Osama Gets It

Ralph Peters, correctly I think, believes that the recent comminique between Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, suggesting that the latter shift his efforts to attacks on U.S. interests outside Iraq, is an indication bin Laden realizes he’s losing.

Osama is a strategist. He may not be a very good strategist — he called the after-effects of 9/11 utterly wrong. But he thinks in global terms, in time-frames that look decades into the future and centuries into the past. He’s a big-picture guy. Zarqawi is a hit man. He thinks tactically. Faced with the humiliation of 8 million Iraqis defying his threats and lining up to vote, his instinctive response is to lash out, to punish, to kill without stopping. Monday’s bombing in Hilla took 115 Iraqi lives. It was a classic Zarqawi operation.

Osama and Zarqawi are both frustrated by the series of reverses they’ve suffered. But their perspectives on the Islamist war against modern civilization differ profoundly. Even in hiding, Osama has managed to build an accurate picture of events in the greater Middle East, where his cause is on the ropes. He’s realized that Zarqawi’s program of videotaped beheadings, suicide bombings against civilian targets and the assassination of teachers, doctors and local officials hasn’t won hearts and minds.


Bin Laden knows that his movement can’t afford a further hemorrhage of popular support. In his gory way, Zarqawi is becoming a more immediate threat to al Qaeda than America. By killing so many Muslims, Zarqawi has destroyed the folk-hero image of Islamist terrorists, reducing them to nothing but renegade murderers.

I’ve been arguing–hoping, really–the last point for months now. The lessons of insurgency, especially from the Maoist Revolution in China, tell us that guerillas win when they treat the locals well and force frustrated government forces to kill innocents in order to get at the insurgents.

To an extent, that was happening in the early stage of the Iraqi insurgency. U.S. forces, especially, were seen as occupiers and every innocent Iraqi death was a defeat for our cause. Once we got better at targetting the insurgents, Zarqawi and company ratcheted up their violence in ways that I always believed would eventually be counterproductive to their cause. The transfer of nominal sovereignty to an Iraqi-led government and, especially, the recent elections, further exacerbated this disconnect. It’s now clear that the terrorists are working against Iraqi interests rather than Americans. That’s not a formula for success.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.