The death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi triggered al-Qaeda’s latest propaganda war. Key figures rushed to celebrate his martyrdom. Even Mullah Omar, the former leader of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, emerged from his “prolonged isolation” to praise him on the Web. He called for thousand young Muslims to emulate his heroic life. Exploiting Zarqawi’s proletarian origins, he declared that anybody could achieve his greatness. All is needed is commitment and belief. Thus, the shaping of a new myth has already begun.
Zarqawi is the first leader of al-Qaeda who died in battle while fighting coalition forces; this simple fact gives him, in the eyes of the jihadist movement, almost a supernatural status. Al-Qaeda’s leadership knows too well how valuable this is. The propaganda machine has been set in motion to rewrite part of his life, presenting him as a loyal subject of Osama bin Laden.
This is the latest misinformation about the man. Until the end of 2004, Zarqawi was an al-Qaeda outsider. His myth was the product of American and British propaganda to justify a preventive strike in Iraq. Colin Powell’s announcement of Feb. 5, 2003 “Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network, headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda lieutenants” transformed him into an international al-Qaeda leader. Having failed to prove Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. government was constructing its case for war on Saddam’s connection with terrorism, with Zarqawi the link to al-Qaeda. We now know that this information was false and that it took al-Qaeda’s leadership by surprise.
A creation of the West, the Jordanian was also a difficult man to handle inside the complex power structure of the jihadist movement. He never submitted to bin Laden’s vision of the jihad, refusing to embrace the fight against America as the primary target. He even dictated his own conditions to Osama bin Laden to join al-Qaeda. For months, while fighting in Iraq, he insisted that the jihadist insurgency had to focus on two fronts, one against the Shia population, who backed the U.S.-led invasion, and the other against coalition forces. It was only after the fall of Fallujah that a reluctant Osama bin Laden accepted his vision.
Over the last nine months, key figures in al-Qaeda have criticized Zarqawi’s conduct of the insurgency in Iraq. They condemned the slaughter of the Shia as bad publicity. Last fall, Ayman al-Zawahiri even suggested that Zarqawi stop launching suicide missions against innocent Shia and focus more on attacking coalition forces. This criticism revealed al-Qaeda leaders’ deep sense of uneasiness toward the emir of al-Qaeda in Iraq, and their fear that he had become a loose cannon. The unpopularity of Zarqawi was also tangible in the Sunni resistance. Religious leaders tried several times to kidnap and dispose of him.
Yet Zarqawi managed to avoid capture primarily because he maintained a low media profile. This behavior changed a few weeks ago, when the first videos of him started to circulate in the vast network of jihadist webs. Was he preparing for a new role? Was he planning with those images to challenge the leadership of bin Laden? If so, was al-Qaeda somehow instrumental in his death? We know for sure that the attack was made possible by inside information about his location. The U.S. is adamant that Jordanian intelligence played a key role in the discovery of his hideout, yet nobody knows who tipped the Jordanians, thus earning a $25 million bounty.
The speed of al-Qaeda’s response through its media channels to the assassination of Zarqawi is deeply suspicious. Zawahiri’s video, released less than 48 hours after the event, for the first time praises Zarqawi as the prophet of Iraq. Clearly, the video was recorded before the event, as al-Qaeda’s number two does not refer to the former emir in Iraq as a martyr. Al-Qaeda needs from two to six weeks to get messages to the mainstream media, as their tapes travel through a complex underground web of channels. Yet the timing is perfect. Did Zawahiri expect Zarqawi to be killed shortly?
Even more suspicious is the distribution of al-Qaeda leaflets in several Iraqi mosques just 24 hours after the killing of Zarqawi. Abu Abdul al-Ramahdi, also known by the nomme de guerre “al Iraqi,” appointed himself the new emir of al-Qaeda in Iraq, promising to honor the memory of the martyr Zarqawi. The Iraqi-born Ramahdi is a newcomer to the Iraqi insurgency. Until a few months ago, he was in hiding in the tribal belt between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Indeed, he was sent by Osama bin Laden to help Zarqawi spread his recruitment net in Iraq. (As a native of Jordan, Zarqawi was regarded as a foreigner by Sunni Iraqis.) The speed with which the leaflets were printed and distributed in a war-torn country is remarkable. Not even in New York City one can get leaflets ready in such a short time. Are Iraqi printers better equipped and more efficient than their Western counterparts, or had al-Qaeda pre-printed the leaflets?
These are the key questions in the latest twist in al-Qaeda’s deadly saga, questions that seem to suggest Zarqawi may be more useful to Osama bin Laden now that al-Qaeda is shaping his status as a martyr. If successful, the new myth will be a key recruiting tool among young Muslims. Zarqawi may end up being more powerful and more dangerous in death than in life. While enjoying the pleasures of Paradise in the company of 72 virgins, he may still haunt all of us.