Transcript

Zarqawi Killed in Iraq

Iraqis stand on the rubble after a U.S. raid which killed Al Qaeda's leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in the town of Hibhib near Baquba, 65 km (40 miles) northeast of Baghdad, June 8, 2006.   REUTERS/Helmiy al-Azawi  (IRAQ)
Iraqis stand on the rubble after a U.S. raid which killed Al Qaeda's leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in the town of Hibhib near Baquba, 65 km (40 miles) northeast of Baghdad, June 8, 2006. REUTERS/Helmiy al-Azawi (IRAQ) (Helmiy Al Azawi -- Reuters)

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Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 8, 2006; 10:30 AM

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi , the mastermind behind hundreds of bombings, kidnappings and beheadings in Iraq, was killed Wednesday evening by an air strike northwest of Baghdad, U.S. and Iraqi officials said Thursday.

Full Coverage: Insurgent Leader Al-Zarqawi Killed in Iraq (Post, June 8)

Washington Post foreign correspondent Craig Whitlock was online Thursday, June 8, at 10:30 a.m. ET to discuss the news and what Zarqawi's death means for the ongoing insurgency in Iraq.

The transcript follows.

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Craig Whitlock: Greetings everyone. a really big news day in Baghdad. All the facts of what happened to al Zarqawi aren't in yet, of course, but I'll try to field as many questions as possible.

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Springfield, Ill.: Do you think the death of al-Zarqawi will effectively weaken the insurgents' efforts or will it only lead to more revengeful violence?

Craig Whitlock: I'm just speculating, of course, but I suspect that Zarqawi's followers will try extra hard in the coming days and weeks to demonstrate that they remain a viable force despite the loss of their leader.

Many military officials and analysts are skeptical that Z's death will have a huge effect on reducing the insurgency, but he's certainly one of its biggest symbols. Someone will take his place, but whether they can rebuild the near-myth that surrounded Zarqawi is probably doubtful.

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Alabama: It seems Zarqawi was more prominent about a year and a half ago than today. What was his group's overall role in the insurgency? I know he suggested linking forces with bin Laden, which would seem to diminish his power. And it appears that the international Jihad that Zarqawi advocated has been superceded by the sectarian conflict.

Craig Whitlock: An excellent question. Many people think Zarqawi's overall role in the insurgency has been exaggerated, in large part by U.S. officials who placed a $25 million bounty on his head. He's earned the ire of many Iraqis, including native insurgents, particularly Shiite Muslims.

He was always an independent operator within al Qaeda, though in the past 20 months he increasingly identified himself as an al Qaeda leader, probably both to his benefit and to bin Laden's.

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Anonymous: Will the aftermath of the death of al-Zarqawi be similar to that of the capture of Saddam Hussein, where it is celebrated for a while then insurgency increases again. When will the the "mission" in Iraq be completed if you capture or kill a top terrorist and more leaders keep emerging?

Craig Whitlock: another excellent question. The parallels with Saddam's fate could pan out, although Zarqawi was undoubtedly much more involved with directing at least part of the insurgency than Saddam was. Certainly, no one is predicting that his death means the mission in Iraq is complete, not by a long shot.

It's conceivable that Zarqawi's death could reduce some of the infighting and rivalries among the various insurgency groups. He had grown into an especially divisive figure among those fighting the coalition troops in Iraq.

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Richmond, Va.: Does this attack indicate that the U.S. has penetrated al-Qaeda in Iraq's network and may now be in a position to 'roll up' the network? Any idea what is going on with the $25 million reward?

Craig Whitlock: I was just speculating with my boss about who gets the $25 million -- was the bombing based on a tip, or multiple intelligence, or what? My best guess is that no one is going to collect the big money, but who knows.

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Clarksburg, Md.: Is there any indication as to how many others were killed with Zarqawi and, if so, whether they're believed to be high level terrorists as well? I would imagine that a leader with his stature would have been surrounded by his top lieutenants and trusted advisors. I mean, it's safe to assume he wasn't hosting a meeting of Iraqi cub scouts, right?

