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Iraq's Insurgency After Zarqawi

Author: Lionel Beehner
June 9, 2006
This publication is now archived.

Introduction

The leader of the foreign contingent of Iraq's insurgency is dead, but the insurgency, as U.S. officials point out, lives on. Just as the capture of Saddam Hussein did little to derail Sunni insurgents' efforts, the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, while symbolically important, is unlikely to neuter the Islamist strand of the insurgency, experts say. Three deadly car bombs on the day after Zarqawi's death lent support to their assertion. But what will a post-Zarqawi insurgency look like? The insurgency in Iraq was always an eccentric jumble of players—Sunni Baathists as well as foreign-born Islamist extremists, Iraqi nationalists as well as organized and petty criminals. Their interests coincided at times, but they just as often collided.

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What implications does Zarqawi’s death have for the insurgency?

Zarqawi (whose real name is Ahmed Khalayleh) was the symbolic and strategic leader of Iraq's foreign jihadis, whose gruesome kidnappings and killings, often broadcast over the Internet, sowed sectarian fear in Iraq and drove out many foreign humanitarian organizations. Yet he is more than just the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq and its estimated 1,500 to 2,000 foreign-born jihadis, who comprise roughly 10 percent of the insurgency. As terrorism expert Peter Bergen told CNN, these jihadis orchestrate the bulk of the suicide bombings, targeted assassinations, and symbolic attacks, including the February 22 decimation of a sacred Shiite shrine in Samarra.

How was Zarqawi viewed by radical Muslims?

His targeting of Shiites turned off many Muslims, including Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri (although a new videotape by Zawahiri, made before his death, praised Zarqawi). Bin Laden focused his terror on the "far enemy"—namely the United States—while Zarqawi focused on the "near enemy"—infidels in Iraq and collaborators with the U.S.-led coalition government. Zarqawi's use of public beheadings drew criticism in the form of a July 2005 letter from Zawahiri, as well as a backlash from the Iraqi population. "Suicide bombings have a religious and ideological aura that beheadings never did," says Scott Atran, director of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, while beheadings were "not seen as a legitimate means of slaughter or sacrifice for God." Finally, Zarqawi's bombing of a Jordanian hotel last November, which left fifty-six Jordanians dead and hundreds wounded, angered a large segment of Muslims and may have led to his eventual downfall. Jordanian intelligence was instrumental in the targeting that led to Zarqawi's June 7 death, U.S. officials say.

What does Zarqawi’s death mean for the insurgency?

Experts say his death is important, given Zarqawi's charisma and mythic status among Muslim extremists, not to mention his alleged ties to terrorist cells in Europe and ability to spur jihadi recruitment there. "He breathed life into global jihad by launching the Iraq operation," says Nibras Kazimi, an Iraqi expert at the Hudson Institute. U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad called Zarqawi the "godfather of sectarian killing."

However, military intelligence reports from earlier this year suggest his influence was on the wane and was being overstated by the White House to provide a link between Osama bin Laden and terrorism networks in Iraq. Earlier this year he folded his operations into the Mujahadeen Shura Council, a collection of mostly Iraqi insurgent groups. Further, experts say he lacked support from the bulk of the Iraqi-born insurgents. Of the estimated 20,000 insurgents in Iraq, roughly 18,000 are native Iraqis, according to the Brookings Institution's Iraq Index.

Hence, Zarqawi's death, in terms of squelching the insurgency, will only be "helpful on the margin," says CFR Defense Senior Fellow Stephen Biddle. "At the end of the day, this war is not primarily the activities of al-Qaeda but is an internal conflict between Iraqis, not foreigners," he says. "You could kill every last al-Qaeda-in-Iraq member and still have a war." Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service says getting rid of Zarqawi does not address the root causes of the Sunni-led insurgency. "It doesn't affect the social base of the insurgency, which is that Sunnis feel humiliated," Katzman says.

How hierarchical was Zarqawi’s network?

