The Region: Zarqawi's anti-people war

As a revolutionary strategy, showing Muslims that America is weak and can be defeated is failing badly.

zarqawi dead 298.88 (photo credit: CNN)
zarqawi dead 298.88
(photo credit: CNN)
Two years ago, US intelligence intercepted a letter from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Iraq's al-Qaida branch who was killed recently, to Osama bin Laden. It gives a better sense than anything else I know of the ongoing strategy of the Iraqi insurgency. Zarqawi, a former Jordanian street thug turned Islamist revolutionary thug - needing only to change the rationale for his violent behavior - explains that the enemy consists of four groups. Each of these analyses is well worth presenting and dissecting. First, there are the Americans who "are the most cowardly of God's creatures. We ask God to enable us to kill and capture them to sow panic among those behind them." This is a rather typical radical Arab view of the US, often repeated by such disparate figures as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, architect of Iran's Islamist revolution, and Saddam Hussein, the now-imprisoned ex-dictator of Iraq. Examples of "cowardice" drawn on often include Vietnam, Lebanon, Iran and Somalia. It is believed that the Americans cannot stand casualties and quickly panic. America, then, appears as a strange combination of super-strength - seeking to dominate the world and to a large extent already doing so; and weakness - if Arabs or Muslims stand up to them they will quickly crumble. Americans are, in short, a paper tiger. Or, in the words of Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an imaginary superpower made of straw. Here we see the underlying concept of the September 11 attacks: Show Muslims that America is weak and can be defeated; frighten the Americans into running away. The fact that this does not work has no effect on radicals continuing to believe it. Here, too, is the reason for the kidnappings and beheadings: to commit acts so horrendous that the American targets will be too terrified to resist. A SECOND target is the regime itself, especially its soldiers and police. The goal here is to hit them hard "before the situation is consolidated." Obviously, the government's security forces are going to be an important target. But the wider objective is to prevent a government in Iraq from ever achieving stability or giving its people prosperity. Third are the Shi'ite Muslim Iraqis, a group comprising about 60 percent of the country's population. Zarqawi advocated massive attacks. His goal was to provoke a communal civil war: "If we succeed in dragging them into the arena of sectarian war, it will become possible to awaken the inattentive Sunnis as they feel imminent danger." Just consider the insanity of this strategy: Provoke 80 percent of the population (including the Kurds, see below) to attack you since this will mobilize your much smaller constituency just in time to let itself be massacred. In the past, insurgents have often used the term "people's war" to describe their activities. Zarqawi perfected what might be called the anti-people war. Remember that this Muslim "freedom fighter" is trying to kill most of Iraq's Muslims. This kind of terrorism isn't new. Yasser Arafat developed the idea of the anti-people war against Israeli civilians in the 1960s. But what is more innovative is an "Islamic" war explicitly seeking to kill the maximum number of Muslim Arabs. Again, though, there are important precedents. Already in the 1980s, during the war in Afghanistan, bin Laden was showing total disrespect for the Afghans themselves, whom he was supposedly trying to "liberate." The anti-people war is also the trap into which Islamists fell in the 1990s, murdering Algerians and Egyptians until lack of mass support and the regime's effectiveness inflicted disastrous defeats on them. Bin Laden supposedly solved that problem by targeting Americans instead. But now al-Qaida is back to square one on that point. Finally, there are the Kurds. Their time "has not yet come," but they will be destroyed also. Ironically, of course, one of bin Laden's most faithful franchise groups is a Kurdish Islamist organization which had to work hard to ignore Zarqawi's call for their people's mass murder. Zarqawi, of course, was a Jordanian and this explains some of his lack of interest in Iraqi conditions. Bin Laden's innovation was not anti-American terrorism, as many think, or an ideology which so remarkably parallels that of Khomeini and others, but his transnational approach. WITH ZARQAWI'S thinking one can see the real shortcoming of that kind of view. Imagine how much more powerful the insurgency would be if Zarqawi and bin Laden had advocated the unity of all Iraqi Muslims against the Americans and the regime. Instead, things are heading in the opposite direction. Many Sunnis want to get rid of the insurgents precisely because that movement is endangering their very existence. What if the Shi'ites and Kurds are provoked into an all-out conflict? The Sunnis will experience the "imminent danger" just in time to be put to the sword by the tens of thousands in a war that would make Bosnia, Kosovo, and maybe even Rwanda seem like a picnic by comparison. The same applies to al-Qaida's tactical inflexibility that accepts only armed struggle as legitimate. What if al-Qaida depended (as the Palestinian movement and other Islamists generally do) on American naivete rather than alleged cowardice? A May 2006 report by the US Institute of Peace, entitled, "What Do Islamists Really Want?" provides a wonderful example of this approach. The institute, a semi-governmental organization, conducted a round-table meeting of several Islamist leaders who explained that they were really quite moderate. The institute then concluded that since these people could not possibly lie about such a thing, the US should start providing them with training so they could organize more effectively and do better in elections. That is why the various Muslim Brotherhood offshoots (including Hamas), and such Shi'ite communal Islamist groups as Hizbullah, have a much brighter future than al-Qaida. They focus on one country and know how to maneuver tactically. Al-Qaida makes for a lot of disruption and violence, but it will never take over anywhere. The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs.