Zarqawi Wowie

"This was a good week for the cause of freedom," Bush proclaimed in his radio address June 10, 2006. "On Wednesday night in Iraq, U.S. military forces killed the terrorist Zarqawi." Bush did not mention the 19 US military casualties, the 44 Iraqi police and military casualties, or the 321 Iraqi civilian casualties this month. He did go on to recap Zarqawi's "long history of murder and bloodshed," but understandably did not discuss the US role in hyping Zarqawi's importance within Iraq and beyond, or that coalition forces had Zarqawi in custody on at least one occasion, and released him.

In a letter he wrote to freelance reporter Ron Suskind in 2002, John DiIulio, who served briefly as head of the Bush's Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, referred to members of the administration as "Mayberry Machiavellis." Bush's failure to enact many of his key agenda items, and the continuing decline in approval ratings suggest that the emphasis should probably be on "Mayberry" in DiIulio's characterization. But as Osama bin Laden transformed from Bush's "number one priority" in 2001 to someone Bush was "not that concerned about" barely six months later, the increasing focus on Abu Musab al Zarqawi followed a lesson right out of Machiavelli.

When a population is losing patience with a long military conflict, Machiavelli wrote in Chapter 10 of The Prince, the leader should inspire his people "now with the hope that the evil will not last long, now with the fear of the enemy's cruelty, now by protecting himself with clever maneuvers against those who seem too outspoken."

In April 2006 the Washington Post reported on a two-year campaign by the US military to use media and other channels in Baghdad to promote Zarqawi's role in the Iraqi insurgency. Documents obtained by the Post reportedly described US attempts to turn Iraqi opinion against Zarqawi, in part by exploiting a supposed Iraqi dislike of foreigners. "Villainize Zarqawi/leverage xenophobia response," one briefing paper stated. (Zarqawi was a Jordanian.) Among the targets of the propaganda campaign, however, was the "US Home Audience." The focus on Zarqawi "has enlarged his caricature, if you will -- made him more important than he really is, in some ways," Col. Derek Harvey told an Army meeting at Fort Leavenworth, KS in the summer of 2005. In fact, Harvey argued, Zarqawi was "a very small part" of the insurgent attacks. "The long-term threat is not Zarqawi or religious extremists, but these former regime types and their friends," asserted Harvey, who, at the time of the meeting was one of the top officers handling Iraq intelligence matters for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Techniques employed in the public relations effort to inflate Zarqawi's importance included leaflets, broadcast media reports, Internet postings, and at least one "selective leak" to an American journalist. The leak, referred to in a presentation prepared for Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. commander in Iraq, was to NY Times reporter Dexter Filkins, and led to a front page article about a letter supposedly written by Zarqawi in which he boasted about suicide attacks, and advocated sectarian violence. Filkins told the Post that he was skeptical about the letter, tried unsuccessfully to confirm its authenticity, and assumed that the military was releasing it "because it had decided it was in its best interest to have it publicized." Filkins was told by American officials that the letter was found in January 2004 on a CD that a Qaeda suspect was carrying. According to the officials, the suspect revealed under interrogation that the letter had been written by Zarqawi.

The Telegraph (UK) reported in October 2004 that US agents boasted about the misinformation campaign. "We were basically paying up to $10,000 a time to opportunists, criminals and chancers who passed off fiction and supposition about Zarqawi as cast-iron fact, making him out as the linchpin of just about every attack in Iraq," one official told The Telegraph. "Back home this stuff was gratefully received and formed the basis of policy decisions. We needed a villain, someone identifiable for the public to latch on to, and we got one."

The military apparently regarded the propaganda initiative, believed to be ongoing as of April 2006, as a success. "Through aggressive Strategic Communications, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi now represents: Terrorism in Iraq/Foreign Fighters in Iraq/Suffering of Iraqi People (Infrastructure Attacks)/Denial of Iraqi Aspirations," a briefing asserted. Ironically, one effect of the campaign was increased Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence. In early 2006 attacks on Zarqawi loyalists by Iraqi tribal insurgents increased, especially in the Anbar province, the culturally conservative area that contains the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi.

