Zarqawi's Death Is Political and Propaganda Success The killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is primarily symbolic, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies tells Renee Montagne. Cordesman emphasizes that Zarqawi was merely the most visible member of a large and fractured insurgency in Iraq.
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Zarqawi's Death Is Political and Propaganda Success

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Zarqawi's Death Is Political and Propaganda Success

Zarqawi's Death Is Political and Propaganda Success

Zarqawi's Death Is Political and Propaganda Success

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Analyst Anthony Cordesman says Abu Musab al-Zarqawi made himself the symbol of al-Qaida in Iraq but he wasn't the group's only organizer. Center for Strategic and International Studies hide caption

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Center for Strategic and International Studies

The killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is primarily symbolic, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies tells Renee Montagne. Cordesman emphasizes that Zarqawi was merely the most visible member of a large and fractured insurgency in Iraq.

Q: Is this as big a setback for the operation of al-Qaida in Iraq as it seems at this moment?

I think it's important to understand that this is a largely a political and a propaganda success unless Zarqawi's death is accompanied by the discovery of some record of the cell structure and organization of al-Qaida. It's also important to understand what al-Qaida really is in Iraq; it's one of three major Islamist extremist groups in the insurgency.

Some 17 to 20 other groups have identifies themselves and there are many smaller, lower-level elements inside the insurgency. So while for many people it is the symbol for the insurgency and Zarqawi is the political leader, the symbol of al-Qaida, it doesn't mean that al-Qaida is going to lose its capabilities and it certainly doesn't mean the bulk of the insurgency will be affected.

Q: So his role in orchestrating the insurgency, was what, aside from being, as you said, the symbol of it?

Well, he was a very important leader. In a lot of ways, I guess the parallel would be Stalin back in the days of communism in Russia, somebody who was the leader of the violence, a person who organized daring raids and attacks. But even before this assassination, at one point he becomes so controversial in al-Qaida, he'd been put aside and other leader had been announced as the emir. He was criticized from al-Qaida outside Iraq because he called for a jihad, a holy war, against Shiites and fellow Muslims. Again, the fact he managed to make himself the symbol for al-Qaida doesn't mean that he was the only leader or the organizer. In a lot of ways he had become demonized as the symbol, but he was not the organization.

Q: Well, are there people who, or a person who can replace him as the face of insurgency and terror?

Well that's a very good question and the answer is, certainly not in the foreseeable future.

Most of the organizations other than al-Qaida don't even have the same name over time. They keep changing their identity. They don't have figures that emerge that have any charismatic or media image. Even within al-Qaida itself, nobody even knew whether the person who'd been named as the new emir when Zarqawi appeared to step aside, really had any status or meaning, and he was never given any media exposure.

And it's important to understand that if the government can appoint a new minister of interior and a new minister of defense, if it couples this kind of victory to measures like continuing to release detainees, like reorganizing the ministry of interior and police forces to eliminate their links to Shiite death squads, give them new uniforms, make them less corrupt, if he can execute plans that are under way to try to take back Baghdad from the militias and from the Zarqawi elements that infiltrated there, then what is in many ways a political victory can be accompanied by much more substantive action.

Excerpt: 'Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq'

In this excerpt from Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq, author Ahmed S. Hashim describes the numerous insurgent groups operating in Iraq.

There are a remarkable number of insurgent organizations. They vary widely in levels of skill, functional specialization, professionalism, number of personnel, modus operandi, targeting and longevity. Some come and go, some change names and some claim to have merged with one another to form larger and supposedly more effective networks. I have come across numerous instances where insurgent groups have said they have merged or are merging. In fall 2004 three groups, the Mujahideen Battalions, the Islamic Army in Iraq and the Mujahideen Brigades, supposedly merged to form the Islamic Jihad Brigades. Five other, smaller groups claimed that they had merged to form the Imam al-Mujahideen Brigades. This supposedly brought together nearly 7,000 mujahideen from all corners of the country. This chaotic situation, of course, has proven to be a major problem for effective intelligence-gathering about the insurgency and its methods and goals.

The following are secular nationalist/tribal groups:

The General Command of the Armed Forces, Resistance and Liberation in Iraq. Probably composed of former Iraqi military personnel, particularly from the Special Republican Guards, security and intelligence personnel, and members of the Ba’th Party and the paramilitary Fedayeen. These former regime personnel are not averse to giving their cells Islamic names.

Popular Resistance for the Liberation of Iraq. Issued a call on 26 June 2003 to all in the Arab and Islamic worlds to come and attack the the insurgents’ way of warfare United States in Iraq. It criticized Arab and Muslim rulers for turning themselves into local policemen for the United States.

