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Weaver: Zarqawi’s Death 'Significant' But Not 'Decisive' in Ending Iraqi Insurgency

Interviewee: Mary Anne Weaver
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
June 9, 2006

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Mary Anne Weaver, a veteran Middle East correspondent whose biographical article on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is in the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly, says the killing of Zarqawi "is significant, but I don't think it's decisive." Weaver, who was an Edward R. Murrow Fellow two years ago at CFR, says Zarqawi's organization was only responsible for 10 percent of the insurgent attacks in Iraq.

"While Zarqawi's attacks were the most spectacular, while Zarqawi was probably one of a number of key figures who actually played a crucial role in fanning sectarian warfare, curiously the other groups are the ones which mainly targeted U.S. troops," says Weaver. With Zarqawi gone, it is important to know whether his group will "continue targeting Shiites, particularly civilian Shiites, or will it refrain itself—reprogram itself is a better word—and begin attacking coalition forces?"

You have an article on the life of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly that you researched a few months ago in Jordan and elsewhere. What do you think is the significance of his death?

Obviously it is significant, but I don't think it's decisive. It was a symbolic victory more than an ideological victory vis-à-vis what Zarqawi did. He certainly was the most brutal perpetrator of acts of terror in Iraq, but I think it's also necessary to keep in mind that he actually only committed some 10 percent of the total number of attacks.

Where does that 10-percent figure come from? I've seen that elsewhere also.

When I was in the Middle East in March, I talked to a number of intelligence officials in both Jordan and Israel. They first gave me the figure. It was later confirmed to me by a senior American officer who had served in Iraq.

And the other 90 percent of the insurgent attacks come from local Iraqis, is that your impression?

Exactly. There are some sixty or more Sunni insurgent groups in Iraq. The Sunnis of course are propelling the insurgency, but you know there are a lot of Shiite militias out there as well. And while Zarqawi's attacks were the most spectacular, while Zarqawi was probably one of a number of key figures who actually played a crucial role in fanning sectarian warfare, curiously the other groups are the ones which mainly targeted U.S. troops. And I think that is one of the key things to watch in the future. Now that he is gone, will al-Qaeda in Iraq, Zarqawi's group, which became part of a composite umbrella organization, the Mujahadeen Shura [Council], in January, continue targeting Shiites, particularly civilian Shiites, or will it refrain itself—reprogram itself is a better word—and begin attacking coalition forces?

But is there a chance that with him gone, the Sunni insurgents might be persuaded to join in some kind of truce since a Sunni general is now the defense minister?

I am very, very skeptical about this because the Sunni insurgents in fact have a key game plan—to get the Americans out of Iraq and also to get the Shiites out of power in Iraq. And Zarqawi was part of the larger framework of this, but he was not key. American officials have been talking to various Sunni insurgent groups since at least January of this year. And of course there was a split between many of the major Sunni insurgent groups and Zarqawi, which went on for about two months earlier this year. Then in February with the bombing of the Shiite holy shrine in Samarra, there was a newfound unity.

Zarqawi viscerally hated Shiites, much more so than ordinary Sunni groups. Sunnis and Shiites had more or less lived together and often intermarried. But you say after the bombing of the Shiite holy site there was a coming together of the Sunni insurgents and al-Qaeda? Why?

That was because the bombing of Samarra's Askariya shrine [the Golden Mosque], which is one of the Shiite's holiest sites, brought about immediate retaliation by Shiites against Sunnis. In fact I was in Jordan at the time that the Askariya shrine was bombed, and within twenty-four hours there were hundreds of deaths of Sunnis at the hands of Shiites. Dozens of Sunni mosques were burned to the ground. There were very arbitrary killings in Sunni neighborhoods. The number of IED's, or improvised explosive devices, tripled during those first twenty-four to forty-eight hours.

Wouldn't the Sunnis want to strike a deal with the Shiites to stop all this violence?

One would think so, but at this point the insurgency, the sectarian warfare particularly, has already developed such a momentum of its own. It's going to be very, very difficult to stop it.

