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June 13, 2006

Zarqawi And The Power Of Symbolism

The media, for the most part, continue to downplay the significance of killing Abu al-Musab Zarqawi, dismissing its importance as mostly symbolic:

Terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's death is a major symbolic victory. But it is unlikely to noticeably alter the tactical situation in Iraq. The damage Zarqawi has done in stirring an Iraqi insurgency is likely to continue.

I disagree with that assessment. While caveats are certainly in order (no one believes the terrorists will be crushed by a single setback), I find it amusing that the press de-emphasize the impact of "symbolic" victories in a war of ideas. Make no mistake here: this war is not about defeating a loosely-organized group of thugs. It is about defeating - definitively - the ideology which binds them together and gives them purpose. Several days ago, the WaPo finally asked terrorism experts how they thought Zarqawi's death would affect the insurgency. Unsurprisingly they were far more positive about the long-term effects of bagging the face of al Qaeda in Iraq:

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.

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.

Admittedly, that "highly visible presence" was not always a net positive for al Qaeda:

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.

But unlike the American media, terrorism experts see his death as a crushing blow to al Qaeda's operations both inside and outside of Iraq:

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."

And this is the larger significance of Zarqawi's death: it isolates the Iraqi insurgency and may well provide a disincentive for foreign groups who might be inclined to support them. Via Betsy Newmark, there are also signs that Zarqawi's death may weaken al Qaeda's ability to recruit new volunteers worldwide:

Since Zarqawi's death, Al Qaeda seems to be having some recruiting worries.
Two official statements posted on the Web site used by al-Qaida in Iraq urged Muslims to volunteer to fight in Iraq, saying al-Zarqawi's death should remind them of their "duty" to fight infidels.

"Iraq is the front line of defense for Islam and Muslims. So, don't miss this opportunity to join the Mujahedeen and the martyrs," said one signed by Abdullah Rasheed al-Baghdadi, who succeeded al-Zarqawi this year as head of the Mujahedeen Shura Council, the umbrella group that includes al-Qaida in Iraq.

"This is a compulsory duty for all Muslims in these days," it said.

Another statement in the name of Hamil al-Rashash (Holder of the Rifle) struck a more desperate note.

"Help, help! Support, support!" it said addressing the Islamic ummah, or community. "Assistance, assistance! Where is your money? And where are your men? There is no excuse for you.

"America won't benefit you. History won't be merciful to you. Wake up before it gets too late and before all the curses of Earth and heaven fall upon you."

In addition to discouraging the insurgency, Zarqawi's unfortunate demise has awakened hope in his victims. There is no denying his reign of terror took its toll on Iraqis. The good news inspired Alaa to come out of semi-retirement, which was a great joy to his devoted readers:

...today is a good day. The urge to express my feelings is so strong that I am back at the keyboard despite the terrible apathy that has gripped me these last months. You can probably guess at some of the reasons for this state of mind. I am not going into details. Only it seems to me that intelligent people should not pay such a high price just to learn some few facts that have always seemed to me quite simple and mundane.

But I don’t plan to go into that today, because today is a good day indeed. An arch zombie has been blown to smithereens.

...I am not going to dwell on the reaction of people like Al Jazeera (again) who showed their true color today without even any attempt at dissimulation. So this arch murderer of day laborers, bakers, school children and etc. etc., this master be-header of poor hostages and planner of car bombings and all kinds of the most outrageous orgies of mass killings; this man is to be mourned and regretted as a martyr and mujahid etc. etc.!!! Yes, friends, believe it or not these sentiments were expressed openly and repeated hysterically on mass media like the notorious one referred to above. I still cannot understand why when whole countries and regimes are labeled as rogue states and suffer sanctions and the like when, here we have an official state owned media outlet that has played a major role in inciting and aiding and abetting the most violent forms of terrorism; and nothing has been done against them and those who sponsor and finance them. Indeed the state that harbors this state of affairs enjoys the blessings and the best of relations with the west and the free world.

But it is not that which I want most to say today. I want to congratulate the valiant eagles of the American Air force and all the men of the U.S. Army, the Iraqi security forces and all those involved in executing this just punishment and for being the instrument of providential justice. Blessed be the wombs that bore you, and please accept this expression of gratitude and love from an ordinary Iraqi man. And as for you American people rest assured that our faith in victory has not shaken on single iota. I can only end with the words of our dear President Bush: “God Bless Iraq and May God continue to Bless America”.

Al Salam Alaykum

But perhaps the most visible second-order effect
occurred, not in Iraq or Afghanistan, but in far-off Palestine:

Members of an armed Fatah militia which claimed to have kidnapped an Israeli Saturday transferred the individual in question, a U.S. citizen, to the custody of the Palestinian Authority before dawn Sunday.

The PA security forces subsequently handed the American over to the Israel Defense Forces. Defense officials believe once the militants discovered the person was indeed an American citizen, they took steps to end the matter quickly.

"Apparently, the kidnappers did not want to end up like Zarqawi," a defense official said.

All of which reminds the half-vast editorial staff of an age-old lesson: the only way to defeat bullies is to stand up to them. Appeasing them only encourages their aggression.

A blow to al Qaeda's morale, organization, and recruiting efforts, a lessening of the influx of foreign fighters, a renewal of hope and confidence in war-torn Iraq, and an object lesson to would-be malefactors worldwide; all in all, not bad for a largely symbolic victory.

Never underestimate the power of symbols. In a complicated world, the awakening of hope may be our best weapon in the war on terror.

Posted by Cassandra at June 13, 2006 05:56 AM


Zarqawi used the media to make himself the face of the insurgency in Iraq. They willfully abetted his creation as the symbol of resistance. Ironically, while they are dismissing his influence, because of their actions al Qaeda seems to have suffered a serious defeat. Hoisted on their own petard, methinks.

Posted by: Chris at June 13, 2006 07:19 AM

Yesterday's,6/12/2006, Fox News report reported that 172 al Qaeda had been arrested and 38 killed in the raids after Z-man's death. No matter how they, the MSM, spin it that's a significant hit to their network.

More importantly, the Iraq and Jordanian governements feels safe enough to take on the "Zarqawi is a martyr brigades". Iraq naming names claims Hamas and al Jazeera are out of touch and probably enemies of iraq. Jordan is arresting 4 members of Parliament for being part of the martyrs brigade. There is a growing light in the ME and it is Iraq and Jordan.

Posted by: CoRev at June 13, 2006 08:24 AM

How true.

The great tragedy is that most Arabs are not anything like the monsters Zarquawi, Zawahiri or Bin Laden, but they are STUCK with these pathological killers in their midst (and you can add Saddam Hussein and the Baathist thugs of Iraq to that).
There is a deep cultural flaw here (in the middle east) that allows people like Z-man, etc., to exist among a group of people, that in most ways (as individuals), are admirable and decent human beings.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at June 13, 2006 08:36 AM

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