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Killings Raise Questions About Insurgents’ Tactics

June 20, 2006 at 6:15 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Now, more on the people who today claimed responsibility for the soldiers’ kidnappings and deaths. Lawrence Wright is a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine. He’s written extensively on al-Qaida and is author of the forthcoming book, “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.”

Alexis Debat is a senior fellow at the Nixon Center, former official in the French defense ministry. He’s also a terrorism consultant for ABC News.

Lawrence Wright, what do you make of these claims that the new leader of al-Qaida in Iraq personally killed these two soldiers?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT, The New Yorker Magazine: Well, if he’s trying to follow in Zarqawi’s footsteps, that’s how Zarqawi made himself known to the world: by slaughtering an American live on the Internet. And, you know, he put himself out there as a rival to bin Laden and to Zawahiri.

I think that his successor wants to let us know that he’s also a force to be contended with.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that?

ALEXIS DEBAT, The Nixon Center: Absolutely. I think a big part of al-Qaida in Iraq’s strategy in Iraq involves the media. And this is really al-Masri stepping into the spotlight, if you will.

JIM LEHRER: And al-Masri is saying, by this act, I’m just like Zarqawi or worse, or what’s the message here?

ALEXIS DEBAT: It’s hard to say. Al-Masri is certainly not like Zarqawi. He’s much more of a professional terrorist; he’s much more political. He’s also apparently…

JIM LEHRER: What does that mean, more professional, more political?

ALEXIS DEBAT: He is a former member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which was active in Egypt in the 1980s. And he is a follower, if not a protege, of Ayman al-Zawahiri. And he has…

JIM LEHRER: Remind us who he is now.

ALEXIS DEBAT: Ayman al-Zawahiri is al-Qaida’s number two.

JIM LEHRER: Number-two guy, below Osama bin Laden.

ALEXIS DEBAT: Below Osama bin Laden, very much the strategist behind Osama bin Laden. Abu Ayyub al-Masri has been living in Zawahiri’s shadow for a very long time, learning at the feet of the master, if you will. And in that regard, he can be considered as much more — I mean, really much more political, which is using violence much more discriminately, but for a mass effect.

A phantom enemy

Lawrence Wright
The New Yorker
He may not even exist. You know, he may be an artifact of some kind of intelligence agency. The Egyptians, who were close to Zawahiri, say they've never heard of him. He had very few footsteps up until he arrived in Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

Lawrence Wright, what else do you think we should know about -- what do we know and what do we that is important that we should know about him, that we need to know about him now, tonight, as a result of these two killings?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Well, first of all, you know, he may not even exist. You know, he may be an artifact of some kind of intelligence agency. The Egyptians, who were close to Zawahiri, say they've never heard of him. He had very few footsteps up until he arrived in Iraq, so he's a very shadowy figure, at the least.

JIM LEHRER: Wait a minute. Are you saying it's -- excuse me. The U.S. government said last week this guy did exist. They even showed pictures of him. But you're saying that could be -- that may not be the case?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Well, they showed pictures of a young man. They say that he joined Egyptian Islamic Jihad in 1982 at a time when almost that entire movement was in Nasser's prisons after the Sadat assassination. And so it would have been hard, and he would have been 14 years old, but it's conceivable.

But Zawahiri's associates say they have never heard of him. And then none of the major witnesses in the trials in America for the embassy bombings or the 1993 World Trade Center bombing mention him, so it's certainly conceivable that he was a low-level member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad who did travel to Afghanistan and there met Zarqawi, as the military has portrayed it, but it's also possible that this is someone who has been put forward with a false identity. There's a lot of things that we don't really know about him.

JIM LEHRER: So it is a dark and obscure world, as John Burns told us?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Yes, indeed.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, yes. Well, so do you have any thoughts about that, that maybe this guy doesn't even exist?

ALEXIS DEBAT: Well, there are some things out there. For example, this week, a letter from him surfaced on the Internet, a letter dated from 2004, which is very interesting, because it indicates a very strong grasp of Muslim theology, which would indicate that he has received some form of formal education in the Koranic...

JIM LEHRER: So you believe he's a real person, right?

ALEXIS DEBAT: I do believe he's a real person. There are some traces of him in Afghanistan around Zawahiri. Zawahiri had grouped around himself about a half-dozen Egyptians, senior members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Abu Ayyub al-Masri was one of them, so there are a few traces of him, but not that many.

Shifting targets

Alexis Debat
The Nixon Center
So the two parts, the pillars of the recalibration that Mr. Wright was talking about would be a greater focus on American troops in Iraq and also a greater focus on operations abroad.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

Lawrence Wright, just on the ground in Iraq, what is the status of this al-Qaida in Iraq organization? What is known about it? What can you tell us about it?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Well, it was, you know, the Zarqawi organization which in the beginning was independent of al-Qaida. He had always kept a certain distance between himself and bin Laden, although, as Alexis notes, there was a sponsorship on the part of the Egyptians.

