Zarqawi Emerging as Self-Sustained Force

Some experts believe that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s network is shifting from a foreign terrorist organization to a domestic guerilla movement.

Zarqawi emerging as self-sustained force-US intel (Reuters)

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s network of al Qaeda-linked insurgents is emerging as a self-sustaining force, despite repeated blows by U.S. forces and the reported death of his second-in-command, U.S. intelligence officials and other experts say. The Zarqawi network, responsible for some of the Iraqi insurgency’s bloodiest attacks, has grown into a loose confederation of mainly native Iraqis trained by former Baath Party regime officers in explosives, small arms, rockets and surface-to-air missiles.

Since U.S. counter-insurgency assaults forced many of its operatives to exit Iraq’s cities, counterterrorism officials say al Qaeda has been trying to set up a safe haven for training and command operations in western Anbar province. “The suggestion is that this has shifted from being a terrorist network to a guerrilla army,” said Vali Nasr, a national security affairs expert at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. “If this were not checked, the insurgents would become not only militarily more powerful, but politically more powerful. We’re definitely trying to deny that milestone to Zarqawi.”

U.S. military officials on Tuesday said they had killed Zarqawi’s No. 2 in Iraq, an operative identified as Abu Azzam. Al Qaeda did not verify the U.S. claim. But intelligence officials said the death of Zarqawi himself would not mean al Qaeda’s defeat in Iraq, partly because he has ceded authority over day-to-day operations to regional commanders and tribal leaders who operate according to his strategic guidelines. “If he died in the cause, that’s huge. That’s what everybody wants. Then he’s a giant figurehead and everybody can do something in his name,” one intelligence official said. “He has enough force in place to sustain operations,” the official added. “Al Qaeda in Iraq … regenerates very quickly. You knock off a guy who’s in charge in a certain area, another person steps into the gap.”

Zarqawi’s network, believed to consist of 2,000 to 5,000 hardcore fighters and an equal number of active supporters, represents 10-15 percent of the Iraq insurgency in numbers of fighters, officials say.

There’s little doubt that Zarqawi’s cell, and al Qaeda in general, have been very resilient despite the loss of a sizable number of senior leaders. They have become institutionalized and organic. Still, it’s hard to believe that the loss of Osama bin Laden or Zarqawi wouldn’t be serious blows. Charismatic leaders don’t grow on trees.

Jill Carroll and Dan Murphy provide additional perspective:

US is logging gains against Al Qaeda in Iraq (CSM)

In a succession of intelligence breaks, the US says it has killed two key members of Al Qaeda in Iraq in recent days, including the organization’s No. 2 man who is suspected of orchestrating a series of suicide bombings in Baghdad since April. According to American military officials, the US has either made key arrests or developed informants who have led to a cascade of actionable intelligence over the past month. Since the middle of August, the US has reported killing or capturing at least 16 members of Al Qaeda in Iraq, led by the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

How big a blow this is to the insurgency in Iraq remains unclear. While US human intelligence has clearly improved, no one has a clear understanding of the internal workings of Mr. Zarqawi’s network, which is thought to be only a small portion of Iraq’s decentralized and highly complex insurgency. “By itself these events don’t do much to destroy Al Qaeda as much as undermine and undercut it. But this comes after some very successful operations in Tal Afar that wrapped up the Al Qaeda network there,” says Anthony Cordesman, a former senior intelligence analyst for the US and now an expert on the Iraq insurgency at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.


It’s also not clear what the US defines as a “senior leader,” or how hard they are to replace. General Bergner said Friday that since January, US and Iraqi forces have killed or captured at least 80 “senior leaders” in northern Iraq. However, insurgents have been much stronger in the north in 2005 than in 2004.

Militant Islamist groups like Zarqawi’s, which share Osama bin Laden’s vision of creating a global Sunni caliphate that would rule in the style of 7th century Arabia, are a tiny portion of Iraq’s insurgency. But they have been the most willing to target Iraqi civilians and are committed to creating a civil war between Iraq’s Shiite majority, who Zarqawi views as apostates, and the Sunni minority who ruled Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

Therein lies the best chance for success. One of the key elements of a successful guerilla campaign, as Mao and others have taught us, is gaining the support of the people. So long as the terrorists were targetting foreign soldiers, they were likely to have that. Now that the chief targets are Iraqi policemen and ordinary citizens, one would hope that the people would become the biggest ally of the counter-terrorist effort.

So far, though, that does not seem to have happened.

Stephen Spruiell finds the stories above contradictory and writes,

My problem is that you’ve got two stories made up of three elements: government PR, anonymous sources, and analysts from various think tanks, universities and previous administrations who are essentially speculating — and each story draws a different conclusion. How is the average news consumer supposed to know which story is more accurate?

There’s really not much different in the stories beyond the headlines. Both acknowledge that the U.S. has had many recent successes in killing senior leaders and both note that there does not seem to be any diminution of terrorist activity resulting from this. The CSM story is slightly more optimistic about the prospects than the Reuters piece but, as Spruiell notes, that’s just speculation.

Update: Several other stories are out this morning on this general topic.

Killing Called Setback for Insurgency in Iraq

U.S. and Iraqi officials Tuesday declared a major setback for the anti-government insurgency after the slaying of a man identified as the No. 2 operative of Al Qaeda in Iraq. But the death of Abu Azzam, who was tracked down and shot in a high-rise apartment building by joint U.S.-Iraqi forces early Sunday, brought no immediate letup of violence in and around his Baghdad base of operation.


Al Qaeda in Iraq posted an Internet statement Tuesday saying Abu Azzam’s death “was not confirmed.” Some Iraqis, beleaguered by months of unrelenting car bombs and crumbling public services, voiced skepticism about the government’s latest claim of success. “Was this terrorist really killed, or is it just propaganda?” asked Suha Azzawi, a Sunni Muslim member of the panel that drafted Iraq’s proposed constitution.


