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The new face of al Qaeda in Iraq

Screen grab of video posted on YouTube

Seven years after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former al Qaeda leader in Iraq, died in a US air strike, a new face has risen to the fore of the terrorist organisation – that of 27-year-old Iraqi Shaker Wahiyib al-Fahdawi (pictured).

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Infamous for his cruelty and targeted attacks on Shiites, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi served as the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq until he was killed in a US air strike in 2006. Now, seven years after his death, terror in the country has a new face, that of 27-year-old Iraqi Shaker Wahiyib al-Fahdawi.

Fahdawi rose to notoriety after a video emerged earlier this week depicting the July 2 execution of three Syrian truck drivers on a highway in western Iraq. In the footage, which was first posted on YouTube on August 25, Fahdawi is seen with his face unmasked as he interrogates the three men about their religious background. Once the drivers are identified as Alawites – a mystical branch of Shiite Islam – they are then made to kneel down and are shot at close range.

Throughout the video, the militants appeared to show no regard for the possibility of security forces chancing upon them, despite the fact that the execution took place in broad daylight, on a major highway. Most striking of all, however, was Fahdawi’s uncovered face, which was in stark contrast with that of his accomplices, who carefully masked their own.

"He is the only one who kills without covering his face, and is working on declaring an Islamic state," said Colonel Yassin Dwaij, head of western Iraq’s Anbar province police intelligence. "He is dangerous and cunning", Dwij added.

A new generation of extremism

The video, however, is far from Fahdawi’s first foray into the world of extremism. He was previously detained by US security forces at southern Iraq’s Camp Bucca, before being sentenced to death and imprisoned in Salaheddin province in the north.

After escaping from jail last year, Fahdawi went on the run. But in recent months he has attracted increasing public attention. In March, Fahdawi appeared in online videos reading a poem at a demonstration in Fallujah, after anti-government protests first erupted in his native Anbar province three months earlier.

Authorities have since pinned the blame on him for a myriad of terror-related offences, with security officials in Anbar province placing a $50,000 bounty on his head. Little progress in bringing him to justice appears to have been made.

Just two months after footage emerged of him at the protest in Fallujah, Fahdawi was accused of leading militants in kidnapping 16 policemen along the Iraq-Jordan highway in Anbar province, leaving 12 of them dead and four wounded.

Now, with the video of the truck driver killings, Fahdawi has become arguably one of the most visible faces of al Qaeda in Iraq since Zarqawi.

"The terrorist who killed the truck drivers ... is one of the most dangerous al Qaeda figures today," said an army major general, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"He forms part of the new generation, representing some of al Qaeda's former figures like Zarqawi, but even more extremist."

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

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