Thursday, June 08, 2006

Zarqawi's death

What will Zarqawi's death mean for the future of Al-Qaeda in Iraq?

For some background, I refer you to Alexis Debat's very insightful essay that appeared in the Summer 2005 issue of The National Interest:


The larger question facing experts and intelligence analysts alike is whether Zarqawi’s new profile is a result of the U.S. government’s obsessive “personalization” of the War on Terror (and the resulting media coverage), or indicative of a more fundamental shift in the command structure of a “terrorist Internet” that still calls itself Al-Qaeda but whose increasingly disconnected structure has earned the label of “Jihad, Inc.”
There is little doubt that the most recent developments in the War on Terror, specifically the arrest of Abu Faraj al-Libbi in Pakistan on May 2—which, according to the Pakistani government, is expected to lead to “major breakthroughs” in the hunt for Bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri—have only furthered the structural revamping of Al-Qaeda’s leadership, communication techniques and overall character.

There is now an increased consensus among experts and intelligence officials that Bin Laden is still in overall control of his organization through a complex communication system involving couriers and audiotapes, email and verbal codes. Despite this, as well as the fact that the personal differences in ideological and strategic outlook between the Saudi and his Jordanian commander differ widely, there already are some serious indications that Zarqawi’s role in Al-Qaeda has increased considerably in the past twelve months. This shift reflects not only Zarqawi’s efforts in the Iraqi insurgency, his wider global overreach and his global profile in jihadi circles, but more importantly his control of a new base in Iraq around which the technical, financial and human resources of Jihad, Inc., can again coalesce. Just as they once flocked to Afghanistan and Chechnya, international jihadis can now come to Iraq, not only to be “camp trained” but “battle trained.” They can weave the personal and institutional relationships, the feelings of kinship and shared experience, that hold together Al-Qaeda’s virtual umma, or “community.”

This strategic shift, as well as Zarqawi’s larger—some might say “heir apparent”—role in Al-Qaeda, is reflected concretely in the contents of last year’s communications between Zarqawi and Bin Laden, whose relationship had previously been considered fairly antagonistic. From Zarqawi’s written (though unsigned) ”appeal” to Bin Laden, intercepted by U.S. intelligence in early February 2004, to Al-Tawhid wal Jihad’s formal pledge of allegiance to Al-Qaeda posted on the Internet in October, to Bin Laden’s acknowledgement of Zarqawi as “Al-Qaeda’s Prince in Iraq” several weeks after that, emerges the picture of a considerable gravity shift from the “old base” (Afghanistan) to the new base (Iraq), and from the old guard to the new. One can only guess the terms of this partnership, which, in the words of Al-Tawhid wal Jihad’s statement, took “eight months of contacts” and at least one “catastrophic dispute.” There is little doubt that this informal agreement involves a greater access to Al-Qaeda’s financial, logistical and human resources for Zarqawi, against the broadening of his terrorist activities not only to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, but also to Europe and the United States, which the Saudi urged Zarqawi to strike in his speech broadcast in December 2004. As demonstrated once again in the arrest of Abu Faraj al-Libbi, Europe, with its open borders and large Muslim population, is still considered by Al-Qaeda to be a springboard for attacks on the United States.

Already, several of Al-Qaeda’s regional commanders have publicly followed in Bin Laden’s footsteps in acknowledging the Jordanian’s new status. In a taped speech broadcast on March 17, Saleh al-Aufi, named by Saudi authorities as “Al-Qaeda’s new commander in Saudi Arabia”, specifically pledged allegiance to Zarqawi, in terms that left very little room for interpretation about the Jordanian’s new status.

This increased synergy between two of the few remaining organs of Jihad, Inc., has already been reflected in Al-Qaeda in Iraq’s statements and publications, as well as the diversity of Zarqawi’s volunteers in Iraq, according to media reports and foreign security sources. Once mostly composed of recruits from Jordan, Europe, Syria, and Egypt, the ranks of “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” have, for the past 12 months, increasingly included recruits from the Gulf (principally Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Yemen) and even Southeast Asia (mostly Indonesia and Malaysia), where Al-Tawhid wal Jihad’s recruiting efforts were either poor (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia) or inexistent (Asia), but where Al-Qaeda’s presence is well established.

