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."
For many years, Zarqawi had an arm's-length relationship with al-Qaeda. He met bin Laden in the late 1990s in Afghanistan, but the two clashed personally, according to Arab intelligence officials and former Islamic radicals.
Zarqawi accepted al-Qaeda money to set up his own training camp in Afghanistan, they said, but he ran it independently. While bin Laden was preparing the Sept. 11 hijacking plot, Zarqawi was focused elsewhere, scheming to topple the Jordanian monarchy and attack Israel.
After Sept. 11, with al-Qaeda's leadership on the run from U.S. forces, Zarqawi and his fighters moved into Iran and later into Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Iraq. Zarqawi maintained his independence at first. But after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, he played up his affiliation with al-Qaeda's core leadership when it served his purposes, analysts said. He formally swore loyalty to bin Laden in October 2004 and changed the name of his Monotheism and Jihad network to al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Both sides benefited. By using the al-Qaeda name, Zarqawi bolstered his legitimacy and attracted media attention, as well as money and recruits. In turn, al-Qaeda leaders were able to brand a new franchise in Iraq and claim they were at the forefront of the fight to expel U.S. forces.
But the relationship was fragile, and Zarqawi provoked the ire of al-Qaeda's founders by focusing less on U.S. military targets and by killing or injuring thousands of Iraqi Shiites. In September 2005, U.S. intelligence officials said they had confiscated a long letter that al-Qaeda's deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had written to Zarqawi, bluntly warning that Muslim public opinion was turning against him.
With Zarqawi gone, some analysts said bin Laden's allies would try to re-exert strategic influence over the remains of the al-Qaeda network in Iraq. If al-Qaeda fails to maintain a high-profile stake in the conflict with U.S. forces in the region, the analysts said, its relevance in the jihadist movement will quickly diminish.
"I don't believe al-Qaeda in Iraq will die as a result of the death of Zarqawi," said Mustafa Alani, a terrorism analyst at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. "Al-Qaeda headquarters will now have more influence on the Iraqi branch. At least, I think they'll be in a far better position than before."
Others said Zarqawi's death is likely to widen the factional splits that have been developing for years within the global movement. More and more, Islamic radical groups are becoming splintered and are only loosely affiliated. While they may be united in a broader struggle against the United States and the West, they often have different aims and tactics.
Nawaf Obaid, director of the Saudi National Security Assessment Project, said Zarqawi's network had already been eclipsed in size and strength by other groups of foreign fighters in Iraq. He said units led by Egyptian, Saudi and Algerian commanders posed a much more serious military threat than al-Qaeda in Iraq, although much less is known about how their operations are organized. The strongest, he said, are North African groups in Iraq composed largely of veterans of the civil war in Algeria.
"They're completely autonomous organizations," Obaid said in a telephone interview from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. "They're more powerful than Zarqawi was and have more weaponry and money at their disposal. They all have their own networks, their own fundraising abilities and their own way of bringing in fighters."