Sunday, June 11, 2006

Field of Jihad: Part 1: On Sacred Ground

Iraq is currently the most active field of jihad. A place where militants can train and openly fight those they see as their enemies.

Contact with a cruel ideology

Even after the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (AMZ), the fighting in Iraq will still be permeated by his brutal ideology. AMZ's philosophy will still be an important part of life for jihadists living and fighting in Iraq. AMZ's beliefs will live on, and his proponents in Iraq (and elsewhere in the Islamic world) will make sure that young jihadists come in contact with his pernicious ideology. They will try to keep "hope" alive. The good news is Zarqawi is dead. He is not going to put out new "material". His main output was destruction through the spread of his ideology. From now on, others will have to "carry the torch" for him. AMZ can't produce any new videos or recording to spread his message. How much of an inspiration to jihadist will AMZ be after his death? Who will fill the void as the face of the insurgency in Iraq? AMZ represented only one part of the complex insurgency in Iraq. But he was the most recognizable face of the insurgency; the "front man" of the insurgency. (I haven't done any scientific reasearch on this, but I bet that most Americans can only name one Iraq War insurgent by name: Zarqawi, a dead guy.) Any "emergent leader" trying to fill the "void" left by AMZ is facing an uphill battle at this point. AMZ was able to establish himself as a credible leader in the eyes of jihadists by taking advantage of the post-Saddam regime environment in 2003 and 2004. At that time, the new Iraqi security forces were just being established and the US was still in denial and stumbling to fight the nascent insurgency. The environment is much different now for jihadists. The US and Iraqi forces facing the insurgency are a far more capable adversary than they were two or three years ago. As a pragmatic choice, the Salafist in Iraq have shifted from attacking US hard targets as their main effort and have elected to focus on the "near enemy" represented by Iraq's Shia population, and Shia-led government and security forces.

AMZ exposed many potential jihadist to a particularly violent brand of jihad. Other jihadist and radical preacher will try to perpetuate his message across the Arab world through different media outlets, mainly television and the Internet. Once foreign jihadists get to Iraq the process of indoctrination into AMZ's ideology continues on a much more immersive manner. AMZ's message will still be, for some time, part of the milieu for jihadist in Iraq.

Complexity of Iraq

Iraq is a complex environment not only for our troops but for the jihadists as well. The Salafi jihadists are only one part of the multifaceted insurgency and, like us, they have to deal with all the different groups across the country. The jihadists do not operate in isolation and they have to survive in a demanding environment in which there are several players, including the US, intent on their demise. Insurgencies being Darwinian affairs, only the strong and smart survive this environment. We might see the overall number of foreign jihadists being reduced, but the ones that survive will probably be very capable fighters. Iraq is not also complex, but it is also a unique environment and some of the methods that proved useful to the jihadists in this setting might not be effective in other countries. The significance of Iraq as a training ground for jihadists is still very much in question. That being said, for several reasons, Iraq has more potential than Afghanistan had in the 1980's to inspire young jihadists to join the fight against the "enemies of Islam": while Afghanistan is located in what could be considered the periphery of Islam, Iraq is an Arab country, the former seat of the caliphate and the first Arab state to be threatened with Shia rule.

The insurgency will not just go away because we killed AMZ. Like the emergence of the new Iraqi government is a step in the right direction, but we will probably witness more horrific violence during this year. The insurgency in Iraq has deeper origins and motivations that will remain after AMZ's death. Part of the insurgency's resilience lies of the fact that no single entity controls it. Although Zarqawi's death should be accorded the great significance that it deserves, the immediate post-Zarqawi environment would probably not see a diminution of the insurgency. However, the death of Zarqawi is a decisive turn against the insurgency, a breakthrough that needs to be exploited. A tactical breakthrough is only useful if you can convert it into a breakout, a shift in momentum, a strategic advantage.

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