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Zarqawi: Western fearmongering made flesh

Loretta Napoleoni, author of Insurgent Iraq: Al-Zarqawi and the New Generation, on how a nobody became the most notorious terrorist in the world.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Now that Zarqawi the man is dead, maybe we can finally kill off the myth too. The myth of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian jihadist who shifted his operations to Iraq in recent years, is that he was an ‘international terrorist mastermind’, a leading figure in the Iraqi insurgency and an al-Qaeda bigwig, who was about to spread his bloody brand of terror around the world until an American bomb finished him off on Wednesday. Apparently he not only had the ear of Osama bin Laden but at one stage of Saddam Hussein, too; Zarqawi had been described as the ‘sinister nexus’ between Saddam’s Ba’athist regime and bin Laden’s terror network. He was either ‘the most dangerous terrorist in the world’ or ‘the most evil man in the world’ (or possibly both), and he was single-handedly ‘fomenting civil war in Iraq’.

The truth? ‘He was not in control of the Iraqi insurgency and he was not popular among the Sunni population there. His death will not make much difference’, says Loretta Napoleoni, the Rome-based author of Insurgent Iraq: Al-Zarqawi and the New Generation. Napoleoni has been following Zarqawi’s career (if you can call it that) for the past two years, and argues that the man who was said to be holding the world to ransom with his antics in Iraq was in fact weak, isolated ‘and not influential at all, really’. ‘The Coalition created a myth about him, and he tried to become that myth’, she says. ‘To the extent that Zarqawi was a “terrorist mastermind” he was fulfilling the Coalition’s own prophecy.’

Amid all the fuss over Zarqawi’s death – with solemn public announcements by both US President George W Bush and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, claims that his demise represents a ‘victory in the global war on terror’ by one US official, and even a rare public announcement by former Taliban leader Mullah Omar calling on young Muslims to emulate Zarqawi – it is easy to forget what a nobody he was until just three years ago. Zarqawi always found himself trailing in the shadow of jihad. He ventured to Afghanistan in 1990 to fight with the anti-Soviet Mujahideen, just as that conflict was on the verge of civil war between various jihadist factions (Soviet forces withdrew a year before Zarqawi’s arrival, in 1989). He returned to his native Jordan in the Nineties and became fixated on toppling the ‘infidel’ Jordanian monarchy – but he was fairly swiftly arrested and imprisoned for seven years. He later trained in Afghanistan and then crossed into Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq in 2002, pretty much the only place that would have him at that point, and threw his lot in with the radical Islamist group Ansar al-Islam.

Back then he was, in the words of the CIA, a ‘lone wolf’, a wannabe jihadist who fantasised about fighting in a holy war but never quite managed it. So how, by 2006, had he become the most wicked man in the world, with a $25million bounty on his head, whose death elicited comments from almost every world leader and made the front covers of Time, The Economist and Newsweek? Napoleoni says it was nothing Zarqawi did or said that elevated him to this status. Rather he was promoted by Coalition officials who needed a bogeyman, a figure of evil, to justify their war in Iraq. ‘The Americans love to personalise the enemy’, says Napoleoni. ‘Zarqawi just happened to be the right man at the right time. It was pure luck that he was labelled the evil one.’

Napoleoni says the turning point for Zarqawi came in February 2003 – 5 February 2003, to be precise, when six weeks before the war in Iraq then US secretary of state Colin Powell delivered his now widely-ridiculed dossier of evidence against the Ba’athists to the United Nations. Courtesy of Powell, Zarqawi became an overnight terror-celeb. Powell cited Zarqawi’s presence in northern Iraq, where he was holed up with Ansar al-Islam, and an alleged trip he made to Baghdad in May 2002 for medical treatment on his injured leg, as evidence of ‘a sinister nexus between Iraq and the al-Qaeda network.’ This followed a televised address by President Bush four months earlier, on 7 October 2002, in which Bush referred to a ‘very senior al-Qaeda leader who received medical treatment in Baghdad this year’.

