Who’s the World’s Most Dangerous Terrorist?

Henry Schuster kicks off a new terrorism series at CNN.com with that intriguing question: Tracking Terror: The world’s most dangerous terrorist.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi pledges allegiance to Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden gives his blessing to al-Zarqawi. So which man is the most dangerous terrorist in the world? This question seems as good a way as any to welcome you to Tracking Terror. I’ve been covering terrorism for CNN for more than a decade, and this weekly space will be aimed at reporting, analyzing and even provoking discussion on issues of terrorism and security.

Which brings us to the issue at hand. There seems little doubt that if there were a ranking of most dangerous terrorists, these two men would be at the top. But who is more dangerous?
In many ways bin Laden and al-Zarqawi represent two different types of threat. The two men have a past together in Afghanistan, but no one is quite sure what it is. But what matters most is that during the past 18 months, bin Laden has been repeatedly calling for an uprising in Iraq, while al-Zarqawi has been on the ground, carrying out a series of bloody attacks, from suicide car bombings to beheadings.

When al-Zarqawi made the first move towards bin Laden last year, sending him letters asking for bin Laden’s blessing and said his group was ready to offer its support. There was silence from bin Laden. Then a couple of months ago, al-Zarqawi’s group changed its name, started calling itself al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. In a message a few weeks later, bin Laden offered his blessing to al-Zarqawi. Arguably, bin Laden had no choice. While al-Zarqawi has been waging his campaign of terror in Iraq, bin Laden’s threat as an operational terrorist ended with 9/11 and the subsequent U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. As the White House keeps saying, bin Laden is on the run and that diminishes his ability to carry out attacks. Losing a number of lieutenants, most notably Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (who planned 9/11), has also been a blow. Al-Zarqawi has been busy, trying to make himself the leader of the insurgency in Iraq, and not being shy about it. He puts out his own audio tapes over the Internet, in the style of bin Laden, and most chillingly he claimed to be the man behind the mask executing American Nicholas Berg.

If you used death tolls as a measure, then bin Laden is ahead. September 11, the embassy bombings and a number of other attacks mean bin Laden has been directly responsible for at least 3,500 deaths. Al-Zarqawi is closing the gap. Quickly and bloodily. He’s still far behind, but not through lack of trying in places like Baghdad, Karbala and Najaf. It is just that his targets are smaller. But there are a lot more of them, and they have been much more recent.

Al-Zarqawi is primarily operational. Bin Laden is primarily inspirational. Being on the run hasn’t shut bin Laden up. To the contrary. He’s put out about 30 messages since September 11. And there is little doubt that as a symbol, he has turned al Qaeda into something more akin to a movement than a simple terrorist organization.

Al Qaeda has, since its inception, been an umbrella organization for differently motivated Islamist terrorists. There have been many al-Zarqawi’s; only one bin Laden. Al Qaeda is sufficiently established that getting rid of bin Laden wouldn’t cripple it at this stage–but the impact would be felt. Zarqawi is simply more replacable than bin Laden. That makes him less dangerous.

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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.


  1. lt bell says:

    The world’s most dangerous terrorist?

    Why – George W. Bush – of course. He has caused more death and injury thru his unprovoked attack on a defenseless Irag than all the other terrorists combined. Now the people of Irag want the invaders to leave and he has the Gall to call them terrorists.

  2. LJD says:

    Unprovoked? Hmmm. I guess Saddam never invaded Kuwait or fired on our air crews.

    The “people” want the “invaders” to leave? There must not be ANY Al Qaeda in Iraq. Al Zarqawi must be an Iraqi!

    Where the hell is Irag? Sounds disgusting.

  3. lt bell says:

    make up some more excuses
    make some more personal attacks
    hey ! I was in Vietnam
    I must be a bad guy and the draft dodger a good guy.
    Hey LJD – did you ever read “trinity” by Leon Uris?


    PS: Sorry I miss spell now and then, rush rush rush