Video clips released by the US military in May, which showed Zarqawi fumbling with an American machine gun, seemed inconsistent with efforts to paint Zarqawi as a formidable opponent. Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan told the New York Times that Zarqawi's difficulty with the weapon, for which US soldiers and marines receive many days of basic training, was to be expected. "They are making a big deal out of nothing," retired Army colonel Mario Costagliola said. "I shrug my shoulders and say: 'Of course he doesn't know how to use it. It's our gun.'" an active-duty Special Forces colonel said. "He doesn't look as stupid as they said he looks." Other veterans and active officers noted that the release of the video did not address the fact that the weapon was probably captured from US forces, implying a victory for the insurgents.

Zarqawi was born Ahmed Fadhil Nazar al-Khalaylah, in the town of Zarqa, north east of Amman, Jordan. Several years ago he adopted his home town's name as his own. A member of the Bani Hassan tribe, Zarqawi dropped out of high school and had a history of drunken brawls, according to intelligence officials interviewed by the Washington Post. In the 1980s Zarqawi joined Islamic radicals fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and then returned home to help found a radical group called Jund al-Sham. Zarqawi was sent to prison in 1992 where his Islamicism was apparently further radicalized. Released in 1999 under a general amnesty from Jordanian King Abdullah, Zarqawi tried to restart Jund al-Sham, and became involved in a plot to bomb several tourist destinations in Jordan. When the plot was discovered, Zarqawi fled to Pakistan, and later to Afghanistan when Pakistani officials revoked his visa. In Kabul, Afghanistan, Zarqawi met with Osama bin Laden and other Qaeda leaders, and with their assistance, opened a training camp in Herat, near the Iranian border. Zarqawi's camp attracted Jordanian militants, and in 2001 he planned attacks against Israel and Jewish targets in Germany. German investigators broke up the plot there, and Zarqawi joined Taliban and al Qaeda fighters in opposing the US invasion of Afghanistan.

By 2002, using false passports provided by European supporters, Zarqawi crossed the border from Afghanistan to Iran with many of his followers. He apparently was able to travel with relative freedom among Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. In March 2002 Zarqawi traveled to Baghdad for medical treatment, and remained there for two months while his associates moved money, supplies, and al Qaeda-trained fighters throughout Iraq. While he was in Baghdad, Jordanian authorities indicted Zarqawi in connection with the 1999 bomb plots. The government of Saddam Hussein refused to answer Jordanian requests for information about Zarqawi's activities. Documents recovered in 2003 show that Iraqi authorities detained some Zarqawi operatives for questioning but released them. The Iraqis also tipped off Zarqawi that the Jordanians were investigating him, prompting him to use disguises and fake passports as he continued to move throughout the region.

On October 28, 2002, a group that Zarqawi trained in Syria assassinated Laurence M. Foley, a senior administrator with the US Agency for International Development in Amman, Jordan. Syria refused US and Jordanian requests to extradite Zarqawi, and he found refuge in Iran. While in Iran, Zarqawi met with Mohammed Ibrahim Makawi, also known as Saif Adel, who is al-Qaeda's military chief. Zarqawi and Saif Adel discussed joining forces in resisting the likely US invasion of Iraq, and by March 2003 British intelligence warned that Zarqawi had established sleeper cells in Baghdad.

"Zarqawi was barely known outside Jordan until three years ago, when Colin L. Powell, the secretary of state at the time, identified him as a 'collaborator and associate' of bin Laden's," the Washington Post's Craig Whitlock wrote recently. In his February 2003 speech to the UN, Powell pointed to Zarqawi's presence in Baghdad as evidence that Saddam Hussein had forged an alliance with al Qaeda -- a claim refuted by the 9/11 Commission Report and which the administration subsequently denied making. Powell also asserted that Zarqawi's camps in Herat and northern Iraq specialized in "poisons," and that his agents were being trained to produce ricin. German intelligence officials disputed Powell's claim. "The chemical and biological weapons are overblown to a certain extent," one official told the Post.

