaida in Iraq, is a new player or just a new name for the man the U.S. thought would replace the terrorist chief, Abu Ayub al Masri.
Initially, the officials told NBC, the name al-Mujahir did not ring any bells in their organizations and suggested it could be a previously unknown nom de guerre for a previously known member of al-Qaida or someone who has risen rapidly in the organization in recent weeks, as a result of the coalition's success in taking down higher-ranking members.
Al-Muhajer — a pseudonym, as most militants are known by — is Arabic for “immigrant,” which suggested he was not Iraqi.
Experience and knowledge
Al-Muhajer is a common alias among Islamic militants, referring to the “muhajireen,” Islam’s early converts who fled persecution by idol worshippers in Mecca to join the Prophet Muhammad in Medina. Mecca and Medina are Islam’s holiest cities in western Saudi Arabia.
“Al-Qaida in Iraq’s council has agreed on Sheik Abu Hamza al-Muhajer to be the successor for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in the leadership of the organization,” said a statement signed by the group on an Islamic militant Web forum where it often posts messages.
It 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.
Evan Kohlmann, a New York-based terror consultant and founder of globalterroralert.com, said there were “a number of Abu Hamzas” in al-Qaida in Iraq, but he had never heard of this one.
“This individual has never before been featured in any piece of al-Qaida propaganda, be it video, audio or text communique,” he told The Associated Press. “To my knowledge, he has never been cited publicly by the U.S. military or the Multinational Forces in Iraq as a major figure in al-Zarqawi’s network.”
Militants usually adopt a nom de guerre made up of a nickname called a “kunya” in Arabic — “Abu,” meaning “father of,” plus a name that could be the real name of his child.
The second name usually is an adjective denoting their nationality.
Al-Zarqawi, for example, was born Ahmad Fadhil Nazzal al-Khalayleh, but took his pseudonym from Zarqa, his hometown in Jordan. He had a child named Musab, so took the kunya of “Abu Musab.”
Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert at Singapore’s Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, said the choice of a non-Iraqi successor means al-Qaida in Iraq is “likely to continue the foreign operations.”
Al-Zarqawi had sought to expand his campaign beyond Iraq’s borders, most notably masterminding a November triple suicide bombing against hotels in Amman, Jordan, that killed 60 people. He had urged Sunnis across the Arab world to stand up against Shiites, whom he branded “enemies of Islam.”
Gunaratna said the speed with which al-Qaida in Iraq named a new leader showed the group was not in disarray.
Last week, the U.S. military put forward another name as al-Zarqawi’s potential successor. Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Baghdad, identified the “most logical” successor as “Abu al-Masri.”
Caldwell could have been referring to Abu Ayyub al-Masri, who was identified in a February 2005 announcement by U.S. Central Command as a close associate of al-Zarqawi. Central Command put a $50,000 reward on al-Masri’s head.
Caldwell said al-Masri was believed to have come to Iraq in 2002 after training in Afghanistan. His mission, Caldwell said, was to create an al-Qaida cell in Baghdad.
Al-Masri was believed to be an expert at constructing roadside bombs, the leading cause of U.S. military casualties in Iraq.