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Thursday, June 8, 2006

Zarqawi's Two Big Mistakes

By J.M. Berger

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, was reported dead today. His death comes not long after the controversial terrorist leader made two sharp changes in strategy -- both of which may have contributed to his death.


  • Footage of Air Strike on Zarqawi
  • Zarqawi's Last Video Message
  • Outtakes From Zarqawi Video

    Previous reports:

  • Seeking Answers On Nick Berg
  • Zarqawi's Failed U.S. Strikes
  • Berg Killing Not Revenge
  • First, Zarqawi showed his face in a propaganda video released a few short weeks ago. Although a handful of still images had been released through various means in the past, the latest video represented a bold step forward to claim a higher visibility role, similar to that played by al Qaeda's top leadership, Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri.

    But it also meant high visibility on the streets of Iraq. Before the April release, Zarqawi could move with impunity in Iraq and with the reasonable expectation he wouldn't be recognized. The video showed Zarqawi's face and frame with a clarity not seen before, and it received wide circulation inside and outside of Iraq.

    The second change was no so much of a change as a retrenchment. Last year, a letter was intercepted from Al Qaeda's top leader Zawahiri urging Zarqawi to scale back his attacks on Shi'ite Muslims in Iraq. For a time, it appeared Zarqawi was attempting to honor that request to some extent (though clearly not as much as Zawahiri had in mind).

    But in his most recent audio communique, Zarqawi returned to form with a vicious diatribe against Iraqi Shi'ites that sounded, to many analysts, like an act of defiance directed toward al Qaeda's central leadership. It also played like a reversal of steps taken in early 2005 to lessen the divisiveness of Zarqawi's role among Iraqi factions.

    Either way, from al Qaeda's perspective, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's usefulness to the cause began to look like a case of diminishing returns.

    One or both of these mistakes may have cost Zarqawi his life.

    The air strike that killed the al Qaeda leader was based on intelligence tipoffs. Zarqawi might simply have been recognized by someone who saw him in the video.

    However, in al Qaeda's world, it's a truism that inconvenient political figures don't just fade away -- especially when they get on Ayman Zawahiri's bad side.

    Al Qaeda itself was founded on the blood of legendary jihadist Abdullah Azzam, who died in a mysterious assassination sometimes blamed on Zawahiri.

    And Azzam was incredibly popular, compared to the Al Qaeda in Iraq's leader, who sickened as many as he inspired.

    al Qaeda may simply have decided Zarqawi was more valuable to the cause as a glorious martyr than as a rogue homicidal sectarian. We will see soon whether that equation balances.

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    Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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    INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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