Zarqawi’s Life After Death

Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon are the co-authors of “The Next Attack.” They are fellows, respectively, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Council on Foreign Relations. (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 09/06/06):

WITH the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi outside Baghdad, the United States has struck its most important blow in the war on terrorism since driving Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan. Easily the deadliest terrorist at work over the last three years, Mr. Zarqawi was probably responsible for more deaths than Osama bin Laden and leaves behind a jihadist movement that has been drastically changed in no small part by his actions.

To recognize how changed that threat is, however, it is necessary to do something we are unaccustomed to: Look at the global picture instead of simply tallying how many Americans have died from terrorist attacks. Our focus on the lack of attacks on Americans has led to a precipitous decline in the nation’s concern about terrorism — according to a CBS poll last month, only 3 percent of Americans now believe that terrorists are the greatest danger facing the nation. Mr. Zarqawi’s legacy suggests we should be a lot more concerned.

In Iraq, his efforts to set off sectarian conflict have succeeded with a barbaric efficiency. Although American officials repeatedly argued over the last three years that his band of foreign fighters represented a very small percentage of the insurgents in Iraq, the truth is that their violence drove the insurgency — especially the large-scale attacks like that on the Golden Mosque in Samarra in February.

Indeed, Mr. Zarqawi’s violence was so vicious and indiscriminate — killing so many Muslims — it created what some experts call “the Zarqawi effect”: a Muslim repugnance at the jihadist movement that has probably turned more of his co-religionists away from radicalism than America’s democratization campaign. Even so, that has been a minority response, and it seems a safe bet that hostilities have reached a level of intensity that no longer requires Mr. Zarqawi’s murderous provocations.

With his background in petty crime and thuggery, Mr. Zarqawi was the antithesis of the wealthy and well-connected Osama bin Laden, and the two men were more often competitors than collaborators. (The Qaeda leadership, which favors more of a “big tent” extremism, warned Mr. Zarqawi in October 2005 about the effect that killing Shiites would have, but was apparently spurned.)

Despite not having Mr. bin Laden’s stature, Mr. Zarqawi may yet wind up having at least as powerful an impact on the fate of nations. He viewed Iraq as a base for destabilizing countries in the Middle East, and had already begun exporting terrorism from Iraq last November, when his operatives blew up three American-owned hotels in Jordan. Moreover, because of his success in exploiting anger among Sunnis over losing their long domination of Iraq, the threat of a broader conflict between Islam’s two largest sects now hangs over a broad swath of the world.

As such, fears are growing of unrest in countries like Saudi Arabia, whose Shiite minority is concentrated in the Eastern Province, where the largest oil fields are; Bahrain, which has a Sunni monarchy and Shiite minority; Lebanon, with its civil war still fresh in memory; and Pakistan, which has been plagued by violence for decades. Should the sectarian conflict in Iraq worsen, Sunni neighbors like Turkey and Saudi Arabia could soon be facing off against Shiite Iran.

Farther afield, Mr. Zarqawi had been rapidly building a network that has raised the anxieties of intelligence and law enforcement officials in Europe and elsewhere. This adds more complexity to the situation for those who were trying to cope with the new breed of so-called self-starter terrorists, like those responsible for the bombings in London last year and in Madrid the year before.

According to the federal National Counterterrorism Center, Mr. Zarqawi’s operatives are at work in 40 countries and linked with 24 extremist organizations. At a terrorism trial in Germany last fall, a judge declared that “Zarqawi should also be sitting on the defendants’ bench.” In Afghanistan, local intelligence experts believe that Mr. Zarqawi was responsible for dispatching operatives to increase the violence against the government and NATO forces.

The decapitation of the Zarqawi network may indeed diminish its effectiveness, but we should not get our hopes too high: no one expected that anyone would equal or surpass Osama bin Laden as a terrorist leader, so it would be folly to predict that there won’t be another of Mr. Zarqawi’s stature.

“The evil that men do lives after them,” said Shakespeare’s Mark Antony, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi left more than his share. The most important lesson of his reign of terror was the mirror it held up to our misunderstandings of the jihadist threat.

Top military intelligence officials knew he was in Iraq and traveling around the country before the United States invasion, but they did not fully recognize that he was preparing for an insurgency. The Bush administration found it more useful to point to Mr. Zarqawi as a link between the regime of Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, which, at the time, he was not. It has been reported that twice the administration passed on the opportunity to attack his camp in the Kurdish area of Iraq, evidently believing that it would detract from the more important goal of toppling Saddam Hussein.

By the time the administration recognized Mr. Zarqawi’s importance, his network was well ensconced and growing. At this point, the Americans decided to portray him as the linchpin of a small cadre of foreigners in Iraq. But the jihadist threat had morphed again, with the rise of the self-starters and the attacks abroad. With the arrest this week of 17 conspirators in Toronto, we should all realize how global the war is.

Yet both the government and the press make the recurring mistake of thinking that at any one point there is a pure type of the jihadist terrorist — be it the hierarchical Qaeda, the Iraqi insurgents under Mr. Zarqawi, the self-starters in London. The reality is much messier. Spanish officials have hinted that there was a Zarqawi link to the Madrid bombings; some of the London bombers had traveled to Pakistan for training; and there is evidence that some of the Toronto suspects had links to others linked to Mr. Zarqawi.

The jihadists comprise a social movement, not just a cluster of terrorist organizations, and they are totally opportunistic and endlessly plastic in how they accommodate to circumstances. They thrive on our preconceptions and our instinctive determination to come up with rigid schematizations, and we will get the better of them only when our thinking is as flexible and innovative as theirs.