Craig Whitlock: it's still unclear exactly how many other people were killed with Zarqawi. reports from our staff in Baghdad are that U.S. forces had been tracking a guy named Abdul Rahman, described as Zarqawi's spiritual adviser, for some time in hopes of finding Z. Rahman was also killed.

I doubt that Zarqawi was surrounded by too many lieutenants, however. Until yesterday, he was remarkably successful at avoiding detection and capture in Iraq, despite the presence of so many people looking for him. He almost certainly did not travel around the country with a large retinue of followers.

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Bentonville, Ark.: Is it not true that there is more at play here in that while Zarqawi was a highly visible leader of a portion of the insurgency, the sectarian divisions between the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish people are the real conundrum that must be resolved if Iraq is ever going to realize freedom and democracy?

Craig Whitlock: absolutely, but I don't think anyone is suggesting that Zarqawi's death means that Iraq can all of a sudden look forward to a future of freedom, democracy and harmony. That's a whole other ball of wax that will be far more difficult to sort out.

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Monroe, Mich.: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's death is a positive impact for al Qaeda. He was a volatile commander who was difficult to control, witness Ayman al Zawahiri's letter cautioning him about the implications of continued violence against Shia, the Jordan attacks, and the beheadings. In addition, Abu Musab's actions affected al Qaeda's Muslim support base because his targeting fellow Muslims (Shia) caused outrage in the Muslim which resulted in a backlash against al Qaeda.

He failed to follow al Qaeda's ideology, which outlines grievances against both the United States and U.S.-supported Muslim regimes. Rather than follow this well-established dogma, Abu Musab pursued a personal agenda of attacking the Shia, which also ran counter to al Qaeda's previous coordination with Shia entities, i.e. Hezbollah bomb makers and and the sanctuary given to al Qaeda leaders by Iran's Revolutionary Guards.

Al Qaeda will likely replace Abu Musab with a more level-headed and capable commander who has deference to bin Laden and al Zawahiri and who adheres more closely to al Qaeda's mission of attacking Western targets and US-supported regimes, rather than targeting fellow Muslims. While his death is a blow to al Qaeda in Iraq, our celebrations should be short-lived because Abu Musab's replacement will be a more capable and strategic thinking commander who's initial responsibility will be to repair the damage Abu Musab has done to al Qaeda's image in the Muslim world and within the Iraqi insurgency.

Craig Whitlock: I don't think it's that simple. While Zarqawi certainly followed his own agenda and waited years before he agreed to pledge loyalty to bin Laden, by adopting al Qaeda's name as part of his organization in Iraq he gave al Qaeda new currency and relevance worldwide. Iraq is the biggest thing going in the worldwide jihad and every time Zarqawi took credit for a bombing or beheading, he made sure al Qaeda got credit as well.

I don't think it will be so easy for bin Laden or Ayman Zawahiri to just order up a new replacement. These aren't your normal hierarchical organizations. It's more of a movement.

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Ann Arbor, Mich.: Zarqawi was tracked partially due to the videotape he released, which Jordanian intelligence used to identify the area in which it was filmed. I believe bin Laden and Zawahiri will be located once the U.S. can capture one of their video/audio tape couriers or locate them due to background sound, etc. Al Qaeda leaders' need to prove their relevance by releasing the tapes will ultimately be their undoing because of the operations security vulnerabilities the release of the tapes present.

Craig Whitlock: I can't verify your first assertion. I know that the U.S. and others have been trying for a long time to follow the trail of videos and audios released by bin Laden and Zawahiri from Pakistan, but so far they haven't gotten very far. It seems like a logical trail to follow; it's amazing to me how al Qaeda has been able to keep open that communications pipeline to the rest of the world.

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Lyme, Conn.: Do we have much reliable data on the succession of power and who will be taking over the leadership of planning and executing the terrorist activities and how well organized the remainder of the group appears to be?

Craig Whitlock: simple answer: no. at least I don't. over the past three years, Zarqawi has gone through a large succession of "lieutenants" and "emirs" who served close to him and were killed. He seems to have been able to replace them quickly.

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Silver Spring, Md.: What thoughts went through your head when you first heard the news?

