The death of terrorist Abu Marsab al-Zarqawi is unquestionably good news. But there is little evidence that his absence will create a vacuum in the foreign fighter leadership in Iraq. Two points:
1. Zarqawi was replaced as the head of Iraq’s insurgency months ago. Recall the news from earlier this spring that Zarqawi had been replaced as the leader in Iraq by Abdullah bin Rashed Al-Baghdadi (a nom de guerre). Al Qaeda’s Iraq cells had already reorganized before this happened and will readjust again.
2. Al Qaeda’s global leadership was getting sick of their partner in Zarqawi. Last year, Osama bin Laden’s chief deputy Ayman Zawahiri sent a letter to Zarqawi that contained a “striking critique” of Zarqawi’s insurgency strategy. “He comes down like a ton of bricks on what has happened tactically,” one U.S. analyst said describing the letter. Even Iraqis sympathetic with the goals of the insurgency have grown to disapprove of al Qaeda’s actions. Over the last year, there were several instances in which the local population turned on Zarqawi’s followers and attacked them.
In other words, Zarqawi’s star had fallen over the last six months, and there is reason to believe that his falling from favor was a key ingredient in this operation. Someone gave up details on him because they wanted him out.
Of course, this doesn’t change the fact that we should rejoice in today’s news. But we should also be clear in our analysis about what it means for the next steps. There is little evidence of a leadership vacuum in the foreign fighter leadership and cause for serious concern that the current violence in Iraq will not abate.
– Brian Katulis