Friday, June 09, 2006

More on Zarqawi's Passing

The Death of Zarqawi: What Does it Mean?

By Steven Brooke

The death of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, al Qaeda’s leader in Iraq, raises a number of questions. The U.S. and Iraqi governments have been careful to downplay the importance of Zarqawi’s death to the overall effort in Iraq. Rightly so, they are wary of raising hopes by proclaiming yet another “turning point” in the direction of Iraq. Iraq will remain the central battlefield of jihad because it is so important to al Qaeda’s overall prestige. By accepting Zarqawi’s pledge of allegiance, Bin Laden tied himself to Iraq, and he will do anything he can to avoid a defeat there. And despite the short-term damage to the terror network, in the long term Zarqawi’s death may even prove to be a positive for al Qaeda.

Notwithstanding the probable flurry of violence that will occur as Zarqawi’s followers try to prove they remain a viable entity, an immediate effect of Zarqawi’s death will be to significantly weaken the logistical structure of al Qaeda in Iraq. Despite the escalation in violence, the U.S. military has been waging a very effective campaign over the last few months to disable the jihadist infrastructure in Iraq. Cells have been taken down all across Iraq, but most prominently in Western Iraq and around Baghdad. The growing successes against the jihadists have been coupled with a greater attempt to draw the secular- nationalists into the political process. The removal of Zarqawi will further increase the pressure on a battered jihadist infrastructure and possibly allow the much larger secular- nationalist side of the insurgency to become its leading face. Without having to constantly compete with the jihadists for support, the passage into politics for a portion of the insurgents could be eased. Almost simultaneous with the announcement of Zarqawi’s death, the appointment of a Sunni, Abdul Qadir Muhammed Jasim, to the powerful position of Defense Minister, offers another encouraging sign of national unity.

Most ominous in the long term, however, is the possibility that Zarqawi’s death may actually help al Qaeda. Zarqawi’s propensity for gore and mayhem, especially against Shiites, had slowly isolated him from even the most staunchly anti- American forces. In addition it caused conflicts within the wider salafi-jihadist community (see my essay on the theological disputes between Zarqawi and his former mentor, the Jordanian Abu Muhammed al Maqdisi) and even with the al Qaeda leadership. Zarqawi’s death may turn out to be the best of both worlds for al Qaeda: they gain a powerful martyr and potent symbol of resistance while getting rid of a difficult and divisive figure. With Zarqawi out of the way, the possibility arises for al Qaeda to appoint a new leader in Iraq who will be able to marshal wider support among the various insurgent groups.

Steven Brooke is a research associate at The Nixon Center.

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