Joel Wing summarized the history of al-Qaeda’s branch in Iraq at his blog, Musings on Iraq, which synthesizes media reporting on important trends there. Among his several links was this one to a dated (2004) but interesting biographical sketch of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the first leader of the organization.
Wing’s whole post is good, but here was one key section:
Al Qaeda in Iraq was actually started by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as a rival to bin Laden’s organization. Zarqawi, real name Ahmad Fadhil Nazal al-Khalaylah, was a Jordanian Islamist who was exposed to radical jihadist ideas in a Palestinian refugee camp in his home country while he was growing up. In 1989 he left for Afghanistan to fight against the Soviets, and in 1991, he and fellow countryman Mohammad al-Maqdisi formed Bayat al-Imam to foment an Islamist revolution in Jordan. The two were arrested for their activities in 1994, and Zarqawi was eventually released as part of an amnesty program. He then traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan where he eventually met Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden offered assistance to Zarqawi to create his own terrorist camp in Afghanistan, but the two maintained different ideologies and separate organizations. Zarqawi’s was called Tawhid wal Jihad, Unity and Holy War. In Mid-2002 Zarqawi entered Iraq to set up terrorist cells to resist the impending American onslaught on Saddam Hussein. After the U.S. invasion, Zarqawi’s organization was responsible for some of the first and deadliest terrorist attacks in the country, which would led him to become the world’s most infamous terrorist at the time, eclipsing even bin Laden.
Bin Laden and his deputy Ayman Zawahiri had their own plans for Iraq. In November 2003, Al Qaeda and Taliban commanders met in Afghanistan to discuss the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Al Qaeda decided that they were going to shift their focus from the Afghan war to the one in Iraq, and cut military support and funding to the Taliban as a result. Bin Laden believed that Iraq was the new field to confront the Americans, and that it would also give them reprieve in Afghanistan to re-organize and re-build. As a result, Al Qaeda began diverting some of its fighters and operatives to Iraq to try to organize and make connections with insurgent groups already there.
The journey to unite bin Laden and Zarqawi proved to be a difficult one. The two had different ideas about strategy and tactics, and Zarqawi was intent upon making a name for himself, not some other group and leader. Zawahiri for example, believed that Al Qaeda could kick the United States out of Iraq by working with locals, and then establish a Caliphate there, which would become a center of Islamist radicalism throughout the region. Zarqawi on the other hand believed that best way to expel the Americans was to start a sectarian war, which would rally the country’s Sunnis to his group. The fighting would then spread throughout the rest of the Middle East leading to a regional jihad led by him. These differences would initially keep the two sides apart.
Eventually Zarqawi and Al Qaeda were able to work out an agreement, but it took time. In January 2004, the U.S. found a letter from Zarqawi to Al Qaeda asking for aid in his plans. They allegedly turned him down. (1) Finally, in October 2004, Zarqawi issued an internet statement pledging his allegiance to bin Laden. In December, Al Jazeera also aired a tape of bin Laden saying that Zarqawi was his deputy in Iraq. That was when Zarqawi renamed his group Al Qaeda in Iraq. By doing so, Zarqawi gained the name recognition that came with Al Qaeda, while opening up new sources of funding. Bin Laden in turn, got a foothold in Iraq. Despite these statements, the relationship between the two remained rocky.
By the end 2005, the differences between the two became public. In October 2005, the United States released a letter they had captured from Zawahiri to Zarqawi. It said that Al Qaeda in Iraq needed popular support, and Zarqawi’s tactics were costing them that. Specifically, Zawahiri reprimanded Zarqawi for attacking Shiites, carrying out beheadings, bombing mosques, and not consulting with Al Qaeda about his plans. Al Qaeda would also criticize him for attacking other militant groups that refused to follow his lead. Zarqawi was his own man, and never stopped with his policies. In fact, in 2006 he released his first public video that showed him out in the field with a machine gun, symbolically comparing himself to bin laden and Zarqawi, and saying that he was fighting while they were in hiding.