Has Al-Zarqawi Run Out of Room?
By Fred Burton
The U.S. military claimed it nearly captured al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi during a raid in Mosul earlier this week. In fact, some early press reports said al-Zarqawi might have been among several insurgents who died during the raid -- some killed by U.S. troops, others by their own hand -- but those later were denied by the White House and the Pentagon.
Now, al-Zarqawi has had some narrow scrapes before, and his death has been rumored in the past, but in this case there are several reasons to believe that U.S. troops might indeed have been acting on a hot lead that brought them in close. Among these, perhaps the most significant is the intense shakedown that has been under way in Jordan since the Nov. 9 hotel bombings in Amman.
We wouldn't put too much faith in any direct intelligence about al-Zarqawi's whereabouts having come from the failed female suicide bomber who was arrested. But given the long history of attempts to stage attacks in Jordan, it certainly is possible that al-Zarqawi has a network of some kind in the kingdom, and Jordan's General Intelligence Department finally got to someone who has had recent contact. Attention turns first to the Jordanians as a possible source of the intelligence, in part because of the way al-Zarqawi's death was initially reported: It was picked up quickly by the Israeli media on Sunday -- implying some sort of a link. The Israelis work closely with Jordanian intelligence; had the information arisen through the U.S. military's sources in Iraq, the Israelis likely would not have had such ready access.
Whatever the source of the intelligence, the entire event -- particularly in combination with several other recent occurrences leading up to it -- indicates that al-Zarqawi's room to maneuver not only is shrinking, but may in fact soon be too small for comfort, with his base of local supporters rapidly drying up.
Let's begin with the raid in Iraq. U.S. and Iraqi troops surrounded a farmhouse in Mosul -- an area, we note, quite removed from the anti-jihadist military operations under way in Anbar province -- where several people believed to be al Qaeda leaders were said to be meeting. There was a gunbattle in which four or five insurgents were killed; three others blew themselves up -- lending credence to the notion that they could have had information too valuable to give up. The bodies of the eight insurgents were said to be burned beyond recognition, and authorities were using DNA samples to try to confirm identities. Within a day, U.S. military and intelligence authorities more or less concurred that al-Zarqawi is, in fact, still alive; therefore, troops removed the cordon around the farmhouse and returned to their forward operating base.
It is interesting that the raid took place in Mosul, more than 200 miles north of Baghdad. Interesting, but not illogical, as any al Qaeda command cell would want to avoid hot zones like Baghdad or areas to the west at present. U.S. forces have been applying considerable pressure on the insurgency with Operation Hunter, focusing on Ar Ramadi, Al Fallujah and other areas of Anbar province, neighboring Syria. There have been some reports in recent days that intelligence indicates the jihadists feel they have nowhere else to go.
That likely is due in no small part to the increasingly inhospitable political environment in Iraq. U.S. efforts have focused for some time on splitting the jihadists away from Iraq's Sunni nationalists in order to forge a viable political framework -- efforts that, given a recent meeting between Baathists and other nationalist insurgents and President Jalal Talabani in Cairo, now appear to be bearing some fruit. Certainly, Iraq's other factions have no love for the jihadists: Among other recent developments, the Shia of both Iraq and Iran have pledged to aid each other, along with the Kurds, in the fight against al Qaeda -- which would tend to discourage most jihadists from seeking havens or escape routes to the north or east. Al-Zarqawi, however, has some history of operating in Iraq's Kurdish regions, where he cooperated with Ansar al-Islam prior to the U.S. invasion in 2003.
If either al-Zarqawi or his men have begun seeking more welcoming surroundings, Jordan would not be high on their list. There is, of course, a security crackdown under way. But of equal if not greater significance, there are signs that opinion among the locals -- whose support can be vital for the physical survival, let alone operational viability, of jihadists on the run -- is toughening toward al-Zarqawi in the wake of the hotel bombings.
This goes quite beyond the statement by al-Zarqawi's family, issued at the same time that reports of the Mosul raid were surfacing, in which the clan severs "links with him until doomsday" -- though that itself is not insignificant. In the days since the hotel bombings, there have been mass demonstrations by Jordanians denouncing al-Zarqawi for targeting fellow Arabs and Muslims -- a touchy subject that also was broached in a missive from Ayman al-Zawahiri several weeks ago. Though the sentiment is logical, anti-jihadist backlash in Arab regions is seldom so evident or pronounced, since it often commingles with equally heartfelt anti-U.S. or anti-Western feelings among the populace. And though some Islamist commentators have claimed that the demonstrations in Jordan obviously were staged by the monarchy, there have been a series of unprecedented statements from al-Zarqawi, explaining his rationale for the hotel attacks, that indicate he is aware of the repercussions.
These statements include an unusually detailed claim of responsibility, outlining several reasons he chose to strike at Western hotel chains in Amman (even though the targeting rationale is perfectly in keeping with radical Islamist ideology), and hinting that efforts were made to avoid Arab casualties. This was followed by an even more directly worded audiotape, issued over the Internet last week, in which a speaker believed to be al-Zarqawi himself says al Qaeda had no intention of blowing up Muslim wedding parties -- which is what actually occurred at one of the three hotels that were struck. This statement, of course, has been rather discredited not only by authorities but by the account of the failed female suicide bomber, who said she and her husband mingled among the wedding guests before detonating -- or attempting to detonate -- their explosives. At any rate, al-Zarqawi's recent statements have struck both defensive and apologetic notes, signaling that he is aware of the value of public opinion and more than a little insecure about his standing within it.
Having a $25 million bounty on his head can't help in that regard. In fact, now that he has been denied the hospitality of his tribe in Jordan, the notion that the public is growing increasingly hostile has additional and sinister implications for al-Zarqawi. And it all points toward the possibility of actionable intelligence that, though he escaped in Mosul, could lead to his capture. In short, the net is tightening.
It is impossible to predict when or where al-Zarqawi might be eliminated, but perhaps not too soon to begin gaming out the next stage of the war once, or if, that occurs. Certainly, it would be a serious -- though not mortal -- blow to al Qaeda, which is running rather short of recognizable commanders (who are important rallying points for both fund-raising efforts and recruits) these days. With Osama bin Laden silent for nearly a year, there really are only a handful left: al-Zawahiri, believed to be hiding somewhere in the border regions of Pakistan; Noordin Mohammed Top, a bomb-maker and planner for Jemaah Islamiyah in Southeast Asia; and al-Zarqawi, who for some time has been the only known and effective al Qaeda commander in the Middle East.
Though al-Zarqawi's death would not spell the end of al Qaeda, it would have significant implications for the shape of the war. Clearly, al-Zarqawi does not operate in a vacuum: He has surrounded himself with capable managers and leaders, who could rise up to replace him -- but who also would need time to regroup, firm up their support networks and possibly establish their own leadership credentials. The intelligence problem at that point would be identifying these lower-profile operatives and neutralizing them before that could occur.
Another distinct possibility is that al Qaeda might continue down an alternative path, for which there already is some evidence -- becoming an increasingly diffuse entity consisting of large numbers of localized cells and operations, answering to no recognized regional commanders at all.
This is from Stratfor's email updates. Very good intel. I also read the book they put out about the war. Very good stuff. To subscribe to their information services can be very pricey, so the email updates are good to give you a taste of the intel they have.