This week a Newsweek article, "The 'Second' Man," claims to expose the “questionable Bush administration portrayal of Abu Azzam,” Zarqawi’s former top deputy in Iraq. In short, the authors of the article, Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball, argue that the Administration aggrandized the real importance of the al Qaida commander basing their conclusion on a number of “non identified” U.S. counter-terrorism officials and a report posted by our colleague Evan Kohlman on the Counterterrorism Blog.
The “charge” by Newsweek deals with whether the terrorist leader, Abu Azzam, was Zarqawi’s “number two” or even deputy commander, top lieutenant, the second most powerful man, or future heir of the organization? Isikoff and Hosenball are right to “investigate” the matter, as all experts should do, but their quick conclusion misses crucial nuances and falters analytically. In their hurry to score a point against “Bush’s War in Iraq,” they mix up their analysis and ultimately play into the hands of Jihadist propaganda.
What Newsweek wants to do is to discredit the Administration’s claims that the war in Iraq is being won. As Isikoff and Hosenball state: “Bush seized on the killing of Abu Azzam by joint U.S-Iraqi forces in a shootout last Sunday as fresh evidence that the United States is turning the tide against the Iraqi insurgency.” Let’s not argue with the political goal, for if indeed Isikoff and Hosenball can establish that the Bush Administration knew that abu Azzam wasn’t someone important and used the killing to prove the “turning tide,” then Newsweek’s point is made. Even if the article could prove that the President’s team wasn’t able to evaluate the real importance of the Jihadi commander, their analysis would be worthwhile. But in this case, Newsweek’s Isikoff and Hosenball merely play with semantics and attempt to blur the significance of abu Azzam’s death. Let us begin by reviewing their claims:
According to Newsweek, the president said “this guy was a brutal killer,” adding that Abu Azzam “was one of [Abu Mussab al-] Zarqawi’s top lieutenants.” Furthermore, Bush said he was told the man was “top operational commander of Al Qaeda in Baghdad.”
Newsweek’s article then goes on to say that even U.S. intelligence officials and counterterrorism analysts are questioning whether the slain terrorist—described by President Bush today as the “second-most-wanted al Qaeda leader in Iraq”—is as significant a figure as the Bush administration is claiming.
The authors continue: “Gen. Richard Myers, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon that the U.S. military considered Abu Azzam the “No. 2 Al Qaeda operative in Iraq, next to Zarqawi.”
Newsweek’s article then adds: “Three U.S. counterterrorism officials, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject, also told NEWSWEEK today that U.S. agencies did not really consider Abu Azzam to be Zarqawi’s “deputy” even if he did play a relatively high-ranking role in the insurgency.
Let’s stop here and briefly review Isikoff and Hosenball logic:
1) The President said that Abu Azzam was:
a. a brutal killer;
b. one of Zarqawi’s top lieutenants;
c. A top operational commander of Al Qaeda in Baghdad;”
d. “Second-most-wanted Al Qaeda leader in Iraq.”
2) General Myers said about abu Azzam: “No. 2 Al Qaeda operative in Iraq, next to Zarqawi.”
3) Per Newsweek, three U.S. counterterrorism officials (no names were provided) said of abu Azzam:
a. He is not as significant a figure as the Bush administration is claiming.
b. That U.S. agencies did not really consider Abu Azzam to be Zarqawi’s “deputy.”
A comparative analysis shows that both the President and General Myers did not describe the al Qaida commander as M.M. Isikoff and Hosenball claim they did. Bush used the terms: “brutal killer,” “one of Zarqawi’s lieutenants,” “top operational commander in Baghdad,” “second most wanted al Qaida leader in Iraq.” Ironically, the so-called “secret” U.S. counter terrorism officials (which statements can’t be verified) produced only judgments not identification. And Newsweek attributed to the “secret sources” that abu Azzam was not a “significant figure” or a “deputy.”
In synchronic analysis, the President said the man is a big shot, and Isikoff and Hosenball quote “sources” who said abu Azzam “wasn’t the official deputy.” Hence, what Newsweek’s authors attempted to portray as a misrepresentation by the President isn’t even a real issue. In sum, there is no official release by the White House stating that the man’s official title was “deputy commander of Zarqawi (na’ib al Qa’id).”
Yes, General Meyers described him as a “No. 2 Al Qaeda operative in Iraq, next to Zarqawi:” Which doesn’t tell us if he is or is not the deputy commander, the vice president, the second emir in command, or so on and so forth. So, what Newsweek raised was a faux probleme, an irrelevant hypothesis, and does not expose any misrepresentations on the part of the Administration.
