Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced that a US air strike had killed Musab al-Zarqawi. The information that led to his death was the result of following the trail of custody on the distribution of his most recent video tape (or it could have been lucky given the number of air strikes that that have been made on reported Zarqawi positions in the past years).
This is excellent news, but it needs to be put into context (this is a brief for decision makers/analysts/thinkers and not motivation for the rank and file, so don't expect fluff -- as is often said, only the paranoid survive and every good commander I know understands this). Zarqawi is best categorized as violence capitalist, very similar to bin Laden, that supported and incubated guerrilla entrepreneurs of the new open source warfare model. In this role he was instigator of violence and not the leader of a vast hierarchical insurgency.
Zarqawi in ContextHere's how Zarqawi's role evolved:
- In the early phases of the guerrilla war in Iraq, Zarqawi was operational as the commander of a small cell. His group was able, through early large scale attacks, to set a plausible promise (an idea that many other groups could rally around) for the Iraqi insurgency. Namely, that it was possible to successfully fight the US occupation.
- During late 2004 and early 2005, his operational value diminished as the number of groups that were engaged in the war proliferated. During that time, he was focused on expanding the target set of the insurgency to include infrastructure, corporations and Iraqi military units. Later in 2005, his operational activities were focused on shifting the plausible promise of the insurgency from ousting the Americans to fighting Shiite domination (sectarian war) through attacks on Shiite civilians and symbols.
- By early 2006, Zarqawi's operational activities were all but over. He had succeeded in seeding the original insurgency and shifting the plausible promise to include sectarian warfare. During this final phase, Zarqawi moved into a role of strategic communicator, much like bin Laden's role today. In this role, he produced videos that were distributed to a global audience through the Internet and global media.
EpilogueUnfortunately, Zarqawi proved to be rather good at his role. Here's how to rate his abilities:
- He successfully seeded the insurgency.
- Innovation and adaptability. He expanded the target set for the insurgency, changed tactics when they proved disadvantageous (ie. beheadings were stopped and he ceded Iraqis control of the jihadi effort), and expanded the plausible promise of the insurgency to include sectarian war.
- His main failure was that he didn't fully appreciate the value of systems disruption. His only attack on a systems target (the Basra terminal) was a failure. He also proved unable to give up operational roles in favor of becoming a strategic communicator (which ultimately led to his death).
ONE final note: If we put Zarqawi within a historical context, he was able to do what Che hoped to do with a foco insurgency (for more on this, read the brief on "Iraq and Foco Insurgency"). In essence, he proved that within a modern context (open source warfare and systems disruption), it is possible to seed the collapse of a state (or more precisely, keep a state in a perpetual failure).