On the Zarqawi/Anbari Issue: Source Criticism and Subtext in the Analysis of Jihadism

In November, the analyst Hassan Hassan published a provocative piece at The Atlantic. He argued that an Iraqi figure, Abu Ali al-Anbari (1959-2016), was crucial in shaping the ideological trajectory of the Islamic State and its antecedents – and that al-Anbari was more important to that process than even the much more infamous Palestinian-Jordanian jihadist Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi (1966-2006).

Several analysts responded – Cole Bunzel, Sam Heller, and Aymenn al-Tamimi – with convincing rebuttals. In different ways, these analysts suggest that Hassan’s main primary source (a recently published biography of al-Anbari by al-Anbari’s own son, translated at the link to al-Tamimi’s site above) does not support Hassan’s argument. Bunzel goes on to say that when one considers a wider array of major Islamic State voices, it becomes clear that the movement itself considers al-Zarqawi the central figure in terms of its own early history.

Al-Tamimi also alludes to one issue lurking in the background here, namely whether or not Saddam Hussein’s “Faith Campaign” played a role in the genesis of the Islamic State:

The biography also provides an important corrective to the narrative that the Faith Campaign of Ba’athist Iraq in the 1990s was responsible for the religious trends that gave rise to the Islamic State. In the case of the latter sort of assertions, a certain climate-change denying fraud has an ideological agenda to downplay the role the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq had in galvanizing jihadism, both within Iraq and on a wider scale.

Returning to the debate between Hassan and these other analysts, I am not qualified to address the ins and outs of the Anbari/Zarqawi controversy. But I do want to highlight a methodological issue here, one that has to do with sources and source criticism.

The currency of what I call “terrorology” is jihadist primary sources (leaked documents, propaganda videos and statements, eulogies, memoirs, etc.); in fact, I think that a certain kind of approach to such sources is constitutive of terrorology itself. Terrorology imbues jihadist primary sources with an aura of mystery and power, so that the terrorologist can position himself (it is nearly always him) as your guide to these documents and the world they allegedly reveal. Terrorologists seize on new sources, or newly discovered sources, as keys to explaining and re-explaining groups and events. Journalistic and even academic outlets are often only too happy to go along with sensationalized narratives centered on individual source documents. All of this emphasis on jihadist documents, meanwhile, often implicitly de-prioritizes other sources: what ordinary people say, what journalists say, what the counter-sources say, etc. When you look at the amazing work done by someone like Mara Revkin, who combines diverse sources including but not limited to jihadist documents, it becomes clear how flat and problematic terrorology really is.

Terrorology further relies, I would argue, on avoiding any serious source criticism. Here I am not talking about questioning the authenticity of sources (I think nearly all of these primary sources are genuine, in that they were written by who they say they were written by). Rather, I am talking about posing some of the following basic questions about jihadist documents, questions that historians tend to pose about any documents they work with:

  • How does the author’s positionally affect the writing?
  • What are the author’s interests and biases?
  • Does the author ever lie, or have reason to lie?
  • On what issues does the author exaggerate?
  • On what issues is the author strategically silent? Does the author avoid any obvious questions, or fail to give convincing answers to questions that are posed?
  • If one compares source A to other sources, are there irresolvable contradictions? If so, what is one’s method for making sense of the resulting picture?
  • Is there any plagiarism?

Here it is worth recalling that the main source for Hassan’s article is a biography of al-Anbari written by al-Anbari’s own son. The potential for bias, exaggeration, strategic silence, and contradiction should be immediately obvious. But Hassan does not acknowledge this. Instead, a kind of breathless tone takes over:

A month ago, I obtained a 93-page document that chronicles Anbari’s life, as well as the extremist landscape around him in 1990s Iraq. Anbari’s son, Abdullah, wrote the biography for the internal use of the Islamic State, which published parts of it in its weekly Arabic magazine, Al-Naba, in 2016, shortly after Anbari’s killing. Dissidents within ISIS recently spread the full document on social media, which is how I came across it. Abdullah has stated that the biography was based on 16 years of working closely with his father, a diary that Anbari kept, and firsthand accounts of Anbari from fellow ISIS members.

This source is supposed to be a secret, internal document for ISIS, which adds to the sensationalist tone of the Atlantic piece. But there is not necessarily a correlation between how restricted a source’s intended audience is and how important it is.

It is true that Hassan triangulates between the biography and other sources – but somehow it is always the biography that proves more reliable, more accurate, in Hassan’s telling. There is a fetishization of the source, an assumption that the source should get the last word.

When we turn to Bunzel’s rebuttal, we see what happens when an analyst turns even a slightly more critical lens on this source, the biography of al-Anbari. Here is Bunzel:

This biography is an important source for the history of the Islamic State, and Hassan is right to draw our attention to it. It details the hugely important role played by Anbari as a jihadi actor since the early 2000s, and particularly following his release from prison in 2012 when he became one of the Islamic State’s senior leaders. Yet the document says little about Zarqawi, and nothing about Anbari’s influence on him.

In February 2004, when Zarqawi wrote his famous missive to Osama bin Laden outlining a strategy for attacking the Shi‘a in Iraq, it would appear from the document that he had met Anbari once, in Baghdad in 2002. Hassan writes that Zarqawi’s “idea for targeting the Shiites probably came from native Iraqis like Anbari,” which could be true. But the biography does not tell us this; nor does it suggest that one of these Iraqis was “possibly even Anbari himself.” It does not impute ideological influence to Anbari over Zarqawi at all.

Bunzel, in other words, rebuts Hassan’s arguments simply by pointing out that we should not project speculative meanings onto a primary source. One can imagine an even deeper reading of the source that would approach the narrator, al-Anbari’s son, not as a mere vehicle for information but as an actor with political interests that shape his narrative.

Here I would note, then, that even the type of rebuttals provided by Bunzel and al-Tamimi do not go far enough – they still tend to convey the idea that the jihadist sources should get the final word, and that the main question is what the sources say and how we should understand the combined import of the sources. The rebuttals still attach an aura of power and mystery to the jihadist sources. Al-Tamimi, for example, refers to the biography telling us about “the real Anbari” and notes a few grammatical mistakes, but mostly – again, eschewing anything like source criticism – seems disappointed that the biography does not have more details. Absent is any sense that these sources could be problematic, flawed, etc.

I would like to see an approach that cuts these sources down to size. I have tried to do some of this in my own work – pointing out, for example, where I think Muhammad Yusuf plagiarized from Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, and trying to think through authors’ unstated motivations when I analyze their texts. Or to take another example, in some work in progress I argue that Ayman al-Zawihiri’s much-vaunted “General Guidelines for Jihadist Action” was more a reflection of choices al-Qaida and its affiliates had already made, rather than a pathbreaking guide to a new strategy.

The inflation of jihadist written/visual/audio sources, I think, is intimately linked with the inflation and distortion of the groups themselves – rather than seeing these groups as being made up of human beings shaped by complex circumstances, the terrorologists tell us that we need to follow obscure and highly ideological “treasure maps” to arrive at the true, inner understanding of jihadism and the ten-foot-tall warrior-masterminds who direct it.

I can understand the excitement generated by something like the al-Anbari biography. But in a deeper sense, it’s sad and disturbing that with the sixteenth anniversary of the Iraq War on the way, and with millions of testimonies and documents out there from millions of Iraqis, anyone could present a single biography as the key to understanding the Islamic State.