Iraqi Resistance and Liberation Command. Appeared in late April 2003. It is secular and nationalist but has denied that it is an extension of the defunct regime. It issued a communiqué that called for a ‘jihad until the liberation of Iraq’. It is quite normal for secular and nationalist groups to use the religious term jihad.

Al ‘Awdah (The Return). Came to prominence in mid-June 2003. It is made up of former security-service members and Iraqi armed forces personnel organized into cells distributed throughout cities such as Baghdad, Mosul and Ramadi. There are reports that the pro-Saddam elements of the Ba‘th Party have actually renamed the party Al ‘Awdah.

Harakat Ra‘s al-‘Afa (Snake’s Head Movement). Also Ba‘thist, it allegedly has links to Sunni Arab tribes around Fallujah and Ramadi. Nasserites. A small group of non-Ba’thist pan-Arab nationalists of little significance. Their only claim to fame, apart from allegedly successful attacks on US forces, is their ability to make enemies of almost all other Iraqi political groups, whether insurgent or involved in the political process under the auspices of the CPA.

Thuwwar al-‘Arak—Kata‘ib al-Anbar al-Musallahah (Iraq’s Revolutionaries—Al-Anbar Armed Brigades) . An anti-Saddamist nationalist insurgent group based in Anbar Province.

General Secretariat for the Liberation of Democratic Iraq. A leftist, anti-Saddam nationalist group that condemns the Coalition authority for failing to provide security and basic services to the population.

The following insurgent organizations incorporate nationalist and religious elements:

Higher Command of the Mujahideen in Iraq. This is one of the most active resistance groups in Iraq. It is unclear whether it is largely religious or nationalist, or a front for Saddam’s defunct regime. The group first emerged on 15 April 2003, when it issued a communiqué that stated it had 8,000 mujahideen (holy warriors) within its ranks. This is a huge number and there are indications that it might be an umbrella organization for several groups. Several subsequent communiqués stated that the group had nothing to do with the former regime and was seeking to establish an Islamic state. But other communiqués indicate that it had conducted joint operations with members of the former Iraqi armed forces, nationalist resistance group and even units of Fedayeen. The organization’s ‘combat units’ are referred to as brigades. The best-known, the Al-Faruq and Al-‘Abbas brigades, were raised in early June 2003 and might include secular Sunni Arabs and individuals from now defunct organizations within the former regime. The Al-Faruq Brigades have set up small units, or ‘squadrons’, with Islamic names such as the Muntasirun bi Allah squadron, which was active in Anbar Province during summer 2003. Squadrons have different specialties, such as reconnaissance and combat.

Munazzamat al-Rayat al-Aswad (Black Banner Organization) . This organization’s propaganda seems to indicate that it has nationalist and religious tendencies. It has called for sabotage of the oil industry to prevent it from falling to the hands of the West.

Unification Front for the Liberation of Iraq. Little is known about this group except that it is anti-Saddamist and anti-Ba’thist, and has called upon all Iraqi forces to fight the US occupation.

National Front for the Liberation of Iraq. This sounds like the name of a secular resistance organization, but apparently it incorporates elements of the regime and religious sympathizers, because it has accepted into its ranks Republican Guards and Islamists. It was also one of the first groups to appear during the war. It issued its first communiqués in April 2003, and claimed that it had tried to assassinate Ahmed Chalabi but only succeeded in killing some of his supporters in an attack in Najaf.

The following are defined largely by their religious tendencies:

Jaish Ansar al-Sunnah. One of the largest and deadliest insurgent groups in the Iraq, it is also one of the most active and uncompromising in its ideology, as reflected in numerous statements by its ‘officials’, including the following: ‘It is known that the jihad in Iraq has become the individual duty of every obligation after the infidel enemy fell upon the land of Islam … The task is great … [and] the aim does not end with their defeat but with the application of the shari‘ah of Allah and his Prophet.’84 It first came into prominence on 26 November 2003, when a unit of the ‘army’, the Al-Mansur Brigade, killed several Spanish intelligence officers in the vicinity of Mahmudiyah, south of Baghdad. In February 2004 it conducted terrorist strikes in the relatively tranquil Kurdish north. It is notorious for its ruthlessness, having executed twelve kidnapped Nepalese hostages whom it had abducted in August 2004, and seventeen Iraqi contractors working for the US military in Tikrit in December 2004.

Mujahideen al ta‘ifa al-Mansoura (Mujahideen of the Victorious Sect) . This includes non-Iraq Sunni Islamist elements or even Sunni fundamentalist elements of neo-Salafi background. Its military arm is known as the Martyr Khattab Brigade.

Kata‘ib al Mujahideen fi al-Jama‘ah al-Salafiyah fi al-‘Arak (Mujahideen Battalions of the Salafi Group of Iraq). A Sunni Islamist group that claims as its spiritual mentor the Palestinian Islamist Abdullah Azzam, who fought with the Afghan mujahideen with his acolyte osama Bin Laden.

