Death Could Shake Al-Qaeda In Iraq and Around the World

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By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 10, 2006

BERLIN, June 9 -- The death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi could mark a turning point for al-Qaeda and the global jihadist movement, according to terrorism analysts and intelligence officials.

Until he was killed Wednesday by U.S. forces, the Jordanian-born guerrilla served as Osama bin Laden's proxy in Iraq, attracting hundreds if not thousands of foreign fighters under the al-Qaeda banner. At the same time, Zarqawi had grown into a strategic headache for al-Qaeda's founders by demonstrating an independent streak often at odds with their goals.

Despite written pleas from bin Laden's deputy to change his tactics, Zarqawi alienated allies in the Iraqi insurgency as well as Arab public opinion by killing hundreds of Muslims with suicide bombings. Zarqawi, a Sunni Muslim, repeatedly attacked Shiite shrines and leaders in a bid to fuel an Iraqi civil war, instead of primarily fighting the U.S. military and its partners.

As a result, counterterrorism officials and analysts said, Zarqawi's al-Qaeda in Iraq had become increasingly isolated and marginalized in the past year.

"A number of al-Qaeda figures were uncomfortable with the tactics he was using in Iraq," said Paul Wilkinson, chairman of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. "It was quite clear with Zarqawi that as far as the al-Qaeda core leadership goes, they couldn't control the way in which their network affiliates operated."

Zarqawi gave a boost to the al-Qaeda network by giving it a highly visible presence in Iraq at a time when its original leaders went into hiding or were killed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. He established al-Qaeda's first military beachhead and training camps outside Afghanistan.

He was also a master media strategist, using the Internet to post videotaped beheadings of hostages and assert responsibility for some of Iraq's deadliest suicide attacks, usually in the name of al-Qaeda. Adding to Zarqawi's mystique was a $25 million bounty the U.S. government had offered for his capture.

It is unclear which of 39-year-old Zarqawi's lieutenants, or deputy emirs, will attempt to fill his role. But whoever succeeds him will be hard-pressed to achieve the same level of notoriety or to unite the foreign fighters in Iraq under a single command, analysts said.

Some European and Arab intelligence officials said they had seen signs before Zarqawi's death that the number of foreign fighters going to Iraq was already waning. For recruitment efforts, the importance of Zarqawi's death "cannot be overestimated," Germany's foreign intelligence chief, Ernst Uhrlau, told the Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel.

Guido Steinberg, an expert on Islamic radicalism at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, said other groups of foreign fighters that kept a loose alliance with Zarqawi, such as Ansar al-Sunna, might turn away from al-Qaeda in Iraq now that he is gone.

"It's a great loss for the these jihadi networks," said Steinberg, who served as a counterterrorism adviser to Gerhard Schroeder when he was chancellor of Germany. "I don't think there is any person in Iraq able to control this network the way Zarqawi did. It's very decentralized. He was the only person in Iraq who could provide the glue.

"By losing Zarqawi, they run the danger of losing Iraq as a battlefield to the nationalist insurgents and others who aren't interested in bin Laden or the global jihad."


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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