Commentary

Overstating the Zarqawi threat

By Charles V. Peña
This article originally appeared in Daily Star on July 15, 2004.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was originally thrust into the spotlight as the Bush administration’s evidence that Saddam Hussein’s former Baath regime in Iraq was supporting Al-Qaeda. Yet the facts available on Zarqawi are not as clear as the administration claims.

Addressing the United Nations Security Council in February 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell said: “Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda lieutenants.” But as Powell himself acknowledged, Zarqawi and the Ansar al-Islam terrorist group with which Zarqawi was associated were based “in northern Kurdish areas outside Saddam Hussein’s controlled Iraq,” which did not make a strong case for close ties between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda. (It also raised the question as to why the US military did not take action earlier against an alleged Al-Qaeda target inside the coalition-controlled no-fly zone).

Moreover, the State Department described Ansar al-Islam as “a radical Islamist group of Iraqi Kurds and Arabs who have vowed to establish an independent Islamic state in northern Iraq” - again, unconvincing evidence that Saddam and Al-Qaeda were in league with each other.

Last month, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld admitted that Zarqawi “may very well not have sworn allegiance to UBL (Osama bin Laden).” Instead, Zarqawi - now linked to the militant Islamic terrorist group Al-Tawhid - has emerged as his own man (some claim a rival to bin Laden) and has become public enemy No. 1 in Iraq. Last February, a letter purportedly written by Zarqawi called for waging jihad against American forces in Iraq and inciting civil war between Shiites and Sunnis. More than 25 attacks in Iraq have been attributed to Zarqawi, as well as the kidnapping and execution of American Nicholas Berg and South Korean Kim Sun-il.

The reward for Zarqawi’s capture has gone from $5 million last October to $10 million in February. It now stands at $25 million, equal to the bounty on the head of bin Laden. At least five US air strikes in Fallujah in the last few weeks have been directed at alleged Zarqawi safe houses - most recently when US forces dropped 2 tons of precision-guided bombs on a suspected hideout that resulted in a 9-meter-deep crater and at least 10 people killed.

The current focus on Zarqawi seems to mirror the previous hunt for Saddam Hussein. Air strikes based on on-the-ground intelligence were close to getting Saddam and have been close to getting Zarqawi. But, as the saying goes, close only counts in horseshoes and with hand grenades. US forces may get lucky and kill Zarqawi in an air strike (Al-Qaeda deputy Mohammed Atef was killed in an American air strike in Afghanistan). But it’s more likely that Zarqawi will be found by boots on the ground, as was Saddam Hussein. That will require reliable and actionable intelligence. Yet the more the US bombs targets, however precisely, and kills Iraqis in the process (collateral damage is inevitable), the less willing Iraqis will likely be to cooperate with American forces (or even the interim Iraqi government, since the air strike in Fallujah that killed 10 Iraqis was done with the approval and assistance of the interim government).

In fact, the more the US military and Iraqi interim government use such overwhelming force to “jointly destroy terrorist networks within Iraq,” the more such actions are likely to fuel the insurgency. The US military should be learning the lessons of Israeli tactics used in the occupied Palestinian territories (which feed a cycle of terrorist violence), not copying them.

Even if Zarqawi is eventually killed or captured, the problem of violent insurgency in Iraq will continue, as it did after Saddam was captured. The propensity to periodically explain Iraqi violence as the result of single causes - an insurgency orchestrated by Saddam Hussein, by Baathist dead-enders loyal to the former regime, by militia followers loyal to the young Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and now by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi - has been misleading from the beginning.

The attacks against coalition and Iraqi targets have been the result of a combination of at least three different factors (visible in varying proportions over time): Baathists and Sunnis who perceive they have the most to lose as a result of “regime change;” other Iraqis opposed to the US military occupation and what they believe is a US-appointed government that is not representative of the Iraqi people; and foreign terrorists seeking to sow the seeds of jihad (made easy by Iraq’s porous borders and inviting targets in their own neighborhood). Each of these elements requires a different strategy and set of tactics. And what might be a successful approach against one group may be counterproductive for battling the others. The point is that since the unstable security situation in Iraq is not the result of a single threat, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem.

A piece of evidence that too much emphasis may be placed on Zarqawi as a main source of the Iraqi insurgency is the fact that, according to the Pentagon, only 90 of the more than 5,700 people currently in custody in Iraq who are considered security risks are foreign fighters. This suggests that the role of Zarqawi and foreign Islamic militants may be overstated. If that is the case, then continuing to focus on Zarqawi runs the risk of making him a larger-than-life figure that makes joining his cause even more alluring.

Indeed, Zarqawi may be evolving into an inspirational figure in Iraq, much as Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda have inspired the wider radical Islamic ideological movement. A Filipino worker in Iraq is the most recent hostage to be threatened with execution. The group claiming responsibility, the Khalid bin Walid Corps of the Iraqi Islamic Army, is virtually unknown. It could be a part of Zarqawi’s terrorist network in Iraq. Or it could simply be a group of militant Islamic radicals with no formal ties to Zarqawi, but willing to answer the call for jihad.

The threat posed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi cannot be ignored. But neither should it be made out as more than it is. To do so is to chart a perilous course.

Charles V. Peña is director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute, a member of the Cato Institute Special Task Force that produced the report Exiting Iraq: Why the US Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against Al-Qaeda, and a terrorism analyst for MSNBC.