Al-Qaeda in Iraq was a very cellular and decentralized organization that was not vertically hierarchical, experts say. "The jihadists comprise a social movement, not a cluster of terrorist organizations, and they are totally opportunistic and endlessly plastic in how they accommodate to circumstances," write Daniel Benjamin of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and CFR Fellow Steven Simon in the New York Times. In Palestine during the mid-1990s, this was not the case. After Israel assassinated the leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Fathi Shiqaqi, writes Georgetown University's Daniel Byman in Slate, "[h]is successors squabbled for years over leadership and next steps."

How will the U.S.-led counterterrorism strategy change?

The overall strategy is not affected, experts say. "The military impact will not be overwhelming and the fighting will go on," Biddle says. Off the battlefield, U.S. officials will continue to work with their Iraqi counterparts and others in the region, including the Jordanians, to break up terrorist cells and disrupt insurgent attacks in Iraq. They will also continue to rely on local Iraqi civilians to provide intelligence. One of the reasons Zarqawi was found and killed was because he was constantly moving around Iraq, which is densely populated. "How many times can you change safe houses before someone spots you and rats you out?" Biddle asks.

What does the post-Zarqawi insurgency look like?

Almost all the strands of the Sunni-led insurgency remain intact and will be largely unaffected by Zarqawi's death, experts say. "The average Sunni wasn't fighting on behalf of bin Laden or Zarqawi but on Sunni-related issues in Iraq," Biddle says. Jihadi-posted entries on Islamist websites indicate their commitment to carry on Zarqawi's fight against the U.S.-led occupation and Sunni and Shiite collaborators. Some postings suggest a Shiite-Sunni rapprochement might be in the cards with Zarqawi absent.

Ahmed Hashim, an adjunct lecturer at Harvard University and an associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College, estimates there are roughly twenty different strands, many of them fluid, within the insurgency, among them ex-Baathists, tribal-based Sunnis, and Islamic fundamentalists (reports by released hostages suggest many ex-Baathists are switching their allegiance from Saddamist-style secularism to Islamic fundamentalism). Among the major groups:

  • Higher Command of the Mujahadeen in Iraq. An umbrella organization for roughly 8,000 Iraqi-led insurgents, this group first emerged in April 2003 and includes religious extremists, secular nationalists, and Saddamists. Among its ranks are also the ruthless al-Faruq and al-Abbas brigades. Hashim calls it one of the "most active resistance groups in Iraq."
  • Jaish Ansar al-Sunnah. Formed in November 2003, this Sunni-led group, which means "Partisans of the Law," follows a strict form of Islam and reportedly works closely in cahoots with al-Qaeda. "It is notorious for its ruthlessness," writes Hashim in his book Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq, pointing to the group's execution of twelve kidnapped Nepalese hostages in August 2004 and seventeen Tikrit-based Iraqi contractors in December 2004.
  • Islamic Army of Iraq. This Sunni-led group works closely with al-Qaeda in Iraq, numbers around 15,000 members, and, according to the Washington Post, carries out three-quarters of its attacks against U.S. forces and non-Iraqi contractors. Recently the group abducted—and later released—French journalists Christian Chesnot and George Malbrunot, who told Hashim the group is largely made up of Iraqi Salafists who admire Osama bin Laden. Their cells "are very compartmentalized and have a meticulous division of labor, with distinct cells for kidnapping, interrogation, guard duty, and executions," Hashim writes.
How does Zarqawi’s death affect the new Iraqi government?

Experts say the death of Iraq's most-wanted insurgent, in addition to the recent naming of defense and interior ministers, is a needed shot in the arm. "If [Prime Minister Nouri-al Maliki] can combine the political symbolism of getting rid of Zarqawi and the political symbolism of completing his cabinet, and get some traction to persuade Iraqis to follow his agenda, this will strengthen Maliki's regime and [he] may be able to turn the corner on the insurgency," Biddle says. However, Katzman does not view Zarqawi's death as a "sea change" in the Iraqi government's effort to quell the insurgency. He sees the insurgency as representative of the Sunni Iraqis. "That's why it's so impossible to defeat," he says. "That's why the [Bush] administration is being inaccurate to distinguish a difference between the Sunni population and the insurgency. Lasting stability will only come once you give Sunnis back some of their dignity."

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