Making Victory Rhyme with Defeat
By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Richard Miniter
Weekly Standard Online
June 20, 2006
The media myths of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
FROM NEWSWEEK to the New York Daily News, nearly every major media outlet has fallen for at least one of the three major myths concerning Abu Musab al-Zarqawi: that he was an “American creation”; that he was not a unique warlord but was easily replaceable; or that American soldiers allegedly committed atrocities against a dying Zarqawi. These myths should be destroyed before they take root.
(1) The U.S. “created” Zarqawi by giving him prominence in public pronouncements. The day after Zarqawi’s death, London’s Daily Mail noted: “The great irony of the rise of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is that it was the United States who helped make him so infamous. . . . [T]hanks to the West’s desire to put a face to an ideology they could not understand, his name was automatically linked to almost every outrage perpetrated in Iraq.”
This theme was also sounded in the American press. Newsweek found, “Zarqawi’s infamy was, at least to some degree, a creation of the U.S. government, whose spokesmen seized on him as the visible face of Al Qaeda in Iraq–and living proof that the war in Iraq was the main battlefield in the grander global war on terror.”
But Zarqawi was a figure the U.S. government stumbled upon, rather than raised up. A lone State Department official noticed an NSA intercept of a phone call from Zarqawi, who was in Iraq, to one of the assassins of USAID diplomat Lawrence Foley. (Foley was murdered in his driveway in Amman, Jordan in 2002). Zarqawi was congratulating the killer. The official, whom we have interviewed, said he then began to wonder who Zarqawi was. (The NSA wasn’t tracking Zarqawi at the time, but was tracing those who phoned the assassins to find out if there was a new group targeting diplomats. There was: Zarqawi’s.) Then he noticed that Zarqawi was an al Qaeda operative and that he made the phone call from Iraq–more than a year before the Iraq war began.
The point is that Zarqawi, based in Iraq, had ordered the death of U.S. officials while he was essentially unknown to the American intelligence community. The State Department official forwarded the NSA intercept to a number of others at State and Defense. Later, he learned that his email was used by senior Defense Department officials to champion the idea that Zarqawi deserved a prominent place in U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s U.N. address.
Following the Powell speech, Zarqawi was all but forgotten by U.S. officials. Ambassador Paul L. Bremer’s exhaustive memoir My Year in Iraq contains only nine stray references to Zarqawi, and virtually all of them are merely citations of news reports. During a discussion with Bremer about the insurgency in November 2003, he talked extensively about Syrian and Iranian involvement, but did not mention Zarqawi.
It was Zarqawi’s repeated and spectacular attacks against allied forces in Iraq, culminating in his May 2004 beheading of Nicholas Berg, that seized the Bush administration’s attention.
Rewarded with the media spotlight, Zarqawi committed more atrocities, beheading Eugene Armstrong and Ken Bigley. If anything, it was the American media’s sustained coverage of Zarqawi’s butchery that made him an international figure–not the Bush administration.
(2) Killing Zarqawi didn’t really accomplish anything; it’s like cutting the head off a hydra. Former Clinton counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, author of Against All Enemies, recently argued that it was a “myth” that Zarqawi’s death would significantly set back the insurgency: “Remember, we were also told that the death of Uday and Qusay Hussein would weaken the insurgency. When Saddam was captured, many speculated that his arrest would diminish the fighting. Almost exactly one year ago, Cheney said that the insurgency was ‘in the last throes.’ Since those events and statements, the rate of insurgent attacks and the casualties from those attacks have steadily increased and are now at an all-time high.”
But unlike virtually every other figure in Iraq today, Zarqawi was a genuine icon. He was celebrated in Arabic-language pop songs and enjoyed friendly references in Arab soap operas. His signature black skullcap was offered for sale in the streets of Cairo, Khartoum, and elsewhere as “the Zarqawi” by vendors. His powerful image gave him two special advantages: the ability to raise vast sums of money from Saudi and Gulf Arabs, and the mystique to entreat recruits for suicide bombings from across the Arab world. (Intelligence analysts who track the online obituaries of suicide bombers in Iraq have found that more than 60 percent of them are Saudi.)
At least in the short run, it is hard to imagine Abu Hamza al-Muhajir or any other successor enjoying the same cultural, financial, or recruiting advantages.
(3) Zarqawi was beaten to death by American troops. Shortly after Zarqawi’s death, an Iraqi man identified only as Mohammed told the Associated Press that he saw Zarqawi being beaten by the Americans: “When the Americans arrived they took him out of the ambulance, they beat him on his stomach and wrapped his head with his dishdasha, then they stomped on his stomach and his chest until he died and blood came out of his nose.” Another purported witness stated that soldiers kicked the wounded man’s chest until he grew pale, his mouth began bleeding, and he died.
In a definitive Washington Post account drawn from an array of U.S. officials and other authoritative sources, there is no mention of an ambulance. Nor does the notion that U.S. soldiers would stop an ambulance and remove Zarqawi in order to beat him to death seem plausible.
It does no one any service to pretend that Zarqawi was a minor figure or one that he is easily replaced. His death alone will not end any of the three insurgencies now besetting allied forces in Iraq, but his demise is still a milestone.
Richard Miniter is the author of two New York Times bestsellers, Losing bin Laden and Shadow War. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior consultant for the Gerard Group International LLC. His first book, My Year Inside Radical Islam, will be published in Winter 2007 by Tarcher/Penguin.
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