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Zarqawi Leaves Bloody Legacy in Iraq, Beyond

In April, Zarqawi appeared in a video broadcast by Al-Jazeera.
In April, Zarqawi appeared in a video broadcast by Al-Jazeera.

Over the past three years, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi -- who was killed Wednesday night in a U.S. air raid -- had emerged as the most feared figure in Iraq, the suspected mastermind behind many of the kidnappings, beheadings and bombings that followed the U.S. invasion in 2003.

U.S. intelligence services had tracked Zarqawi for years, starting well before the war in Iraq. He had built up quite a resume -- stretching from running terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, to directing terrorism cells in western Europe, to ordering the assassination of a U.S. diplomat in Jordan, to grisly executions in Iraq.

Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at Sarah Lawrence College, believes Zarqawi had emerged as the top jihadist leader in the world today.

"Zarqawi has become the field lieutenant of the al-Qaida organization," Gerges said in an interview before Zarqawi's death was announced. "Not just in Iraq, but also in general. In fact, many of the decentralized al-Qaida factions -- in Saudi Arabia, in Yemen, in other places -- now refer to Zarqawi. They don't talk about bin Laden. And removing Zarqawi from the scene -- I would argue -- would hammer another deadly nail in the coffin of al-Qaida, that is, the mother organization."

Matthew Levitt, a former FBI counterterrorism analyst, agrees that Zarqawi had long fostered global ambitions.

"Zarqawi actually has become famous for what he's done in Iraq," said Levitt, now director of terrorism studies at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "But he was around long beforehand. He had a network called the Tawhid network that was operating in Germany. He was involved in activities in Turkey and many other places. But perhaps the country that fears him most, maybe after the Iraqis, is Jordan."

Zarqawi grew up in Jordan. He took his nom de guerre, Zarqawi, from his hometown, Zarqa, 17 miles outside Amman. Levitt says Zarqawi became radicalized while serving time for various crimes in Jordanian jails, and that, over time. he came to believe that Jordan's leaders were corrupt, insufficiently Islamic, and not sympathetic enough to the Palestinian cause.

"And he frankly really has it out in for the Jordanian regime," Levitt said. "It was a Zarqawi network that nearly blew up the Jordanian general intelligence directorate, and clearly had designs on the Prime Minister and the U.S. Embassy as well."

An attack on the U.S. embassy in Jordan was foiled in April 2004.

Just how closely Zarqawi was aligned with Osama bin Laden and the global al-Qaida movement has been hotly debated. Some experts saw Zarqawi as a protege of bin Laden's, others as a competitor. But a statement in October 2004, attributed to Zarqawi, urged the unification of their two efforts. He emphasized to bin Laden, "We will listen to your orders."

Two months later, bin Laden sent his answer. An audiotape attributed to the al-Qaida leader praised Zarqawi, and welcomed his "joining forces with us."

Jeffrey White is a former chief of Middle East intelligence at the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency. He believes the two men shared an ideological alliance, but never day-to-day cooperation.

"They have the same political-religious philosophy," White said. "They have the same enemies in mind. And they carry out a lot of action, similar-type actions. And there may be some support going in there in terms of people, money, guidance on how to do things. But it isn't a command-and-control relationship."

It was of course in Iraq that Zarqawi made his name. His operations seemed designed to inflict maximum destruction and casualties, and to attract maximum publicity. As the months passed after the U.S. invasion, Washington raised the reward for his killing or capture from $5 million, to $10 million and finally to $25 million.

Fawaz Gerges says the insurgency will no doubt continue without Zarqawi, not least because Zarqawi controlled only a small fraction of the fighters, mostly foreign. But Gerges points out that those foreign fighters were behind many of the most deadly bombings, and he believes Zarqawi's loss will deal a major blow to the insurgency.

Jeffrey White is not so sure. "I don't believe that taking him out of the structure will have any profound or long-term impact on the organization," White said. "It's most likely that the organization will be able to recover from his loss, although its capabilities should be decreased, at least for a time."

Whatever his legacy in Iraq, U.S. officials are no doubt glad to be rid of the man who had become the face of the insurgency, and a rising figure in international terrorism.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.