U.S. officials have proclaimed the killing or capture of top Zarqawi aides several times over the last year, only to admit later that his organization is decentralized enough to absorb the blows. After a man identified as his chief bomb-maker in Baghdad was arrested in January, car bombings here increased sharply. Some U.S. officials were more optimistic Tuesday, saying Abu Azzam was a more significant figure, harder to replace.


“They’re going to have to go to the bench and find somebody that’s probably less knowledgeable, less qualified” than Abu Azzam, said Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “But over time they’ll replace people.”

Myers is right, almost by definition. Whether this will have any measurable impact on the insurgency, though, is another matter.

Zarqawi ‘Hijacked’ Insurgency (WaPo, A17)

The top U.S. military intelligence officer in Iraq said Abu Musab Zarqawi and his foreign and Iraqi associates have essentially commandeered the insurgency, becoming the dominant opposition force and the greatest immediate threat to U.S. objectives in the country. “I think what you really have here is an insurgency that’s been hijacked by a terrorist campaign,” Army Maj. Gen. Richard Zahner said in an interview. “In part, by Zarqawi becoming the face of this thing, he has certainly gotten the funding, the media and, frankly, has allowed other folks to work along in his draft.”

The remarks underscored a shift in view among senior members of the U.S. military command here since the spring, as violence, especially against civilians, has spiked and as Zarqawi, a radical Sunni Muslim from Jordan, has aggressively promoted himself and his anti-U.S., anti-Shiite campaign. U.S. military leaders say they now see Zarqawi’s group of foreign fighters and Iraqi supporters, known as al Qaeda in Iraq, as having supplanted Iraqis loyal to ousted president Saddam Hussein as the insurgency’s driving element.

This may be largely a semantic issue, or at least merely one of organizational hierarchy. Recent analyses would seem to indicate that the “foreign” element of Zarqawi’s force is rather small at the rank and file level (although it’s still most of the senior leadership).

Another problematic aspect of Zarqawi’s operation is its absence of an associated political organization. Hoping to incite sectarian conflict and derail the political process, Zarqawi has declared war on Iraqi Shiites and is urging Sunnis not to participate in next month’s vote on a draft constitution or December’s parliamentary elections.

“I think right now he’s taking an extremely high-risk but, in his view, potentially high-payoff strategy, which is to try to force a civil war with the Shia and portray himself as the defender of the Sunni populace,” Zahner said.

U.S. commanders see an opportunity to exploit what they regard as a split between Zarqawi’s approach and the main current of Sunni opinion, which appears to favor participation in the voting. In a meeting with leading representatives in Fallujah last week, Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. officer in Iraq, described Zarqawi’s group and its supporters as “the greatest threat to Iraq” and urged all Iraqis “to band together against that group so the country can go forward.”

As noted above, that is the hope.

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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. bindare says:

    How should we measure terrorist activity in Iraq. If you compare fatalities of American servicemen there is no improvement from this year to last year. However when you include the number of injuries to Americans there is a dramatic improvement in this years numbers. Could it be that the terrorist activity is decreasing but becoming more deadly as they use larger roadside bombs. This would result in more fatalities but fewer injuries. I believe that we are on a path to a significant victory in Iraq but just like the cornered rats they are, the terrorists are becoming more deadly as their options decrease.

  2. ICallMasICM says:

    ‘it’s hard to believe that the loss of Osama bin Laden or Zarqawi wouldn’t be serious blows. ‘

    Unfortunately, the loss of either has yet to happen.

  3. Sirkowski says:

    Still, it’s hard to believe that the loss of Osama bin Laden or Zarqawi wouldn’t be serious blows.
    Gotti’s in jail, is the mafia dead?

  4. Terry says:

    Zarqawi Emerging as Self-Sustained Force

    You’re just begining to understand this?

    Man, you fundys ARE dumber than a bag a hammers.

    Time to let the adults run things again.

  5. Adam Stephenson says:

    Immediately after 9/11 there was so much empathy towards all the people who lost love ones and anger at those who caused it.

    As we embarked on the war in Iraq, how much of the same feelings that we experienced are the Iraqi people experiencing today? Our troops are trying their best not to kill the “good” guys but they do anyways. Perhaps it is a mistake or just an accident but it seems too often that we just don’t care. The end result is that we are turning “allies” into enemies. We see it as good verses evil, they see it as us killing their brothers, fathers, uncles, etc.

    The difference is that to the ordinary Iraqi is that they didn’t like Sadaam but they also don’t like us. The longer we stay and kill more Iraqis the more they distrust us.

    Whether it is a christian life or an islamic life doesn’t matter – we are all god’s children.

  6. Adam Stephenson says:

    In the western culture we think as a war as being decided in a battle. From Napolean to WW2 it ultimately came down to one side winning a decisive battle against the other. We are used to fighting a centralized army that once it’s control has been defeated that the war is over.

    In the battle we are now fighting (terrorism) our foes think of fighting for generations and is highly decentralized. Given this scenario what does it mean to take out #2 or #3 of an organization? Next to nothing. It may sound good in the press but it actually means very little – there are plenty of new people willing to move up the ranks and assume their roles.

    Our military has been designed to win on the battlefield. Our opponents have realized this and have changed the rules. To win this battle we must also adapt and the best way is to deny them of their base. This new battle isn’t of armaments but of ideas. We need to understand what their grievances are and address the core of them. By doing so we’ll deny then them of the support they need.

    The alternative is to militarily conquer and force the beaten people to believe in the American way – which has different rules is you live in the US or not. Perhaps this is the root of the problem.