The Evolving Role of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq
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TOM BEARDEN: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the militant group he heads, al-Qaida in Iraq, claimed responsibility for three coordinated bombings in Baghdad this week. Among the targets were two hotels housing westerners, including contractors and journalists but all 17 killed turned out to be Iraqis. Jordanian-born Zarqawi is the most wanted and feared terrorist leader in Iraq. The U.S. has a $25 million bounty on his head. Zarqawi’s group has claimed responsibility for numerous kidnappings and suicide bombings aimed at both U.S. and Iraqi forces.
The first major attack masterminded by Zarqawi was the bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad in August of 2003. It killed the U.N.’s top official, Sergio Viero de Mello and 21 others.
A year ago Zarqawi operatives succeeded in detonating a bomb inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified green zone. That attack killed five people.
SPOKESMAN: I thank you.
TOM BEARDEN: 38-year-old Zarqawi has ordered the videotaped beheading of some kidnapping victims including British contractor Kenneth Bigly and American businessman Nicholas Berg. A masked Zarqawi allegedly decapitated Berg himself.
A Sunni-Arab, Zarqawi has also targeted Iraqi Shiites and the Iraqi military. In audio tapes released over the last four months he repeated his declaration of war on both.
ABU MUSAB AL-ZARQAWI (Translated): We declared an all out war against the renegade Shiites all over Iraq wherever they are. You started the aggression. Beware of our anger. We swear by God that we will never show mercy to you.
We now accept the Iraqi army as an army of apostates and mercenaries that has allied itself with the crusaders and came to destroy Islam and fight Muslims. We will fight it.
TOM BEARDEN: The top U.S. military intelligence officer in Iraq told the Washington Post Zarqawi has effectively hijacked the Iraq insurgency.
About 100 of Zarqawi’s deputies have been captured or killed but the leader is still at large despite numerous military offensives aimed at finding him in his western Iraq hideout.
The international leadership of al-Qaida has disputed Zarqawi’s tactics. A letter from Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida’s number two worldwide, said Muslim civilians should not be targeted in Iraq. The authenticity of the letter posted on a U.S. Intelligence Web site was disputed by al-Qaida.
U.S. Intelligence officials have said that Zarqawi’s network now spans as many as 40 other countries. In Germany today the four Arab men found guilty of plotting to bomb Jewish targets in that country were described by prosecutors as Zarqawi operatives.
JIM LEHRER: And to Margaret Warner.
MARGARET WARNER: To explore how Zarqawi’s role in Iraq has evolved and his wider activities and goals, we turn to: Steven Simon, a counterterrorism official on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration. He’s co-author of “The Age of Sacred Terror” about the rise of al-Qaida; and Bernard Haykel, assistant professor of Middle Eastern Studies at New York University. Welcome to you both.
Steve Simon, first of all, tell us where and who is Zarqawi? In other words, where did he come from that made him the man he is today?
STEVEN SIMON: Zarqawi was, well, still is, a tough guy. He was from the wrong side of the tracks.
MARGARET WARNER: In Jordan.
STEVEN SIMON: Yes. He comes from the town of Zarka; it is a gritty, industrial town. He had brushes with the law. He’s a natural thug in some ways.
As a result of one of these brushes with the law, he wound up in jail. It was in prison — this is rather a common story — he encountered very religious individuals who gave him a new purpose in life, who redirected him, who imbued him with radical Islamic views, which he then sought to put into effect, using violence.
MARGARET WARNER: And, Professor Haykel, as Steve Simon said, this is a rather common story. What is it about Zarqawi that enabled him to emerge really as the face of the insurgency in Iraq?
BERNARD HAYKEL: In prison, his mentor describes him as having had remarkable charisma and incredible organizational abilities so that even in prison, everyone deferred to him as the leader of the prisoners while still in Jordan.
And it’s clear that the man has remarkable media savvy. He knows how to use the media, for instance, just now with the attacks in Iraq to bring attention to himself.
And he has become a symbol, an icon throughout the Sunni Muslim world as the principal leader of this war against the Americans and of the insurgency, in addition to which he seems to have established very close and very good ties with former Baathists and Iraqi army officers so that he’s proven very useful to them as well.
MARGARET WARNER: So Steve Simon, first of all, is it now undeniable that he is the leader of the insurgency in Iraq as opposed to say, the Baathists? And, if so, how did he pull that off? What else would you add to what the professor said?