Let's talk a little bit more about Zarqawi. What, from your conversations with the various people who knew him, did you learn about what it was that turned him into such a fanatic?

You know it's rather ironic because Zarqawi really is a creation of America's wars, first in Afghanistan, the Jihad of the 1980's against the Soviet Union. He joined late, he arrived in 1989, but he stayed for four years. And then [there is] what is perceived by the insurgents to be the Jihad in Iraq. This is above and beyond the inflation of his profile by U.S. officials, primarily the U.S. military.

But what got him into this feverish anti-Shiite position?

When he first went to Afghanistan in December 1989, he met Huthaifa Azzam, whose father was kind of a legendary mujahadeen leader, Shiekh Abdullah Azzam. Huthaifa had picked up him and other volunteers at the airport in 1989 in Pakistan, and he told me that at that time Zarqawi wasn't really very religious at all. In fact he had only, as they say, "returned to Islam" three months before coming to Afghanistan in December of that year.

Up until that point Zarqawi was a gang leader, he was a street thug, he was a pimp, he was someone who allegedly played a key role in the underworld of Zarqa, the town in which he was born and raised, and he was drifting. He had no grounding; he had no sense of purpose. And when he went to Afghanistan in December of 1989, he stayed until 1993, and it was the first time he had ever left Jordan.

And for him it changed everything. For the first time he met really militant jihadists and salafists from all over the world. He had his first contacts with al-Qaeda—he didn't meet Osama bin Laden of course, but he trained in one of bin Laden's camps. He met also, and this is exceedingly important, a Palestinian cleric by the name of Abu Mohammad al-Maqdisi, who is one of Salafism's three key ideologues. Zarqawi came under the sway of al-Maqdisi, and al-Maqdisi really became the single greatest influence in Zarqawi's life.

But al-Maqdisi came to be at odds with Zarqawi, right?

Exactly. When Zarqawi's organization bombed the three hotels in Amman [Jordan] last November, al-Maqdisi, with whom Zarqawi had minor and increasingly major theological differences over the years, publicly, without denouncing Zarqawi personally, criticized and chided Zarqawi on al-Jazeera television. The break between the two men had been building since they went to prison together at the end of 1993.

And that criticism was what, that it was not good to just kill ordinary civilians?

That there was no justification for the mass slaughter of civilians.

In fact I never understood why Zarqawi ordered those bombings anyway.

The bombings were interesting and indicative because they occurred in November 2005 and Zarqawi only pledged allegiance to bin Laden in October of the previous year. The Amman bombings clearly expanded his reach, his sophistication, his appeal, and also showed him to really be distancing himself from bin Laden. And my understanding is that bin Laden was absolutely furious about the attacks, because, again, civilians were the targets. And it was Muslim killing Muslim.

You have a very interesting section in the article about the differences between bin Laden and Zarqawi. Could you summarize those?

Well you know when Zarqawi first met bin Laden in December 1999, according to an Israeli intelligence official with whom I spoke, it was "loathing at first sight." Bin Laden found Zarqawi to be aggressive, abrasive. He distrusted him immediately, fearing that he and the group of prisoners with whom he was released earlier that year in a general amnesty in Jordan had been infiltrated by the Jordanian Muhabarat [secret police]. So there was the distrust and the suspicion. There was also the intense dislike because bin Laden looked at Zarqawi as being overly ambitious, streetwise, lacking any real ideological grounding.

Zarqawi, on the other hand, openly criticized bin Laden in justifying his attacks on Shiites. Bin Laden has never advocated sectarian warfare between Sunnis and Shiites. He sees things in the larger context, i.e. war against the United States and Israel. So Zarqawi was very impertinent, to put it gently, with bin Laden vis-à-vis the issue of Shiites. He also told bin Laden—ironically now in retrospect—that he totally opposed bin Laden's giving Arab fighters to Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan, to fight the Northern Alliance, which still at that point in December 1999 held 10 percent of Afghanistan even though the Taliban had come to power a number of years earlier. And the temerity of this young, streetwise, smart kid telling the leader of al-Qaeda that he disagreed with him very strongly on two very basic ideological grounds, left bin Laden simply aghast.

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