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Death of an Icon

Thursday, 8th of June, 2006

Thomas Hegghammer

The killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is the biggest US counterterrorism success since 9/11, argues Thomas Hegghammer.

Despite internal controversies over his brutal tactics, al-Zarqawi had acquired iconic status in the global jihadist movement as the head of "al-Qaida in the Land of the Two Rivers". Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was part of a triptych of al-Qaida leaders – together with Usama bin Ladin and Ayman al-Zawahiri – who had gained a morale-boosting aura of invincibility by evading capture and death for so long. That aura is now broken.

It is difficult to assess the implications of al-Zarqawi’s death for the Iraqi battlefield, for the simple reason that we have never really understood the precise role of al-Zarqawi and his foreign fighters in the Iraqi insurgency. It is widely assumed that al-Qaida in Iraq played a high-profile, but militarily less significant role in the resistance. Al-Zarqawi and his men pioneered the use of brutal tactics such as decapitations of hostages and mass killings of Shiite civilians, which earned him criticism from such influential figures as Bin Laden's deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, Zarqawi's one-time spiritual mentor.

Aware that he had become a PR liability, al-Zarqawi sought to tone down his profile in early 2006, not least by transfering authority to the so-called "Mujahidin Shura Council". Al-Zarqawi’s death will further strengthen the Iraqi nationalist character of the insurgency and may also lead to a reduction in the number of attacks against Shiites.

Al-Zarqawi’s death has far greater significance for the global jihadist movement outside Iraq. Al-Zarqawi was not only one of the three main icons of al-Qaida and the leader of the main battlefront in the global jihad. With Bin Ladin and al-Zawahiri in hiding, al-Zarqawi was also seen as the top al-Qaida leader to be operationally active. He was therefore an extremely important symbol of vigour in the global jihadist movement.

A number of online statements by militants have confirmed al-Zarqawi’s death and played down its operational significance, saying the jihadist movement does not depend on individuals. They are wrong. Charismatic individuals play a very important motivational role in militant Islamist groups. The Internet has facilitated the spread of audiovisual propaganda, thus making iconography crucial to global jihadist recruitment efforts. Al-Zarqawi’s death will dent the morale of al-Qaida sympathisers worldwide and may also contribute to a reduction in the flow of foreign mujahidin to Iraq.

The death of al-Zarqawi is a historical event, and - like all such events - it may have unexpected consequences. If Zarqawi’s death marginalises the foreign mujahidin in Iraq, it is not impossible that his followers will choose to leave, and internationalise their terrorist activities. Another possibility is that Afghanistan becomes more important as a global jihadist battlefield and starts drawing more foreign fighters.

In the short term, most speculations focus on al-Zarqawi’s possible successor. The future of al-Qaida in Iraq depends to a large extent on their ability to produce a new leader who can emulate al-Zarqawi in stature. Historically, al-Qaida and affiliated groups have displayed a surprising ability to replace dead and captured leaders. But can you replace an icon?

Thomas Hegghammer is a research fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment. He is co-author of Al-Qaida Dans le Texte, an edited and commented collection of statements from jihadist leaders.

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