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How Important a Terrorist? - The death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi
The evil that men do lives after them - Mark Antony in Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene II

Date to be added   |   2006   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Ahmad Fadel al-Khalayleh, who later notoriously became known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, is dead.

A terrorist, who was nothing more than a petty criminal during his youth, had become so dangerous that there was a $25 million bounty on his head - equivalent to the price tag on Ousama bin Laden's head - and was arguably the most wanted man in Iraq. His legacy is blood-soaked, and his political and religious permutations equally nauseating for many people in Europe, the Middle East and the wider world.

Just skim through one of the many obituaries written about him, and you discover a man who became known as an "Afghan Arab" when he fought against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980's, established links with Ansar al-Islam in the Kurdish northern regions of Iraq and led the Tawhid and Jihad group in Iraq before he merged it into al-Qa'eda in Mesopotamia. He then expanded his acts of terror outside Iraq and allegedly joined five other insurgent groups under a new umbrella that became known as the Mujahideen Shura Council. From the bombing of the UN office in Baghdad on 19 August 2003, to the beastly decapitation of Ken Bigley and other victims, to the blowing up of American-owned hotels in Jordan, this man viewed Iraq as a base for destabilising countries in the Middle East and for exporting his brand of terror-inspired tactics further afield.

Indeed, his success in exploiting the Sunni anger within Iraq (at times legitimate, at others not so) also stoked the threat of a broader conflict between Islam's two largest sects. But those fears were not only home-based, since many neighbouring countries - from Saudi Arabia to Bahrain, and even from Pakistan to Lebanon - could tip over in different directions as a result of sectarian tensions. Besides, such strife would also aid and abet a crossover of the conflict into Iran and Turkey.

Zarqawi (or the son of his birthplace of Zarqa, a small town north of Amman in Jordan) not only played a substantial role in spreading terror and mayhem across Iraq, he also fanned visceral hatred among different Iraqi religious and ethnic communities and tried to breed a network of self-starter terrorists who would aim vulnerable targets such as those in Madrid, London or even Toronto. According to the American federal National Counter-terrorism Center, his operatives are at work in 40 countries and linked with 24 extremist organisations. His vicious and indiscriminate tactics, and the disingenuous way he morphed the "jihadist" movement in Iraq, even produced what some experts call "the Zarqawi effect" - tantamount to a repugnance by faithful Muslims against his killing methods for fighting an occupation.

Possibly led to his hideout in the Hib Hib region just outside of Baquba (on the Kirkuk to Baghdad highway) by his spiritual "adviser" Abdul-Rahman, it took two US-made satellite-guided 500-lb bombs to terminate his life. A deadly terrorist to most people, it is perhaps also helpful to mull briefly over his legacy and the preferable way forward for a post-Zarqawi Iraq.

We should not overstate the significance of Zarqawi's death. I believe that it would take far more than the elimination of a handful of iconic leaders to stem the tide of the Iraqi insurgency and reverse its alarming slide into sectarian conflict and even civil war. This is why I have often maintained that the most potent antidote for such terror is the consolidation of an effective Iraqi government of "national purpose" (since "national unity" is rather elusive at this stage) that would win the loyalty of a majority of Iraqis - be they Shi'i, Sunni, Kurd, Christian or from the other smaller minority groups. This could be done by respecting religious and ethnic diversity, protecting personal security and assuring the essentials of modern life in Iraq today. It is after all abysmal that we keep hoisting the flag of democracy and human rights when reliable electricity, decent hospitals and schools, functioning infrastructures, or an economy that generates employment and prosperity, are still woefully and painfully lacking.

With the appointment of the Interior and Defence Ministers in the Iraqi government, it is perhaps high time that Iraqis take on the critical and daunting job of reforming their institutions in order to rid the country from its plunging sectarianism, fratricidal violence, out-of-control police forces and rampant militias. After all, despite his infamy, Zarqawi's apocalyptic style of insurgency represented no more than 10-20% of the violence that the country is witnessing today. Hugely much more of it is now homegrown, and the so-called jihadists comprise a veritable social movement rather than simply a cluster of terrorist organisations. Those movements are flexible, not rigid, and the best way to combat them is to think flexibly and innovatively too, let alone prove to the Iraqi people that their new government is both willing and able to improve their situation, and that the occupying forces are answerable first and foremost to the aspirations of ordinary Iraqi citizens for decent values.

So is the post-Zarqawi era a turning point for Iraq? Or would it become its tipping point?

In the short-term, I believe that little would change in the situation on the ground. In fact, the insurgents would probably plan to increase their attacks in order to underline their key relevance on the chessboard of tribal and sectarian politics. After all, much as Zarqawi's death might have undermined the leadership of terror, it is quintessential to remember that there are others - the likes perhaps of the pseudonymous Abu Hamza al-Muhajir - who will assume the ideological mantle. In order to help deflect the metastasis of terror at such dizzying levels, it is vital to stanch the funds that are coming to global al-Qaeda-like takfiri and salafi movements. What is equally needed is to address the alleged scandals rearing their ugly heads in Haditha and Ishaqi, let alone the failure of the occupation that echoes daily on different basic and existential levels in the post-Saddam Iraq. Indeed, effective solutions should urgently be formulated through a combination of constitutional amendments that would improve or fine-tune its provisions, information strategies, socio-economic development, anti-corruption campaigns and reform movements.  

I appreciate that this is a colossal undertaking for any country. However, responsibility for the stability and territorial integrity of a future Iraq does not lie with the coalition forces alone. It is equally - and in some sense primarily - that of the Iraqi political and religious leaderships. They should come together - from all governorates and regions - to solder a unity of purpose for Iraq. Every Iraqi citizen shares the responsibility of bandaging together an Iraq that is cohesive enough to warrant the necessary withdrawal of foreign forces. After all, mooting about partitioning Iraq into three dismembered regions would create treacherous black holes for the future of all Iraqis and herald gravity-defying implosions in the whole region.

One favourite book of mine is Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace , an epic novel about Russian society during the Napoleonic era. I find it a challenging read: it sets forth a theory of history, and concludes that there is a minimum of free choice, whereby all is ruled by an inexorable historical determinism. As I see it, one challenge facing Iraqi citizens today is to try and ensure that any future assessment of the determinism of their history comes out as being positive. After all, that is one true way of ensuring that Zarqawi's global evil does not live after him for far too long.

However, if such global evil were to live on, then I believe that slaying Zarqawi's reign of terror will have been a pyrrhic victory at best - and that is a future I would not wish to see visited upon Iraq.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2006   |   Date to be added


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