As information concerning his demise continues to surface, the death of Abu Musab Zarqawi marks the end of one of the most accomplished mass murderers in the modern history of terrorism. According to the claims of responsibility released by his own group in Iraq, Zarqawi and his followers have conservatively murdered thousands of Iraq civilians and hundreds of coalition soldiers--in addition to perpetrating the February 2006 bombing of the al-Askariyyah Mosque in Samarra that instigated a wave of sectarian violence across the country.
Born Ahmed Fadel Nazal al-Khalayleh, Zarqawi was first identified as a major threat during a meeting of the German-Atlantic Society in Berlin in the fall of 2002. There, Hans-Josef Beth, the head of Germany's International Terrorism Department of the Security Service, warned that Zarqawi was an al Qaeda leader who "has experience with poisonous chemicals and biological weapons." Even before the beginning of the Iraqi insurgency, the State Department's 2002 Patterns of Global Terrorism report already marked of the scope of his murderous ambitions, noting that "In the past year, al-Qaida operatives in northern Iraq concocted suspect chemicals under the direction of senior al-Qaida associate Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi and tried to smuggle them into Russia, Western Europe, and the United States for terrorist operations."
The nature and extent of Zarqawi's activities inside Iraq prior to the invasion have always been the subject of debate, though it is generally agreed that he spent a considerable amount of time in northern Iraq working with the al Qaeda associate group Ansar al-Islam.
In February 2003, then-Secretary of State Collin Powell told the U.N. Security Council that Zarqawi, was "an associated and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaida lieutenants" and had "traveled to Baghdad in May 2002 for medical treatment." "During this stay," Powell noted, "nearly two dozen extremists converged on Baghdad and established a base of operations there." These claims have been disputed by critics, including many who have argued (erroneously) that the 9/11 Commission report debunks any past claims of Iraqi collaboration with al Qaeda (in fact, the report never mentions Zarqawi).
Yet according to the text of a Senate Select Intelligence Committee report, imprisoned al Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah "indicated that he had heard that an important al-Qaida associate, Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi . . . had good relationships with Iraqi intelligence." In its discussion of Zarqawi's stay in Baghdad, the report noted that "As indicated in Iraqi Support for Terrorism, the Iraqi regime was, at a minimum, aware of al-Zarqawi's presence in Baghdad in 2002 because a foreign government service passed [redacted] information regarding his whereabouts to Iraqi authorities in June 2002" and that "The HUMINT [Human Intelligence] reporting indicated that the Iraqi regime certainly knew that al-Zarqawi was in Baghdad." As recently as May 2006, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld stated that "Zarqawi was in Baghdad during the pre-war period. That is a fact."
Zarqawi's exact relationship with Osama bin Laden has also been debated, with war critics alleging that the two were rivals before the Iraq war brought them together. Yet this theory ignores a great deal of evidence, such as a September 2003 Washington Post report that Zarqawi met with al Qaeda military chief Saif al-Adel in eastern Iran more than a month before the invasion to begin laying the groundwork for the Iraqi insurgency. Zarqawi's 2004 letter to the al Qaeda leadership describes Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri as "gracious brothers . . . leaders, guides, and symbolic figures of jihad and battle" and Shadi Abdallah, the man whose testimony in German court is often cited by critics, would later note that Zarqawi "could do nothing without the prior agreement of the cleric Abu Qatada," a U.K.-based Islamist who has long regarded as bin Laden's top representative in Europe.
Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Zarqawi has emerged as the primary terrorist opponent of the United States and its allies as well as the most effective insurgent commander. His strategy has been to instigate a sectarian civil war aimed more at destroying the country than in overthrowing its government. Not content simply to kill Iraqis in order to satisfy his murderous impulses, Zarqawi and his organization have been linked to dozens of attempted terrorist attacks in the Middle East and Europe, including a thwarted chemical attack in his native homeland of Jordan in April 2004. His influence was felt as far as the recent arrests in Canada, where the Mississauga News reported that "Zarqawi's outfit passe[d] on bomb-making manuals, advice on how to sustain terror cells and even ways to use credit card fraud to hack into vital Internet sites" to the accused terror suspects. Had he survived, Zarqawi might well have followed through on the strategy recommended to him by al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri, which called upon him to expand his war to encompass the rest of the Middle East.
Zarqawi's death is unlikely to prove the immediate end of either al Qaeda in Iraq or the Iraqi insurgency, as Zarqawi was, by his own account, only a servant or representative of al Qaeda's international terrorist organization. Yet it must be noted that Zarqawi was also a monster of unspeakable proportions. The United States, its coalition allies, and the new Iraqi government have much to be thankful for in bringing an end to this mass murderer's career.
Dan Darling is a counterterrorism consultant.
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