Zarqawi: The Man, Message, and the Video Star

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Zarqawi: The Man, Message, and the Video Star

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the elusive leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, made his screen debut this week. In a 35-minute video, the man responsible for the car-bomb deaths of hundreds of Iraqi civilians and the beheadings of numerous foreigners, dismissed the new Iraqi government as an American “stooge” and a “poisoned dagger” in the heart of the Muslim community. He promised more attacks.

The Zarqawi video comes, perhaps not coincidentally, days after another call by Osama bin Laden that Muslims support Al Qaeda in its war with the West. In addition, there was a triple bombing at an Egyptian resort that killed two dozen and injured many more, and double suicide bombings at a multinational peacekeepers’ base in the Sinai peninsula. In the midst of the carnage and the threats, what to make of Mr. Zarqawi’s message? Here are five points to consider:

1. Zarqawi’s video is designed for Iraqi fighters as much as it is for Arab and Western eyes. He is trying to rally Sunni Iraqis and foreign militants to continue the fight. With the selection of a new Iraqi prime minister and president, allowing the country’s Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish leaders to start assembling a government, Zarqawi can’t let the Sunni-led resistance lose steam. Iraqi and American officials have touted political progress, however painful, as a setback to the insurgency. Any government, Zarqawi warns, “whether made up of the hated Shiites or the secular Zionist Kurds or the collaborators imposed on the Sunnis, will be stooges of the crusaders and will be a poisoned dagger in the heart of the Ummah.” Zarqawi tells his fellow Sunni Arabs, “God almighty has chosen you to conduct holy war in your lands and has opened the doors of paradise to you….”

2. The tape mocks reports of his demise and marginalization. Press reports have told of skirmishes between Al Qaeda and homegrown Iraqi fighters, at least partly due to the indiscriminate car and suicide bombings of civilians. In some towns, Sunni tribes killed scores of Zarqawi’s men and chased others away. When Al Qaeda in Iraq declared on the Web in January that it had joined Iraqi insurgent factions to form the Mujahedeen Shura Council, or Council of Holy Warriors, the move was seen as a response to pressure from public opinion and Sunni indigenous fighters that Zarqawi rein in his tactics. He kept a low profile until now. The video reestablishes him, showing a determined emir, or leader, trying to shore up his standing among Iraq insurgents.

3. Zarqawi must have thought hard before revealing his face for the first time (he previously relied on audiotapes): A video increases the risk to his security. But evidently he decided that the benefits of joining the shadowy show-biz world of his mentors, Mr. bin Laden and deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, outweighed the dangers. The tape shows him with a healthy, robust build and shiny white teeth. While bin Laden talked about “a Zionist crusader war on Islam,” Zarqawi reached further: His men are winning the war in Iraq, he says, and have their “eyes set on Jerusalem” – a call he hopes will resonate with ordinary Arabs and Muslims. His message is that he is the military commander who is tilting the balance of power in the Ummah’s favor.

4. Although Zarqawi acknowledges “our emir and commander Osama bin Laden,” his video is all about self- promotion and self-aggrandizement. It begins with an introduction – “Your brethren in the information committee of the Mujahedeen Consultative Council are happy to present the first video of the emir of the Al Qaeda organization in the Land of Two Rivers, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.” The emir of Mesopotamia feels the need for a formal introduction. Talk about a big ego!

Footage shows Zarqawi meeting indoors with masked lieutenants – something bin Laden and Mr. Zawahiri have not been able to do in the past few years – who brief him on battle plans and discuss strategy over a large map spread on the ground. Zarqawi even struts in the desert, posing with and firing a heavy automatic rifle. Westerners might feel fear, or ridicule the posturing of a man in hiding. But Zarqawi’s supporters take heart. He is a commander and plays one on TV, and his appearance, dressed head-to-toe in black with an ammunition vest hung from his neck, is bound to raise his profile and stature among jihadis and other militants. In their eyes, “The emir is battling the American occupiers and their Iraqi collaborators. He is alive and combative.”

5. Far from being over, the Zarqawi horror play will be with us for a while. Expect more devastating attacks and, tragically, more bloodshed: “We will have … battles that will turn children’s hair white,” he said. The American-led invasion and occupation of Iraq have turned the country into a fertile soil for extremism. As one radical Islamist leader told me, Zarqawi’s umbilical cord is tied to the American military presence in Iraq. The Zarqawi phenomenon is also a product of internal turmoil that will endure until Iraqis agree on a social and political contract and resolve their differences.

This article was originally published  in the Christian Science Monitor on April 28, 2006.

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