Jihad Brigades/Cells. This group emerged in late July 2003 but little is known about it except it has called for guerilla warfare and threatened to execute ‘spies and traitors’ (i.e. those who are believed to be collaborating with the US occupation).

Armed Islamic Movement of Al Qaeda Organization, Fallujah Branch. Very little is known about this group except that it has gained adherents in the very conservative and religious town of Fallujah, which has been the scene of confrontations between US forces and local residents. It has claimed several attacks on US forces in the vicinity of the town.

Jaish Muhammad (Army of Muhammad) . This very enigmatic resistance movement was founded by a group of insurgents in Diyala during a meeting in September 2003 between representatives from the towns of Ramadi, Fallujah, Samarra and Baquba. It has repeatedly threatened to blow up the embassies of Islamic states or those of states neighboring Iraq should they interfere in Iraqi affairs: ‘We warn you against the gravity of interference in our domestic affairs if you support the infidel gathering by sending troops to Iraq … The Islamic Jihad Brigades of Muhammad’s Army has decided to send you a warning through the destruction of your embassies in Iraq in case you send any military or civilian forces to loot the resources of our great country.’85 Jaish Muhammad is composed of the following ‘brigades’: Al-husayn Brigade; Al-Abbas Brigade; Islamic Jihad Brigade; ‘Abdallah Bin-Jahsh Bin-Rikab al-Asadi Brigade; Walid Bin al-Mughirah Brigade, whose members allegedly specialize in targeting foreign institutions, including embassies; ‘Umar al-Faruk Brigade; and Al-Mahdi al-Muntazir (Awaited Mahdi Brigade). Jaish Muhammad is large and ambitious and has a significant geographical scope, requiring it to develop specialized cells.

Islamic Army of Iraq. French journalists George Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot were abducted by members of the fanatical Islamic Army in Iraq, which some sources credit with 15,000 to 17,000 members. If this number is accurate, it raises serious questions about the insurgent counts that US officials and media have bandied about since late 2003. Malbrunot’s description of his captors was chilling: ‘These people will not surrender. They have time, they have weapons, they have money. And, they are fighting at home. I am afraid it will only get worse, that they will get more and more power.’86 he believes that the IAI is largely made up of Iraqi Salafists with ties to or admiration for Osama Bin Laden. Some told him that they were former Ba‘thists, which is very possible, because there have been many reports about former Ba‘thist officials switching allegiance and adhering to religious extremism.

The IAI cells are very compartmentalized and have a meticulous division of labor, with distinct cells for kidnapping, interrogation, guard duty and executions. They have also cooperated with Zarqawi’s group. Their enemies, they told Malbrunot, were ‘American soldiers and other Coalition members, collaborators, which meant businessmen—Italian, American or even French—who are working there, the Iraqi police and spies’. There was a distinct feeling that the IAI would execute the hostages but they did not. It is unclear why. Maybe they got more mileage out of holding them than executing them. It is possible that they thought twice about executing two well-known journalists from a pro-Arab country. The Arab and Muslim worlds were outraged by the abductions, particularly by the clumsy attempts to link the release of the journalists to the headscarf issue in France, where state law disallows the wearing of any religious accoutrements in public schools. IAI issued a statement that they wanted the law banning headscarves rescinded, which occasioned the commentary in the region that this had nothing to do with the ‘resistance’ in Iraq.

Then there was the peculiar and half-hearted attempt to persuade the men to adopt Islam, which merely served to increase anti-Muslim prejudice in France. By December 2004, IAI had probably come to the belief that the two journalists were more of a liability than an asset. Whether the French paid a ransom or not is unknown. But to provide financial reserves to the coffers of a brutal extremist organization with links in Europe, and when France is facing quite serious Islamist extremism and responding to it ruthlessly, is not wise. The journalists were released on 21 December 2004 with the warning: ‘Don’t come back here. We don’t want you. Iraq is a land of war.’

Malbrunot believes that while the IAI is largely Islamist in mindset and ideological motivation, because of its message and pronouncements by individuals within the group that abducted Chesnot and him, it included members of the former regime. He bases this on his interrogation by what seemed to be professional intelligence officers and because ‘during our detention there were meetings of military experts from those who belonged to Saddam Husayn. Probably they were Islamic individuals with Islamic thought and could not express these opinions during the Saddam rule but now were under the banner of the Islamic army.’

Reproduced from Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq, by Ahmed S. Hashim. Copyright © 2005 by Cornell University Press and C. Hurst & Co. Used by permission of the publishers, Cornell University Press and C. Hurst & Co.