When he got to al-Qaida, he made himself known by blowing up the U.N. compound, by attacking moderate Shia, by killing one of the major ayatollahs there, and then made application to join al-Qaida.

And, for about a year, there was deliberation apparently over the issue of how much he should target the Shiites in Iraq. And, finally, bin Laden did endorse him and allowed him to use the brand name of al-Qaida. And that's how we got al-Qaida in Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: Is going after these American soldiers a shift in what the recent strategy was under Zarqawi?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Yes. Zarqawi was really targeting Shiites; he was not really after the Americans. His goal was to provoke a civil war.

And I think that both bin Laden and Zawahiri looked at that as a losing strategy. And Zawahiri cautioned him about this and said, you know, are you going to try to kill all the Shiites? Has this ever been possible? He really was opposed to this particular plan.

If we have one of Zawahiri's men in control now of al-Qaida in Iraq, then I think what we will see is a recalibration of the strategy. They will be focusing on American troops; they will not be focusing on the Shiites.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that?

ALEXIS DEBAT: Absolutely. I think the fact that he targeted American soldiers, also the fact that there's no videos.

Remember, in the letter that surfaced a few months ago, Ayman al-Zawahiri criticized Abu Musab al-Zarqawi for his gruesome videos on the Internet, and namely the Nick Berg video. So no videos this time, which that could be an indication that al-Qaida in Iraq is going to be much -- run much closer to al-Qaida central's goals.

Also, al-Masri was very much involved, apparently, in setting up networks abroad. So the two parts, the pillars of the recalibration that Mr. Wright was talking about would be a greater focus on American troops in Iraq and also a greater focus on operations abroad.

An uncertain hold in Iraq

Alexis Debat
The Nixon Center
It's very likely that al-Masri will break away also from that strategy and, again, focus on operations against the Americans and operations abroad and be a much smaller player on the Iraqi political scene.

JIM LEHRER: Lawrence Wright, does this necessarily mean a stronger al-Qaida organization, or a weaker organization, or a different organization? What does this mean in the long run, do you think?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: I think that al-Qaida has decided, you know, what can it get out of Iraq? I don't think that they believe that the Zarqawi strategy was going to lead to victory. They thought it might lead to disaster.

And so if al-Qaida can get training for its members, as they did in Afghanistan, and then send them back to their other countries to foment revolutions and coups, that's what they really hope, I think. Ultimately, they hope to take over Egypt.

I think they look at Iraq as being predominantly Shiite and an unlikely place for them to take over the country and set up a caliphate, as they often announce they'd like to.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Debat, is there anything much known about their popularity among the population in Iraq? Are they growing in political strength? Do they have a following? Or is it just these guys and their cause and their murderous ways?

ALEXIS DEBAT: Well, this is a major point. We don't know much about their popularity in Iraq. What is important is their popularity among the Sunni, the Arab Sunnis.

Remember, one of Zarqawi's biggest victories was to convince the Sunni community in Iraq that he was their best bet, that he was their only bargaining chip at the negotiating table with the Kurds and the Shia. Remember, the Shia have the oil and a numerical advantage; the Kurds have a little bit of oil and the threat of secession. What do the Sunnis have?

Zarqawi was very successful at convincing the Sunni community that he was their only asset, that the only thing that they could bargain away, the only thing that would make them exist in the great political reorganization of post-Saddam Iraq.

So what is happening now supposedly is that there is a break-up among all of these Sunni factions. And leading members of the Sunni community, especially some tribal leaders, are turning against the foreign fighters and al-Qaida in Iraq and basically breaking off from that strategy, realizing that it didn't bring them anything, it brought them very little, and maybe choosing another route, maybe a more peaceful, more political route.

It's very likely that al-Masri will break away also from that strategy and, again, focus on operations against the Americans and operations abroad and be a much smaller player on the Iraqi political scene.

And this is actually very significant, because this brings out a lot of opportunities for the U.S. military to turn the Sunni community against the foreign fighters, which they've been trying to do for the past three years.

An omen of the future

Lawrence Wright
The New Yorker
Abu Ayyub al-Masri is trying to form alliances with the Baathist insurgents, try to take credit for driving the American forces out of Iraq, and using that prestige to advance their cause in other countries.

JIM LEHRER: And have they had any success at that, Lawrence Wright, in really going after these insurgents, whatever groupings they are at any given moment?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Well, you know, it's odd. I think both the U.S. and al-Qaida are demoralized by their prospects in Iraq. And it's a very difficult place for us to work, and it's a difficult place for them.

The al-Qaida diaries that they've captured show a lot of feeling of depression among the fighters that the Iraqi population hasn't accepted them.

So I suspect that what you're going to see with Abu Ayyub al-Masri is trying to form alliances with the Baathist insurgents, try to take credit for driving the American forces out of Iraq, and using that prestige to advance their cause in other countries.

JIM LEHRER: Meanwhile, Lawrence Wright, can we expect more acts of brutality like the killing of these two U.S. soldiers?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Oh, I think this is -- you know, he's put down a marker. This is the way it's going to be.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Gentlemen, thank you both very much.