‘Of course, we now know that Zarqawi had no links with Saddam Hussein. He may have met bin Laden but he was not closely associated with him either. So the idea that he was the link between the two of them was utter nonsense’, says Napoleoni. Yet Powell catapulted Zarqawi on to the world stage. As the Washington Post puts it, prior to Powell’s speech Zarqawi was ‘barely known outside Jordan’. He rarely, if ever, featured in news reports in late 2001 or 2002, a time when al-Qaeda was being written about on a daily basis. Consider the UK Guardian: he was not mentioned in that paper at all in 2001 and only twice in 2002 – both times after Bush’s 7 October televised address. There was no mention of Zarqawi on BBC News Online in 2001 and 2002. Yet after Powell’s speech he became a talking point: he was mentioned in 23 articles in the Guardian and in 50 articles by the BBC in 2003, and in too many to count since then.

From the outset his power and influence were exaggerated by Coalition officials. He was not at all influential in Saddam’s Iraq or within al-Qaeda. Zarqawi was based in northern Iraq, territory that had been wrested from Saddam’s control following the first Gulf War of 1991, and like the vast majority of radical Islamists he was hostile to the ‘infidel socialism’ of the Ba’athists. And his links with al-Qaeda in 2002 and 2003 were tenuous at best. According to Jason Burke, author of Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror, Zarqawi may have had ‘some contact with bin Laden but [he] never took the bayat [oath of allegiance] and never made any formal alliance with the Saudi or his close associates. He was just one of thousands of activists committed to jihad living and working in Afghanistan in the 1990s.’ Burke says Zarqawi had ‘no real relationship with al-Qaeda’.

Coalition officials also accused Zarqawi of developing chemical weapons in northern Iraq. Powell said in February 2003 that ‘one of the specialities of [Zarqawi’s camp in northern Iraq] is poisons…. He is teaching operatives how to produce ricin and other poisons.’ When Coalition forces destroyed the Ansar al-Islam camps in northern Iraq on 30 March 2003, the front page of UK tabloid the Sun declared: ‘PROOF: an Iraqi terror camp making ricin poison has been smashed by a huge Allied blitz.’ Leaving aside the fact that this camp, like the rest of northern Iraq, was outside of Saddam’s control and thus did not provide ‘PROOF’ at all that there were WMD under the Ba’athists, nothing suspicious was discovered in the camps. Reporters visiting the camps in the days after the attacks said there was ‘no evidence of chemical weapons having been used or stored there’. One US official later admitted he was ‘unaware that any WMD have been found’.

Napoleoni says that at this time, in 2003, the Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq contributed to the myth of Zarqawi, seeking to convince the Coalition that he was an al-Qaeda associate with WMD who posed a threat to Iraq and beyond. ‘The Kurdish authorities were battling with the jihadists in a large section of eastern Iraqi Kurdistan. They wanted the Americans to come in to help them get rid of the jihadists. That was the key to their stories about Zarqawi. And they got the bombings that they wanted.’

By constantly talking up Zarqawi, the Coalition elevated this loner hiding out in northern Iraq into something he was not: an international player, the strongman of Islamic radicalism, the embodiment of evil. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Zarqawi decided to venture to Iraq proper in August 2003, after months of news reports that described him as the biggest threat in Iraq, to exercise these apparent powers of his. Even when Zarqawi did eventually start doing grisly things inside Iraq, his role was vastly exaggerated. ‘Despite the impression given, he was not the leader of the insurgency, and he was not behind every attack in Iraq’, says Napoleoni. One study by Sami Ramadani, a refugee from Saddam’s Iraq and a senior lecturer at London Metropolitan University, found that out of thousands of attacks launched by Iraqi insurgents only a small minority were carried out in the name of Zarqawi. Ramadani also found that ‘the vast majority of Iraqis reject Zarqawi and his ilk’.

