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After Zarqawi: An Assessment

Anil Kamboj was Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • June 19, 2006

    On June 8, Americans woke up to hear the news of the death of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the leader of the al-Qaeda in Iraq. This was the first good news out of Iraq for Americans since the capture of former President Saddam Hussain in December 2003. The news came at a time when increasing worries about US losses in Iraq had lowered the popularity ratings of President Bush to a record low of 35 per cent. Zarqawi had waged a campaign of suicide bombings and beheadings of hostages in Iraq. He projected his image by periodically releasing video footages of his most gruesome deeds and establishing a rather nebulous link with Osama bin Laden. For its part, the United States tried to project the image that the insurgency in Iraq was the handiwork of a trans-national terrorist network headed by Zarqawi. All of this made the Jordanian a well-known figure.

    Zarqawi had led Arab fighters against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Though he went back to Jordan after the Afghan jihad, he subsequently returned to Afghanistan and set up camp at Heart from where he propagated terrorism and renewed contacts with the al-Qaeda. After the US Air Force bombed his Afghan base, he fled to Shakai in South Waziristan in 2001, where he established links with the Taliban commander Nek Muhammad. Zarqawi left Pakistan via Balochistan and Iran, and reached Iraq in 2002. After the insurgency broke out in Iraq, Zarqawi established linkages with most major and minor Sunni groups in order to co-ordinate attacks against the Iraqi government forces and the US-led coalition forces.

    He had also recently established linkages with leaders of the Taliban operating in Afghanistan. There is enough circumstantial evidence to suggest that Zarqawi had been co-ordinating attacks inside both Iraq and Afghanistan. Firstly, there has been a sudden rise in co-ordinated attacks on US forces and Afghan government forces in southern Afghanistan by the Taliban on the pattern of attacks by the insurgents in Iraq. Secondly, there has been a sudden increase in suicide bomb and car bomb attacks on US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. And thirdly, there has been a serious effort to create a rift between Western forces and the Afghans, the incident of May 29 being a good example. His goal seems to have been to pin down US forces in both countries.

    The killing of Zarqawi is a big set back for the Iraqi insurgent movement. It could degrade the ability of Zarqawi's group to mount suicide and car bomb attacks. Having said that, it is likely that his lieutenants would launch new attacks to assert their organisation's continued presence in the country. Generally, there is a second rung leadership in such organisations that takes over command when a vacuum is created at the helm. But in this case no one has probably been nominated earlier.

    The expected person to take over command of the group was Abu al Masri who had come to Iraq in 2002. Instead Abu Hamza al Muhajer has been named as Zarqawi's successor. His name has neither figured in any of the al Qaeda's websites nor in the US list of terrorists with rewards on their heads. This suggests that he is either a lower-profile figure or a more prominent member who has goes by a pseudonym. Information about the new leader has not been mentioned, so as to reflect a new emphasis on secrecy by the group. This has been done deliberately as US forces have launched a series of raids against the al Qaeda in Iraq based on intelligence found in the safe house where Zarqawi was killed. There could also be fear of infiltration within the group.

    In case al Muhajer is a lower profile figure, the probability of which is less, then there could be a bloody internecine struggle within the group till he is able to establish his authority. Eliminations of some suspects, who may have leaked out information about Zarqawi to Jordanian and US forces, can be expected in due course of time. Some active Iraqi Sunni fighters, who were fed up of killing people of their own country, may defect from the group. They may turn against foreign jihadis who have given a sectarian orientation to the resistance. This could lead to selective killings of these leaders so to stanch the flow of defectors. The name of the successor suggests that he is not an Iraqi as, al Muhajer means an immigrant. Therefore the group is likely to continue the foreign operations. Zarqawi was the prime mover and encouraged inter-community conflict in Iraq. With his elimination inter-community conflict may wind down, which would be good for the people and the government in Iraq.

    The US military in Iraq has claimed that al Masri is indeed al Muhajer and that he has been named as Zarqawi's successor. However, US National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley has asserted that this claim is not yet certain and that more time is needed to confirm such speculation.

    Though the various terrorist groups had been operating independently in Iraq, Zarqawi had been co-ordinating their operations. Such co-ordination is likely to suffer till such time his successor establishes complete control over the situation. There is also likely to be lack of coordination between the jihadis in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

    The manner in which Zarqawi was eliminated suggests that both human intelligence and technical intelligence systems have begun to work successfully in Iraq. The electronic surveillance system, which had been tracking Sheikh Abdel Rahman, spiritual advisor to Zarqawi, led the forces to the Baquba safe house. Jordanian intelligence obtained this information from a mole in the Zarqawi group and passed on the information to US forces. Such an intelligence coup could result in infighting within the al Qaeda in Iraq, as surviving leaders would begin to suspect one another and fear for their lives.

    Due to the shutting down of some sources of terror financing, the al Qaeda is facing financial problems. The al-Qaeda number two, Aymen al Zawahri, had asked Zarqawi, the fund raising icon, to raise funds through his worldwide fund raising campaigns and to send money. Zarqawi's death is bound to be a setback for these efforts and the group may face a financial crunch.

    President Bush's popularity rating dropped to about 35 per cent and the country was badly split in its views on the War in Iraq. Due to the elimination of Zarqawi, President Bush and the Republicans may benefit politically in the November mid-term elections for Congress. His secret visit to Iraq on June 13 sought to cash in on the wave of publicity surrounding the killing of Zarqawi, and boost his crumbling political support.

    For Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki, the killing of Zarqawi has brought immediate political gains in the form of parliamentary approval of his nominees for the posts of Defence Minister, Interior Minister and National Security Minister.

    Zarqawi's death is not the end of al Qaeda operations in Iraq, but the manner of his death gives hope that it might mark the beginning of its end.