The legacy of Zarqawi
by Dr Anthony McRoy
If there is a name that inspired as much fear and loathing among Americans as that of Usama bin Laden, it was that of the Jordanian jihadi Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Among radicals – and one supposes, many others - Zarqawi became an icon equivalent to that of Che Guevara among Leftists in the 1960s and ’70s. Just as Che’s death paradoxically escalated this adoration, so it is likely that Zarqawi’s standing now that he has been ‘martyred’ will reach new heights.
This is a major difference with Che – an atheist ‘martyr’ could never invoke the same eagerness to emulation as a religious figure whose abiding personal aim in life was in fact martyrdom itself. Although some movements fold after the imprisonment or assassination of their leader, other historical examples present a different picture; the French capture of Ben Bella during the Algerian freedom struggle did not decapitate the FLN, nor has Israeli assassination of Hezbollah and Hamas leaders dented their groups. Since Zarqawi’s ‘martyrdom’, Al-Qaida have effected new attacks against both ‘collaborators and US soldiers. Continued, ruthless resistance is likely to be part of Zarqawi’s legacy. We know that America did not adequately plan for the problems of post-war Iraq; they certainly didn’t anticipate coping with Zarqawi! As he and his network played such a major role in the Iraq debacle, it is appropriate to examine his legacy.
In regard to his aims, they followed much the same as other radicals – the expulsion of Western forces, the overthrow of ‘puppet’ rulers, the restoration of the caliphate. Zarqawi, unlike bin Laden, historically placed the stress on first overthrowing Muslim governments, and then addressing US dominance. This put him at odds with bin Laden’s emphasis, which first targets the US before addressing internal Middle East issues. At any rate, the immediate goal – driving –away the US and its allies from Iraq, which will make it difficult for America to invade other countries, fitted into both agendas. Zarqawi showed great flexibility and even humility in being willing to submit himself to work in tandem, and even under, others, whether it be bin Laden or in conjunction with other Sunni Iraqi resistance groups. This greatly aided his jihad. His abiding legacy will be the laboratory demonstration of Sunni resistance against America which, ironically, parallels that of the Shia resistance movement Hezbollah in Lebanon, although the latter tended to be less gruesome.
This leads us on to a major facet of Zarqawi’s strategy - ruthlessness. There were no half-measures with him. He played for keeps and did whatever it took to win. Whether it be decapitating Westerners and ‘collaborators’, bombing churches, attacking Shia, he showed no compunction in using the most extreme and shocking measures. One has to go back to the FLN campaign in 1950s colonial Algeria (or possibly to the GIA campaign there in the 1990s) to find something analogous. All non-Muslims were seen as legitimate targets. Of course, in Zarqawi’s view, the Shia qualified as non-Muslims, and anyone collaborating with the Occupation and what he saw as its puppet government was viewed as apostate, and thus worthy of execution – and Zarqawi showed himself to be more than willing to effect this sentence.
As we have seen from Abu Ghraib the Haditha massacre and the razing of Fallujah, the Occupation forces are not short on ruthlessness themselves, but public opinion is at least some restraint on them. No such checks existed on Zarqawi. He demonstrated himself to be impervious to condemnation. This being the case, he had an edge on the Occupation Army – his ruthlessness surpassed even that of the Abu Ghraib abusers. His attacks on ‘apostates’, especially in the police force, were not only theologically-motivated; they destabilised the Iraqi government, since the authorities relied on native security forces, but the attacks on the police discouraged recruitment and encouraged defection - at least running away – if the situation got too hot. The legacy of ruthlessness continues with reports that two US soldiers have been slaughtered by Al-Qaida – apparently tortured, and according to Iraqi army sources, ‘killed in a barbaric way’. Al-Qaida claimed that their new leader in Iraq, Al-Muhajir, had cut the throats of the US soldiers.