Napoleoni argues that Zarqawi’s ventures in Iraq – which often dominated the headlines from late 2003 to his death last week – also exposed his weakness rather than strength. ‘He had no power, no influence’, she says. ‘Some of his followers say that the reason why he entered the insurgency in August 2003 is because he knew he had no chance to fight the Americans before that, before the country had descended into chaos. Because he had little support and not much of a plan, he had to wait until things were messy before starting his insurgency.’

In 2004 Zarqawi is said to have made contact with bin Laden, and was later named by bin Laden as the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. This was taken as evidence that al-Qaeda’s power was growing and that it was leading the war on America in Iraq. In fact, it was Zarqawi’s isolation that forced him to adopt the title of ‘al-Qaeda’ as cover for his scrappy and bloody operations. ‘That is the most significant fact that proves he was weak on the ground – the fact that he tried to seek recognition from al-Qaeda’, says Napoleoni. ‘It was because he had no status, no standing, no real organisation in Iraq. He named himself “al-Qaeda” to give himself some definition.’ In short, he borrowed that ready-made global brand of wickedness and evil to ensure that his relatively small-scale and unpopular actions would make a disproportionate impact both inside Iraq and beyond.

‘Zarqawi fulfilled the Coalition’s own prophecies’, says Napoleoni. ‘They dreamt up a monster and he tried to become that monster. They said he was a “terrorist mastermind” and that is how he modelled himself.’ This has been a common feature of the terror wars over the past five years and more, where the West’s own overblown fantasies about the threat of terror can end up becoming a kind of reality. Many of those who now challenge the myth of Zarqawi accept that al-Qaeda is the ‘real thing’ – they claim that Zarqawi was a two-bit jihadist unlike the real baddies close to bin Laden. Yet al-Qaeda itself has also benefited from Western fearmongering about its strength and capabilities. As US terrorism expert Adam Dolnik has pointed out, al-Qaeda has never been a structured or particularly large organisation; it was Western propagandising both before and after 9/11 that allowed al-Qaeda to appear as a terrible exterminatory threat to the world. ‘In the quest to define the enemy, the US and its allies have helped to blow it out of proportion’, wrote Dolnik, and they helped to ‘transform this little-known jihadist [bin Laden] into a household name and, in some places, a symbol of heroic defiance’.

The emergence of nihilists like bin Laden and Zarqawi can be seen as a consequence of contemporary forms of Western intervention. By intervening abroad the West has always created its own gravediggers. Today, when Western intervention is justified by the politics of fear, by the apparent need to protect civilisation from handfuls of cranks, it has created a peculiar form of gravedigger, one who explicitly exploits that sense of fear and tries to turn it to his advantage. Where imperialism gave rise to anti-imperialism, and colonialism to anti-colonialism, what we might call the ‘intervention of fear’ has given rise to small groups that execute occasional bloody stunts in an effort to live up to their image as evil incarnate and to terrorise an already fearful world. They are, in essence, Western fearmongering made flesh.

Yet rather than challenge this politics of fear, too many of the Coalition’s critics, even as they pick apart the myth of Zarqawi, indulge a different version of it. Many reporters now claim that Zarqawi was a nobody blown out of proportion by cynical Bushites (including reporters who described Zarqawi as the ‘barrier to peace’ in Iraq, if not the whole world, when he was beheading hostages and setting off car bombs in 2003 and 2004). Yet they claim that killing Zarqawi will have disastrous consequences – that it will lead, in the words of one writer, to the rise of ‘a thousand more Zarqawis’ and to more terrorism in Iraq and possibly the West. Where the Coalition says it had to kill Zarqawi in order to save mankind, its critics claim that killing Zarqawi might threaten mankind. Both substitute fearmongering for a proper debate about what’s going on in Iraq and what are the origins of that war.

The truth is that both Zarqawi’s life and his death were pretty insignificant. We should forget about Zarqawi (and his apparently evil and dangerous successor) and instead challenge the idea that there is a terrible threat to civilisation from afar.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website.

Buy Insurgent Iraq: Al-Zarqawi and the New Generation by Loretta Napoleoni from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA).

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