June 9, 2006
In Western civilizations, especially the United States, one of the surest paths to a successful life for a person who lacks privilege or resources is to become a salesman. In the Islamic civilization where feudalistic socio-economic relations persist, in contrast, there are few such business opportunities. That is why so many status-craving enterprising young men in that part of the world make a career out of terrorism. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was a nobody in his home town of Zarqa, Jordan, but by capitalizing on the jihad resistance campaign in Afghanistan, he made a name for himself that will not be forgotten for a long time.
Oddly missing from the bio-chronology of Zarqawi in the print edition of today's Washington Post was any mention of his early years as a juvenile delinquent, which explain a lot about him. (The online washingtonpost.com reprinted a 2004 story that mentions that.) I recently read Zarqawi: The New Face of Al-Qaeda by Jean-Charles Brisard with Damien Martinez. Though not really a scholarly book, it has a solid factual grounding. Zarqawi was a misfit in schools, and ended up as a thug in his home town of Zarqa (hence his family name), Jordan. What struck me was the rapid success Zarqawi had in fund raising in Europe, after training with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. He did take refuge in Iraq for several months after the U.S.-led coalition toppled the Taliban government in late 2001, which U.S. officials cited as evidence of a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq. For most of that period, however, he was in the autonomous Kurdish region.
In his final months, Zarqawi seemed to be gaining prestige as he outwitted the Coalition pacification forces, wreaking mayhem and misery on the Iraqi people with impunity. Zarqawi's tactics were characterized by indiscriminate targetting and a shocking degree of ruthlessness that can only be described as diabolical. From his (absolute Evil) perspective, the future seemed bright, and then Fate (or was it Divine Mercy?) took a sudden, unexpected turn: BOOM! He survived the initial bomb blasts, which makes one wonder what could have been going through his twisted mind during those last couple hours? Perhaps some of the fools he recruited to blow themselves up were motivated by hopes of the "72 virgins" in paradise, but Zarqawi was nobody's fool. That is why we can take some schaudenfreud satisfaction in knowing that his agonizing last moments on Earth were haunted by the specter of failure.
What does this prove? It's a good sign that most people seem to recognize that the very act of killing Zarqawi was an important milestone in the war, whether it leads to a reduced level of violence or provokes another upsurge of terrorism. In the short term, that is beyond our control. On a tactical level, the succesful pinpoint bombing of the safe house where Zarqawi was hiding shows that high-tech smart weapons can, on occasion, be extremely useful in fighting the terrorist movement. It will force terrorists to take even greater precautions against detection, and it will make them suspicious of each other, whether or not it is true that a bounty-seeking "rat" was the key to locating Zarqawi. (That story may be one of those "Psy Ops" schemes.)
What now? Austin Bay thinks this provides broader political opportunities for the new Iraqi government. (By coincidence, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had just completed filling the positions in his cabinet, offering some hope for averting all-out civil war between the Sunnis and Shiites.) The Staunton News Leader editorialized that killing terrorist leaders is like cutting the head off of the mythical Hydra serpent: Two new heads grow back in its place. That is a useful metaphor, reminding us that the enemy is not any particular person, organization, or country, but rather an extremist ideology. We can't "kill" such an amorphous adversary, all we can do is cut off its food supply and encourage the development of more modern, liberal alternative ideology.
I think the ultimate consequences of killing Zarqawi depends on whether our forces in Iraq "strike while the iron is hot," retaking the strategic momentum by hunting down Zarqawi's Al Qaeda associates and other terrorists. From what I have read in the news today, I am encouraged that our forces are doing exactly that. If they can kill or capture a substantial number of other fugitives in the coming days and weeks, there is a very good chance that it will "send a message" to prospective terrorist recruits that have nothing but death and shame to look forward to. Little by little, the cold, hard reality of seeing photographs of their leaders as bloody corpses will undermine the romantic fantasy of martyrdom. Jihad will eventually go out of style, Omar and Ibrahim will learn how to make a living as salesmen, and the good guys will win.