German law-enforcement records obtained by Newsweek in June 2003 refuted administration claims that Zarqawi was a key figure in al Qaeda. Instead, the records showed, Zarqawi headed his own group, called al Tawhid, and, at that time, may have been a rival of Al Qaeda, with the primary goal of installing an Islamic regime in Jordan.

So, as Newsweek's Michael Isikoff noted in his 2003 article titled "Distorted Intelligence?", the figure of Zarqawi, and exaggerated claims about him, were central to the two key administration justifications for going to war: Saddam Hussein's alleged connection to Al Qaeda, and the presence of "weapons of mass destruction."

In August 2003, a group associated with Zarqawi called "Monotheism and Jihad" staged suicide attacks on UN headquarters in Baghdad, and a Shiite shrine in Najaf. These events are regarded by some observers as the beginning of the Iraqi insurgency. Zarqawi gained notoriety for beheading two American hostages in 2004: Nicholas Berg in April, and Eugene Armstrong in August. In both cases Zarqawi posted videotape of the killing on the Internet. These grisly acts helped the propagandists portray Zarqawi as a larger-than-life figure, and helped move reports of Iraqis killed by coalition military action off the front pages of western newspapers. Sensational though they were, however, the attacks associated with Zarqawi were only a small fraction of the total staged by Iraqi insurgents. Writing in the Guardian (UK), Sami Ramadani, a lecturer at London's Metropolitan University who is a political refugee from the Saddam Hussein regime, reported that of 2,700 attacks per month in the fall of 2004, only six were associated with Zarqawi. "Just as Iraq's 25 million people were reduced, in the public's mind, to the threat from weapons of mass destruction, ready to be unleashed within 45 minutes, the resistance is now being reduced to a single hoodlum," Ramadani wrote.

The Iraqi insurgency was and is a complicated network of overlapping and competing groups that both cooperate and conflict with one another.

  • The Sunni Middle: Comprising a large fraction of the insurgent groups, likely including tribal leaders as well as former officials in Saddam Hussein's regime, this faction is united by opposition to US occupation and Shiite domination.
    • A major component of this group, the "Islamic Army in Iraq," has taken hostages and conducted executions. The "Al-Faithin Army" broke off from the Islamic Army in January 2006.
    • The "Al-Rashideen Army is another major group that is strongly anti-American.
    • The "Fair Revenge Army" emerged earlier this year with claims and videos of attacks against Americans.
    • The "Mujahedeen Army" has claimed successful attacks against British and Australian forces in southern Iraq, while condemning sectarianism.
    • The "Jihad Factions of Iraq" is an amalgamation of groups that began making public statements over the past year.
  • Sunni Extremists: Strongly anti-Shiite, this faction seeks to establish an Islamic state throughout the Middle East, seeks defeat of the West and the destruction of the Iraqi state. Some members of the Sunni middle have joined with extremists in opposing Shiites.
    • The "Mujahadeen Shura Council," dominated by "Al Qaeda in Iraq," is an umbrella group with at least seven subgroups. Al Qaeda in Iraq is the group that was primarily associated with Abu Musab al Zarqawi. Its tactics are extremely brutal, including the use of suicide attacks. Approximately half of the group are non-Iraqis.
    • "Ansar al-Sunnah Army" is another extremely brutal group that has staged suicide attacks; members are primarily Kurdish, with some foreign fighters.
  • Nationalist Sunnis: Oppose suicide bombings, the use of foreign fighters, and targeting Shiites. Some Sunni middle groups have cooperated with nationalist Sunnis in opposing sectarian violence.
    • The "Islamic Resistance Front" conducts frequent attacks against US forces and distributes videos through its propaganda arm.
    • The "1920 Revolution Brigades," named for the date of Iraq's nationalist revolution, target US interests and the Iraqi government, but seem to oppose sectarian violence.
  • Radical Shiite Militias: Seek a religious government in Iraq, and strongly oppose the US presence. Also have led violent reprisals for sectarian attacks on Shiites, particularly directed toward Sunni extremists. The main components are:
    • Moqtada al Sadr's "Mahdi Army".
    • The "Badr Brigade," which has elements in the new Iraqi government.

