The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Know thine enemy

November 25, 2005

Josh Marshall asks if Abu Musab Zarqawi is really the mastermind behind Mesopotamian jihadism.

It it is hard not to see this information in the light of the fairly constant tendency through the War on Terror to build up varous Terrorist Masterminds, who become the focus of most or all news reportage, then trail off into nothing. Not infrequently, they have an uncanny resemblance to characters out of 1984. And with Zarqawi particularly there is a welter of contradictory and often difficult-to-credit information about him that invites further suspicion.

This isn’t a tinfoil-hat concern, but gets into broader issues about “personifying the enemy” (Patrick and I have written on this themein some of our semi-scholarly work). Marshall continues:

But let’s recognize that Zarqawi’s enemies and his supporters — probably, the man himself above all — have a common interest in building up his reputation and his centrality. The Bush administration has consistently tried to portray al Qaida as a distinct, coherent and hierarchical organization, even in the face of evidence that, since the Afghan War, it has fragmented (or metastasized) into something more like a movement than an organization. This is particularly the case in Iraq where the administration has sought to bundle various sorts of terrorist and paramilitary violence into the al Qaida basket. So building up Zarqawi into the Iraq’s al Qaida boss must be tempting.

This isn’t new territory, either on the Duck or in the international-relations blogsphere more generally.

The Hong Kong Standard article that Marshall links to comes to pretty stark conclusions:

US officials have erred in focusing so much attention since February on al-Zarqawi as the main force behind the insurgency, according to the reports, which were produced for the Arab country’s political leadership. The analysis has not been shared with US officials.

“The Americans are inclined to focus on one individual as the mastermind of all the troubles,” says one of the reports. “In reality, the situation in Iraq is more complex. There are many small groups that sometimes work together, but at other times they have different agendas … There are former Saddam loyalists, home-grown Islamic extremists, foreign extremists and Kurdish elements.”

Al-Zarqawi’s ties to al-Qaeda are unclear, and he is thought more likely to be an independent operator than a lieutenant of bin Laden’s. That has been the view of Arab and European intelligence officials for several years. Al-Zarqawi is also likely to see his own group, Tawhid and Jihad (Arabic for “Unity and Holy War”), as being in competition for recruits with al-Qaeda.

The Arab intelligence official said the reports are not intended to minimise the danger posed by al-Zarqawi and other foreign militants operating in Iraq. “This man, al-Zarqawi, is a very brutal and dangerous terrorist,” the official said. “But we do not believe that he is the architect of everything in Iraq. There are many other players on the ground.”

The assessments are based on informants who send reports back from Iraq, the intelligence service’s own monitoring of developments inside the country and interrogations of so-called “Arab volunteers” who had entered Iraq ahead of the US invasion to fight alongside Saddam’s regime.

I can’t help wondering, though, whether the “focus” on Zraqawi is more rhetorical than operational. Thoughts?

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.