Craig Whitlock: funny you should ask. I was in Hamburg, Germany early this morning on a separate assignment. my first thought was: Wow, that's huge news. My second thought was: Wow, this is gonna be a long day.

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Va.: I was reading the earlier question about who tipped off military officials as to Zarqawi's whereabouts. The BBC reported that intelligence agents were following his spiritual advisor for several weeks, and he actually led them to the house. Any ideas if that is true?

Craig Whitlock: yes, that is what U.S. military officials in Baghdad are reporting. It is a tactic that U.S. intelligence forces have used in Pakistan as well to capture or kill al Qaeda leaders. Ayman al Zawahiri was nearly killed in January after the CIA tracked his cohorts movements and fired a Predator missile at a house where they thought he would meet them.

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Wayne, N.J.: Craig,

Thanks for taking questions. My question is focused on the way in which Zarqawi has been described by major news organizations.

I've noticed that some newspapers (not The Post) have described Zarqawi as "Al-Qaeda's leader in Iraq" as opposed to "the leader of 'al-Qaeda in Iraq.'" Do you think that distinction is important? To me, it seems to suggest without justification that Zarqawi had a leadership role in the international organization/vanguard.

Similarly, today's Post article describes Zarqawi as the leader of an insurgency group in Iraq. Do you think that is the best description? While it may be technically accurate, it implies that "al-Qaeda in Iraq" is broadly similar with the indigenously Iraqi insurgency groups that are causing most of the casualties/terror in Iraq today. I think this is also questionable.

What do you think is the best way of describing Zarqawi and his organization?

Craig Whitlock: some of this is semantics, but some of the distinctions are important. what we've tried to explain repeatedly, especially in our longer-form articles, is that Zarqawi has always been more or less an independent operator who allied himself with al Qaeda when it suited him. He finally swore allegiance to bin Laden in October 2004, but even then he did things his own way.

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Ann Arbor, Mich.: Source for Jordanian Intelligence tip:

Please see the MSNBC article at: Al-Qaeda in Iraq's al-Zarqawi 'terminated'

This discusses how Jordanian Intelligence was able to pinpoint the area in which Abu Musab's videotape was filmed. This was confirmed by Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.

Also note that sources report Abu Musab was given up by some of his men, which lends credibility to Monroe, Michigan's assertion that Abu Musab's death was a positive impact for al Qaeda.

Craig Whitlock: I think we've got a way to go before we sort out exactly how they found Zarqawi. but I'm dubious about these reports that he was given up by his own men

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Fairfax, Va.: How do you expect bin Laden et al. to respond to al-Zarqawi's death? Will they play to their PR advantage and make al-Zarqawi their new "martyr", thereby recharging their jihad movement? Or will they lay low and play this down?

Craig Whitlock: a good question. I don't think they'll have to play it up -- in jihadi circles, Zarqawi has become an instant martyr. In the past, bin Laden hasn't made grand statements about the deaths of key al Qaeda figures, though he sometimes makes references to their demise in his writings or speeches.

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Washington, D.C.: As a former crime reporter, I always have little detail questions. Right now I'm wondering how it is that the military has Zarqawi's fingerprints? Do we know or has anyone asked if they were on file anywhere? Did one of the tipsters hand over a glass he'd just used? Maybe some people think that's a silly question, but I think it would be interesting to know. They're also talking about DNA testing. What do our investigators have to which to match his DNA?

Craig Whitlock: from one former crime reporter to another: I don't know for certain, but remember that Zarqawi did prison time on two separate occasions in Jordan. I suspect they had plenty of fingerprints on file and shared them with the Americans a long time ago.

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Bethesda, Md.: I thought I had read at the time of the release of one of Zawahiri's videotapes (maybe six months ago) that Zawahiri, and, by extension, bin Laden, were trying to get al-Zarqawi "in line," that they were seeing al-Zarqawi as too much of a free agent.

Any chance that al-Qaeda abandoned al-Zarqawi, maybe even put him in a position to be taken out?

Craig Whitlock: I don't think al Qaeda abandoned Zarqawi. As I explained previously, he kept them in the thick of the action of the global jihad in Iraq.

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Dayton, Ohio: What impact might this have on the fate of foreign hostages being held in Iraq?