In December 2005, the Iraqi deputy interior minister confirmed to CNN that Zarqawi had been captured by Iraqi security forces at some point during the year, but had been released because they didn't know who he was. The December report marked the third time that year that coalition forces had missed an opportunity to catch Zarqawi. In April US troops stormed a hospital in Ramadi when several groups affiliated with Zarqawi issued statements saying he was there. No suspects were found, however. Iraqi Lt. Gen. Nasser Abadi acknowledged that Zarqawi had been taken to the hospital, but said that he had left before coalition forces arrived. Prior to that, in February Zarqawi's vehicle was under surveillance by a Predator spy plane, but inexplicably turned around as it approached a traffic checkpoint. Coalition troops chased the truck for several miles, but when they finally caught up with it, Zarqawi had escaped. And in January 2005, a captured suicide bomber from Saudi Arabia had told interrogators that Iraqi police had captured Zarqawi in Fallujah, but released him.

Given Zarqawi's apparent elusiveness, then, likely aided by allies among the Iraqis, the circumstances leading to his being killed in a US aerial strike have been the subject of considerable speculation. Time magazine reported that the CIA was tipped off by Jordanian intelligence that Zarqawi was planning a meeting in Baquba, north of Baghdad, allowing US forces to target the house for bombing. Time repeated reports that Zarqawi had grown increasingly isolated within the insurgency, and that, in particular, leaders of the nationalist factions in the insurgency rejected the extremists' agenda and had been quietly negotiating with the US and the Iraqi government.

Other observers speculated that senior Sunni politicians, who had tacitly condoned Zarqawi's activities while they believed his insurgency benefited aspects of their cause, knew his location and informed US officials. This explanation is supported by the fact that the remaining positions in the Iraqi Cabinet were filled within minutes of the announcement of Zarqawi's death, and that 17 other sites were raided almost simultaneously with the bombing of Zarqawi's safe house near Baquba. These occurrences suggest that Zarqawi's whereabouts was only one of many pieces of intelligence passed by whoever gave away his location. Analysts at Stratfor, the private intelligence firm, have suggested that the source of the information would have to have been Zarqawi's own director of operations, or "someone above him."

In one of the stranger circumstances surrounding Zarqawi's death, on June 7 -- the day he was killed -- an article was posted on James Dunnigan's, titled "Zarqawi Scheduled for Martyrdom." (Dunnigan's site features ads for "Defeat Hillary" tee shirts, etc., although the site content is mostly fairly dry military affairs and history.) The Zarqawi article, posted under the topic of Military Blunders, described how Zarqawi had distanced himself from the al Qaeda leadership. While Zarqawi called for continued attacks against Shia, Dunnigan wrote, "[o]ther al Qaeda leaders have been trying to down play anti-Iranian and anti-Shia rhetoric, and have been strongly discouraging attacks on civilians."

Given that Zarqawi has become a loose cannon and that his actions are handicapping Al Qaeda's efforts, it seems reasonable to expect that an accident may befall him at some point in the near future. If handled right it can be made to look like he went out in a blaze of glory fighting American troops or that he was foully murdered. Either way, al Qaeda gets rid of a problem and gains another "martyr."

Shortly after 6pm local time a US F16 flew over a house in the rural village of Hib Hib, 55 miles northwest of Baghdad, bombing it twice within minutes. Zarqawi survived until 7:04pm, but died from injury to his lungs caused by the bomb blast. The man identified as his spiritual adviser, Sheik Abdul-Rahman, was killed instantaneously. Another male, and three females including one between the ages of 5 and 7 were also killed.

