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Archive for June, 2006

Al Zarqawi’s Death is No Turning Point

[Originally published in the Valley News.]

If you are anything other than a jihadist or a supporter of violent Muslim fundamentalism, the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has to have come as a welcome surprise. Zarqawi was a violent, virulent man who wanted only to create chaos in the name of his version of Islam. First and foremost, he was a murderer, not only of the unbelievers, but also of his own Muslim people. That is how he will be judged.

Some have tried to turn his death into an important turning point in the “global war on terrorism”. That is absurd. This argument is one of a long list of persistent if unsuccessful attempts to justify the invasion of Iraq as part of that effort.

Al-Zarqawi came to Iraq well after the American invasion. His purpose had nothing to do with Iraq or the Iraqi people; it was based on his desire to create as much trouble as he possibly could for the Americans. His goal was to disrupt American plans to install democracy in Iraq. For a hater of America and everything it represents, Iraq presented an irresistible, target-rich environment.

Al-Zarqawi was not even a part of al-Qaida when he arrived in Iraq. He was simply a talented ex-convict who had found religion and dedicated his life to fighting the evils he perceived in Western culture. In fact, he was not even acknowledged by Osama bin Laden until well after he started his violent insurrectionist activities there.

With the exception of a terrorist operation he ran against his homeland, Jordan, and which he later acknowledged to have been a tactical mistake, Al-Zarqawi was primarily an internal Iraqi phenomenon. As such, Al-Zarqawi’s death will disrupt the insurrection there. However, given our knowledge of al-Qaida’s modus operandi, it will almost certainly trigger an automatic and planned succession. He will be replaced.

It is possible that Al-Zarqawi’s fixation on fomenting civil war between Shiite and Sunni may give way to Iraqi insurgents sharpening their focus on American troops and Iraqi military and security forces — all the elements that might bring stability to Iraq. It is also possible that fewer foreign fighters will be attracted to Iraq and therefore there will be fewer of the suicide bombings they carried out. However, none of that is clear.

What is clear is that Al-Zarqawi’s death will have little if any effect on radical Muslim terrorism against the West and on our “war” against it. Al-Zarqawi was never a player in bin Laden’s organization. He became an “adoptee” after he showed he was prepared to cause problems for the Americans in Iraq, but he was never really a part of the organization. In fact, it is likely that bin Laden and his principal deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are pleased to have a martyr rather than a competitor on their hands.

In some respects, he characterizes the changes that have taken place in al-Qaida since 9/11. Instead of a carefully trained, documented and centrally controlled group of Saudis scheming to annihilate a number of America’s physical icons on 9/11, we have seen the franchising of the terrorism effort. Madrid, London, and now Toronto make it clear that the current incarnation of the terrorist threat is going to be characterized by wannabe Muslim copycats who believe they hate Western civilization. They see the 24 virgins in heaven as a far superior alternative to their lives as minorities in Western countries that never really seem to want to assimilate them.

These will be locally grown and nurtured terrorist groups that probably will have no substantive command contact with the al-Qaida leaders in their Middle East caves, but that wish to please the gods they all believe they are serving. As disturbing as the concept of disenfranchised, dangerous and disillusioned groups in our midst may seem to us, the intelligence-collection problem they present to Western counterterrorism should be far less difficult. Such groups, born, nurtured and matured in the West will be far easier to penetrate and neutralize than those based in and professionally directed from caves on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Al-Zarqawi’s death will probably not have an important, lasting effect on the problems we face in Iraq. It is not he, but the situation in Iraq that brings fighters to the insurrection. Unfortunately, his death represents only a small victory in our war on terrorism and has little potential to make that struggle easier. The changes in the nature of our terrorist enemy that have come as a result of its organizational evolution may prove to make our problems easier to deal with, but that will not be a result of Al-Zarqawi’s demise.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Europe and the Middle East, and was chief of the counterterrorism staff. He lives in Williston, Vt.

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