Craig Whitlock: My colleagues in Baghdad would have a better read on that than me, but my guess is that groups other than Zarqawi's are holding many of the foreign hostages. Zarqawi gained fame and notoriety by executing hostages in an incredibly grisly manner and then showing the videotape to the world. He generally didn't hold on to them for ransom or for long durations.

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Burke, Va.: The problem with Zarqawi is that the U.S. spokespeople seemed to use him to over-simplify and over-personalize the problems in Iraq. From what I have heard about his actual importance, he deserved only a fraction of the attention paid to him by our press.

Craig Whitlock: many analysts and intelligence officials in Europe and the Middle East agree that the U.S. government overemphasized Zarqawi's importance, starting with Colin Powell's address to the UN right before the invasion in 2003.

But I'd disagree with your comment that he should have been ignored. He played an influential role in the global jihad and in the insurgency in Iraq. There's plenty that we still don't understand about how he operated and his leadership style, but ignoring him in the press wouldn't have solved anything.

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Alexandria, Va.: Why was it so difficult to track this guy? Did the Iraqi people not realize he was behind the killings of their countrymen and desired a civil war? I would have thought more intelligence would have be forthcoming on his whereabouts much earlier.

Craig Whitlock: I've always marveled at how Zarqawi had been able to avoid capture or death for as long as he did. He was not a particularly influential ideologue, but somehow he was able to stay alive for more than 3 years despite the $25 million reward and the presence of 130,000 troops on the lookout for him. He was also able to slip across Iraq's borders, to Syria, Lebanon, Iran and reportedly Jordan.

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Washington, D.C.: While watching the press briefing, I was very much taken aback by the fact that the press openly cheered and applauded when al-Zarqawi's death was announced. Isn't it the press's job to report the news, not celebrate it?

Craig Whitlock: my understanding is that many of the people at the press briefing were Iraqi journalists

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Chicago, Ill.: Was the killing of Zarqawi related at all to the key ministers being approved today? I heard someone say today that it helped with the government's credibility, but I wasn't sure if that was too neat a package. Was it a coincidence or a burst of goodwill, or a bit of both?

Craig Whitlock: I think it was partly a coincidence. My understanding is that his death was first reported to the White House yesterday afternoon, but they waited to announce it until they could confirm the identity 100 percent. At the same time, I think they were happy to have the opportunity to reveal the news about Zarqawi in tandem with the news about the ministers.

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Bowie, Md.: Iraq was the spearhead that allowed al Qaeda to regain its prominence in the jihadi world. Zarqawi's death is a significant blow to al Qaeda in Iraq, however the movement will continue. Just as Khattab's death was a blow to the Chechen rebels, the movement continues. Do you believe bin Laden will hail Zarqawi's death as a martyr or will he make little mention of it as he has remained relatively silent about Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Muhammad's capture?

Craig Whitlock: I agree with much of what you say. As I mentioned before, my guess is that bin Laden won't make a big deal publicly about Zarqawi's death; he won't need to. Everyone else is doing it for him.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: The rewards are really puzzling. Especially the one on OBL. Nobody in his inner circle would give him up for 25 million. Can you imagine someone in the White House providing information to al Qaeda for 25 million dollars? I mean, who comes up with these ideas?

This is no common criminal we're talking about.

Craig Whitlock: it is interesting that the U.S. government hasn't posted any substantial new rewards in a while for the capture of terrorist suspects.

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Castle Rock, Colo.: You mentioned that Zarqawi was a divisive figure within the insurgency, and that there might be some consolidation there now that Zarqawi is gone. Do you know of any individual insurgent leaders who would seek to attain the prominence that Zarqawi had? Also, do you foresee any effort by the new Iraqi government to reach out to insurgents with the promise of amnesty in exchange for nationalistic support of the Iraqi government (as opposed to the occupation)?

Craig Whitlock: I don't know of any individual insurgent leaders who might have the stature or leadership potential to take Zarqawi's place. But it's a safe bet that someone will. Remember, Zarqawi emerged from complete obscurity in 2003.

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Craig Whitlock: that's all the time I have. thanks for checking in and for all the questions; sorry I wasn't able to address all of them.

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