STEVEN SIMON: Well, I would differ from Professor Haykel only slightly in saying that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is not actually the leader of the resistance. He has emerged as the face, as a symbol of the resistance and a very powerful one.
But the resistance itself is fragmented and consists of parties, factions, that have differing strategic objectives even if their tactical goals are held in common. So, you know, the resistance has benefited, I would say, from Zarqawi’s flare, his flamboyance, his dramatic cruelty, the performative violence that he brings to the screen just as Zarqawi has benefited from their protection.
MARGARET WARNER: And what would you say –
STEVEN SIMON: It’s been a marriage of convenience.
MARGARET WARNER: And what would you say, Steve Simon, is his ultimate goal? What’s really driving him?
STEVEN SIMON: Well, I can speculate. He is seeking first and foremost to humiliate the United States and if he can, force it or be seen to have forced its withdrawal from Iraq.
He wants to challenge what he thinks is Shiite arrogance in attempting to control Iraq and press Shiite prerogatives where he feels they have no place, no legitimacy.
And he wants to build a broad movement, but in a way that differs from the kind of movement that bin Laden is trying to build.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Professor Haykel, pick up the thread there. What is his relationship to bin Laden and his number two man Ayman al-Zawahiri? Are they — is one a lieutenant? Is he still a lieutenant in that movement? Is he an equal now? Is he a rival?
BERNARD HAYKEL: It’s a very complicated relationship that he has with bin Laden that goes back to the days when he was still in Afghanistan. And we’re told that he wasn’t willing or at least was very hesitant to acknowledge bin Laden as the leader of al-Qaida and that there were tensions there over questions to do, among other things, with what books and syllabi to use in educating and radicalizing Jihadis in Afghanistan.
Now what’s clear though is that he has allied himself with the movement, with al-Qaida broadly. And he sees himself as its lieutenant in Iraq.
More recently though, there is a very dramatic rupture over tactics, which has emerged between Zarqawi who says basically to al-Qaida, look I’m the commander on the ground, I know what’s going on in Iraq and I should be — you should defer to me when it comes to how to fight this war against the Americans and against the Shiites.
And the people on the outside, whether it’s Zawahiri or even Zarqawi’s own mentor back in Jordan, are telling him, look, the wider Muslim world is really being turned off by the tactics that you’re employing in Iraq and that you should hold off from killing Shiites and beheading people in so graphic a fashion and that you ought to listen to what we have to say.
So there is a split, I think, over tactics but not really over strategy, over long-term strategy.
MARGARET WARNER: So, Steve Simon, this letter was sent to him from Zawahiri saying essentially stop attacking Muslim civilians in Iraq, is there any evidence that that had any impact on Zarqawi’s tactics?
STEVEN SIMON: It hasn’t. This problem cropped up on a previous occasion for bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. There was an outbreak of violence in Saudi Arabia between 2003 and 2004, and the man who led that outbreak, Abdulaziz al-Mokrin, was very much like a Zarqawi figure.
And he felt that Muslims who cooperated with enemies of Islam deserved to die. And he killed people quite indiscriminately at least at first in what he was doing in Saudi Arabia. And bin Laden apparently put a stop to that. It doesn’t look as though bin Laden has quite the same juice in dealing with Zarqawi.
MARGARET WARNER: And, Steve Simon, we saw the results of this trial, for instance, in Germany today. Some U.S. officials are saying he does have cells or operatives in all these countries. Do you think he has worldwide reach at this point?
STEVEN SIMON: Well, he seems to be running the so-called rat lines or at least some of these conduits or channels that bring fighters from other countries into Iraq, which suggests a transnational network.
We know that he has spent some time and energy in trying to develop one, not just in Europe but within the region itself and had been in Iraq and probably in Iran before the current war in Iraq to pull together the rudiments of a resistance to what was then an impending invasion.
Whether he has operatives in 40 countries who knows? The phrase reminded me of the way in which we used to describe bin Laden’s network. I think what we used to say was bin Laden has operatives in 60 countries. Not clear that we know precisely but he certainly has been assiduous in developing a network. Remember what Professor Haykel said a minute ago. He’s very good at organizing.
MARGARET WARNER: And Professor Haykel, in a word would you put him in the same rank as Osama bin Laden in terms of a threat to the United States?
BERNARD HAYKEL: Absolutely. I mean, there’s no question. And one of the things that he wants to prove is that he can fight both in Iraq and outside Iraq to rebut some of the arguments that are being made against him about killing Muslims and Shiites only.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Professor and Steve Simon, thank you both.