Zarqawi’s legacy will also be sectarian warfare –the targeting of Christians and Shia. His communiqués referred to Christians in derogatory fashion as ‘Cross-worshippers’. Al-Qaida usually referred to ‘Crusaders’, placing the emphasis on the actions of certain Westerners, and demonstrated an understanding that most Westerners are at best nominal Christians. Zarqawi, however, placed the emphasis on the beliefs of professing Christians, and saw their faith as sufficient reason to attack them. Equally, he used the derogatory terms ‘Rafidis’ and ‘Batinis’ for Shia. Of course, Zarqawi probably over-estimated the response from Westerners. Attacking Arab churches did not and would not lead to America quitting Iraq; since Western leaders never expressed any concern for the plight of Palestinian Christians, why should they care about Iraqi believers either? All it accomplished was to speed the Christian exodus from Iraq.
This sectarian animosity had a practical role in his strategy. America succumbed to playing the communal card in order to divide the insurgency. By empowering the Kurds and Shia, the Sunnis lost their traditional dominance. This was a godsend for Zarqawi, who was able to use his anti-Shia message to provoke sectarian conflict. By targeting Shia the aim would appeared to be to cause instability and civil war, making the country ungovernable, and provoking such disgust and despair in America that the US electorate would demand withdrawal. This strategy eventually bore fruit as Shi’ites retaliated against Sunnis. Similarly, recent polls indicate that most Americans now oppose the Iraq misadventure. American popular disenchantment with Iraq will be one aspect of Zarqawi’s legacy.
As with Al-Qaida, Zarqawi employed ‘shock and awe’ tactics to demoralise the foe. This involved dressing hostages in orange suits like the Guantanamo captives, filming them begging for mercy, which pulled the heart-strings of loved ones, and then – perhaps Zarqawi’s most terrifying innovation – beheading them on video. Moreover, his timing was brilliant: the first decapitation occurred immediately after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke. Again, this showed that his ruthlessness could surpass that of the Occupiers. It also taunted the Occupiers by demonstrating their impotence – to use an ironic analogy, the words of Ayatollah Khomeini after the Iranian Revolution – ‘America can’t do a d*** thing!’ After all, one US justification for invading Iraq was that it would make Americans and Westerners safer; Zarqawi’s tactics proved that the opposite was true. Another aspect of Zarqawi’s legacy is likely to increase Western popular opposition to any further invasions and occupations of Muslim countries (though this does not rule out air strikes).
PR, paradoxically, was one of Zarqawi’s strengths. Perhaps the greatest example of this is when he changed the name of his guerrilla group from ‘Tawhid wal Jihad’ (‘Monotheism and Sacred Struggle’) to ‘Al-Qaida in the Land of the Two Rivers’, and swore allegiance to bin Laden. Immediately this capitalised on the respect Al-Qaida held as the only force ever to have bloodied America on its home soil. It also immediately linked Zarqawi’s group with an international network. Further, it neatly humiliated American government claims that by overthrowing Saddam they were eradicating Al-Qaida; the reverse is the case – the US invasion gave Al-Qaida its greatest ever boost.
Al-Qaida is not simply an organisation, it is a strategy, an idea. It is a diffuse network, aiming at encouraging others to follow its example. Post-Saddam Iraq is the greatest stage where this example has been imitated. Just as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan created a jihadi international out of which Al-Qaida emerged, so Iraq is doing the same for the next generation of jihadis. Afghanistan may have had a few Al-Qaida training camps, but Iraq has something greater – battle training in urban insurgency against American security forces. Compared to Afghanistan, Iraq is relatively urbanised. Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq has the presence of the enemy – the US military. Zarqawi’s group gained first-hand familiarity with how US forces operate, what their tactics are, what are their strengths and weaknesses, how they respond to ‘martyrdom operations’, how they defend a secure area like the Green Zone and how this can be breached – as Zarqawi accomplished.
Perhaps that is the greatest condemnation of the invasion of Iraq – it created the very thing it was supposed to eradicate. The next time ‘martyrs’ attack London, or even New York, the people to blame will not only be the mujahideen themselves, nor even just Al-Qaida, but the Neo-Cons and their British lackeys whose deceit and aggression in Iraq allowed Al-Qaida to regroup, win new members and supporters, and gain immediate experience of fighting US security forces in order to both recruit and train the next wave of would-be martyrs to penetrate America and carry-out the next 9/11 or 7/7. Indeed, 10/11 and 8/7 when they happen may well be the greatest legacy of