The only open source Newsweek was able to use to build its case (next to the unrevealed sources) was the accurate research by our colleague Evan Kohlmann who concludes that “there are ample reasons to question whether Abu Azzam was really the No. 2 figure in the Iraqi insurgency.” In addition, Kohlmann states that according to his research “this guy was not the deputy commander of Al Qaeda” and explains that many other commanders have been described as number two or deputies in the past. And he rightly adds that those who have been branded as deputies by the Jihadists haven’t been captured or killed yet. Bottom line: The U.S. didn’t get the official deputy commander of Zarqawi yet. This is very possible, but there are issues to address in the game of analysis:
1) No one in al Qaida Iraq has issued an official statement yet, declaring the Bayi’a, a necessary Jihadi formality to render one particular commander as the deputy, or Nai’b. So, even as many web sites and other sources “talk” about this or other mujahid as the “man who comes after Zarqawi,” it is only talk. We don’t have a name yet: it’s that simple.
2) However, intelligence services both U.S. and Iraqis can obviously determine if one of these “emirs” is acting as the second most influential man after Zarqawi. But that is only assessment. Therefore, if a man with that profile is eliminated, it is normal to state that upon intelligence assessment, such a person has the profile of the second most powerful man. And to rebut this executive assessment, one would have to present stronger evidence, not play a game of words about what the President said, as Newsweek’s article does. In short, in analysis, one needs hard evidence.
3) Moving beyond this Byzantine debate, let’s consider a number of al Qaida complicated mechanisms:
a. The organization’s pyramid has more than one deputy and more than one second in command. Strange – but efficient.
b. The second most powerful man in the organization is not necessarily the second in command or the number two.
c. The next to take over is often “hidden” and not always chosen from Zarqawi’s immediate entourage.
d. The head of the military committee or tanzeem is not always the head of the organization nationwide. Hence the military chief of staff is not necessarily the deputy chief on the political level, but could be as well.
e. The real hierarchy is imariya, meaning based on “emirship.” So far, there is not enough information about the “emirship,” not only in Iraq, but throughout al Qaida worldwide.
f. Last but not least, if and when Zarqawi “goes” there would be a “legal” process to name the heir. It involves clerics, commanders, and other procedures and details.
So who was the man killed by the Coalition? Certainly, the case of Abu Azzam deserves commentary and analysis. But instead of thorough investigation in the real world of Jihadism, Newsweek’s “story” engages in the politics of the War on Terror, not the actual war. And it does not address who Abu Azzam really was, how al Qaida functions and will this episode weaken the organization. Instead, the whole investigative effort targets President Bush and his team. Overall, the article does not even provide readers with any new information, for both the Administration and the “secret sources” of Newsweek agreed that Abu Azzam was high up in al Qaida’s leadership.
Isikoff and Hosenball’s writing is simply another attempt to undermine our progress in the war on terror and paint all U.S. efforts as impotent and futile. As they write:
“The real question is whether taking any one figure out will really have an appreciable impact on an insurgency that seems to have shown a remarkable resiliency. For nearly two years now, U.S. officials have touted previous arrests or captures, most notably that of toppled leader Saddam Hussein in December 2003, as developments that would cripple the insurgency.”
Quite simply: is the elimination of the Organization’s head(s) the equivalent of total victory? Obviously not. Will it have an impact on the so-called insurgency? Not by itself. Would that mean that military action alone won’t defeat the Jihadists? True. But who said that the elimination of al Qaida field commanders and military action alone “is” the road to victory? I haven’t seen such policy declaration anywhere yet. And may I add, even if some in the Administration would like to portray it as such, or if its detractors want to portray the Administration as thinking that way, the concept is wrong. In the War on Terror, we need a more complex comprehension of what is presently underway throughout the Middle East.
There are multiple tracks, and one influences the other: military, intelligence, political, ideological, psychological and regional: for example, as I analyzed for BBC TV last night, the killing of Abu Azzam is strategically less important than the dismantling of Tal Afar networks a few weeks ago. Even better, perhaps the victory on the Syrian-Iraqi border was one of the reasons for finding the al Qaida cadre. Besides, had the Iraqi Government been ready politically, these two operations could have been invested immensely in further defeating the Salafists. You don’t rely on the elimination of terror leader as the sole factor in a War on Terror but you factor it in and make sure the other pincers are moving simultaneously.
This is why one should not attempt to evaluate the War in Iraq with one-dimensional equations: “One cadre is gone, let’s look if the insurgency has weakened.” It is too simplistic.
This is, of course, Newsweek’s failing. Isikoff and Hosenball even concluded their piece by relying on al Qaida’s statement on Abu Azzam! By translating what the organization posted on the group’s Web site, their article echoed that “Abu Azzam al-Iraqi was a soldier” in the Iraqi Al Qaida organization and quoted “them” ridiculing allegations by U.S. officials that Abu Azzam was the “second man” in Iraqi Al Qaida. A minimal understanding of the propaganda machine of the Jihadists would have realized that “they” don’t want to give any psychological victory to the infidels. From at least a significant leader in the structure, his terrorist companions reduced Abu Azzam to a “simple soldier among others,” so as to deny Iraqis and the Coalition any political victory.
Understanding the mind of the Jihadis is crucial in the analysis of the War on Terror. As with the “flushing” affair a few months ago, it is advisable to keep the big picture in mind when zooming in to score a point.