Still, the history of killing terrorist and insurgent leaders suggests that we must be cautious before declaring the death of any leader to be decisive. In 1992, Israel killed Abbas al-Musawi, the secretary-general of the Lebanese Hezbollah, to much self-congratulation. Although Musawi was a determined and capable leader, his successor, Hassan Nasrallah, has proved to be one of the most effective terrorist and guerrilla leaders in history….
A new jihadist leader might succeed in uniting the insurgency more effectively. Such a leader could eschew the sectarian vitriol Zarqawi regularly spouted. He might be an Iraqi, making him better able to bring together the strands of jihadism and nationalism. And unlike Zarqawi, who also actively plotted attacks outside Iraq, a new leader may focus the struggle on targets within the country.
Nor does the structure of the Iraqi insurgency suggest that the killing will have a lasting impact. When Israel killed the leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Fathi Shiqaqi, in 1995, it paralyzed the organization. Shiqaqi had led a highly hierarchical organization, and his successors squabbled for years over leadership and next steps. The Iraqi insurgency, in contrast, is highly decentralized, and the loss of any individual leader will not shut down most of the fighters because they are not waiting for their commanders to tell them where and when to strike. (It also means that, like Zarqawi, any new leader will exercise at best limited control of the overall movement.)
The removal of leaders can also have dangerous unexpected consequences. U.S. officials thought that the capture of Saddam Hussein would deal a major blow to the Iraqi insurgency, which they believed was led by former Baathists with close ties to the Iraqi dictator. In fact, his capture on Dec. 14, 2003, removed a stigma under which many insurgents operated: No longer were they seen as fighting to restore a brutal dictatorship but rather to liberate Iraq from the United States.
Dan notes that Zarqawi got what he deserved, of course.
Cross posted at LGM.
Filed as: Zarqawi