Even if it is early to crown Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as Osama Bin Laden’s replacement, considering the latest pace of his terrorist attacks and the pressure that U.S. and Iraqi forces have put on him and his organization the thread of evidence indicating that he is fast moving in that direction is growing steadily, as are indications that Al-Qaeda has found a new—albeit rather uncomfortable—base in Iraq. But while this increased pressure on Al-Qaeda’s leadership both in Pakistan and Iraq could signal a very encouraging tipping point in the ongoing campaign against the organization, it may also emphasize a set of harsh realities for the not-so-distant future of America’s War on Terror. By opening a new front in the global jihad, which serves as the lifeline of Al-Qaeda’s ideological staying power, the Iraq War, despite its many accomplishments, has provided the organization with a much-needed replacement for its Afghan base. There is ample evidence that the same magnetic force that drew so many jihadis to Afghanistan in the 1990s has re-emerged in Iraq, with greater stealth and amplitude, as well as potentially deadlier consequences. At any given moment, these young recruits will return to their home countries in Europe and the Middle East with not just the crude and generic guerrilla training the was dispensed in Afghanistan, but a deep, battle-tested knowledge of urban terrorist operations and a far greater understanding than their predecessors of clandestine network management, the opportunities presented by the privatization of mass destruction capabilities, and the techniques of a deadlier, stealthier and more global societal warfare.

The article from 2005 distils the wisdom of a year ago, in its view that Iraq had become the principal training ground for al-Qaida and that Zarqawi was taking the place of Bin Laden as the leader of the worldwide jihadist movement. From this vantage point, Zarqawi's death could be seen as a major blow to the insurgency in Iraq and to wider jihadism.

But a year later, I think a different perspective may be in order. Zarqawi was an erratic leader whose savagery and targeting of other Muslims alienated Arab public opinion. In making Iraq a test of wills with the United States, he raised the stakes for both sides, but he did so on foundations that were as shaky for his side as they have been for ours.

In Afghanistan, the mujahideen sustained an insurgency against the Russians because enough of the Afghan people supported the war all the way through. In Iraq, al-Qaida and the Sunni Arabs have been allies of convenience, and if enough Sunni Arabs are now interested in a deal with the Shias, Zarqawi's effort there will fail.

The idea that Iraq has been a training ground for a more effective kind of terrorist is also very doubtful. Conditions favorable to insurgency do not exist in Western Europe, where Muslim communities are in no position to sustain an urban guerrilla war, in the doubtful event that any are willing to do so. Al-Qaida's efforts in Saudi Arabia and Jordan have also been unsuccessful. The first stage of an insurgency is to win over a section of the population and that is a political matter, not a military one. Zarqawi's veterans have relied on terror and intimidation whenever they have taken control of Arab-inhabited areas, and it is hard to see such behavior working in other parts of the Arab world where there is an effective police presence.

Al-Qaida emerged in the 1990s by using civilian operatives to strike at targets from relatively secure bases protected by host governments. The key to their success was outwitting their enemies, not outfighting them. Defeat in Iraq will force the movement to revert to its pre-9/11 strategy and methods, if they can operate with the reduced patronage they still receive.

It is still hardly clear that Iraq will be a defeat for al-Qaida. The Viet Cong were essentially a spent force by 1972 but the war in Vietnam did not end in an American victory. State failure in Iraq would be a defeat for the United States even if Zarqawi's people have been evicted.

However, the Iraqi government may get a boost from Zarqawi's death and from successful efforts to bring Sunnis into the government. It will then have to bring the Shia militias under control, and preserve national unity in other ways (mainly by not creating a Shia sub-state), to keep the momentum going.

Zarqawi's death now makes it easier for the United States to withdraw from Iraq. Whether we leave under duress or leave a state that survives will depend on how much improvement there is in the time that Americans are willing to remain.

[Sorry if this gets double posted. The blogger software hasn't been responding to me today.]
I have also been having trouble posting, there appears to be a problem with blogger.

I think, David, it may be an overoptimistic view. Israel thought that decapitation would eliminate Hamas but others are ready to rise up. I do agree though that Zarqawi's death provides an important symbol for the US--we got the enemy number one, now it is up to Iraqis and US isn't responsible if they miss the opportunity.
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