Fighting continued over the weekend, demonstrating that there are many non-jihadist elements in the insurgency, and that they have not stood down. Also over the weekend an argument broke out between Prime Minister al-Maliki (a Shi'i), and the head of Iraqi intelligence, Maj. Gen. Mohammed al-Shahwani (a Sunni), on the subject of incorporating militias into the Iraqi security forces. The timing of the argument, Stratfor noted, suggests that the next item on the agenda is the status of the Shiite militias.

Polls by CBS News and Rasmussen Reports show that Zarqawi's death had little effect on public perception of Bush's handling of Iraq. Rasmussen found only 31% of those surveyed giving Bush excellent or good marks on handling Iraq, down from 32% last week. CBS found that half of its respondents believed the level of violence would be unchanged in the aftermath of Zarqawi's death, while 30% believed the level would increase. CBS also reported a decline in approval for Bush's handling of Iraq, at 33%, down from 35% last month.

On Monday, June 12, Al Qaeda in Iraq named Sheikh Abu Hamza al-Muhajir to be Zarqawi's successor. Al-Muhajir, presumably a nom de guerre, does not appear on any of the "wanted" lists previously issued by the US military command in Iraq, nor on any previous statements issued by Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.

18 Iraqi civilians were killed and 101 wounded on Monday by missiles, explosives and car bombs, according to the US military.


Iraq Coalition Casualty Count. 12 Jun. 2006

President's Radio Address. Office of the Press Secretary, White House. 10 Jun. 2006

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. The Portable Machiavelli Eds. and trans. Peter Bonadella. New York:Penguin, 1979.

Press Conference by the President. Office of the Press Secretary, White House. 13 Mar. 2002

Roddy, Dennis "Hysteria 101" Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 11 Sep. 2005

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Blomfield, Adrian "Doubt over Zarqawi's role as ringleader" The Telegraph 2 Oct. 2004

Kaplan, Fred "It Depends What the Meaning of 'Relationship' Is" Slate 17 Jun. 2004

Whitlock, Craig"Al-Zarqawi's Biography" Washington Post 8 Jun. 2006

Isikoff, Michael "Distorted Intelligence?" Newsweek 25 Jun. 2003

Marsh, Bill "A Many-Headed Insurgency" NY Times Jun. 2006

Ramadani, Sami "The true face of Iraqi resistance" Guardian (UK) 30 Sep. 2004

"Official: Al-Zarqawi caught, released" CNN. 15 Dec. 2005

Ryu, Alisha "Saudi Suicide Bomber Claims Zarqawi was Captured, Then Released" Voice of America. 24 Jan. 2005

Karon, Tony "How They Got Zarqawi: The Manhunt That Snared Him" Time 8 Jun. 2006

"What Next for Iraq?" Stratfor. 12 Jun. 2006

"Zarqawi Scheduled for Martyrdom" 7 Jun. 2006

Knickmeyer, Ellen and Jonathan Finer "Insurgent Leader Al-Zarqawi Killed in Iraq" Washington Post 8 Jun. 2006

"Al-Zarqawi killed by blast injuries, autopsy shows" CNN. 12 Jun. 2006

Karouny, Mariam and Ibon Villelabeitia "Al Qaeda in Iraq Chooses Zarqawi Successor" Reuters. 12 Jun. 2006

Burns, John F. and Dexter Filkins "A Jihadist Web Site Says Zarqawi's Group in Iraq Has a New Leader in Place" NY Times 13 Jun. 2006

"Post al-Zarqawi: Reduced Pessimism About War On Terror: Little Change In Perception of President's Handling of Iraq
Rasmussen Reports. 12 Jun. 2006

"Poll: Zarqawi Death Has Little Impact: Most Americans Still Say War's Going Badly; Bush's Ratings Remain Low" CBS News. 12 Jun. 2006

See also:

U.S. Identifies Successor to Zarqawi, NY Times, June 15, 2006.