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Al-Zarqawi: What Impact On Insurgency?

A statement posted on 24 May on an Internet website linked in the past to Al-Qaeda, claimed that Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, the leader of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Tanzim Qa'idat Al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn, was wounded in Iraq. While not yet confirmed, this news is certain to lead to speculation on the future fighting capability of the group. RFE/RL analysts Roman Kupchinsky and Kathleen Ridolfo report on what impact such rumors may have on the insurgency.

The 24 May Internet announcement did not mention the exact date of al-Zarqawi’s wounding, but rumors of his injury have been circulating for weeks, along with unconfirmed reports that he had been taken to a hospital in Al-Ramadi. A U.S. military official confirmed that U.S. forces surrounded and searched the hospital in late April, but did not find him. Al-Zarqawi was also allegedly wounded when he jumped from his vehicle on 20 February to evade U.S. capture. In that incident, U.S. forces arrested his driver and seized a laptop computer reportedly belonging to al-Zarqawi that contained his medical records and considerable information on his group's activities in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 May 2005).

There are two possible schools of thought on the importance al-Zarqawi represents for the Iraqi rebellion.

One is that he is a vital commander and strategist without whom the rebellion would flounder and fall apart. As Robert A. Norton writes in, “Capturing al-Zarqawi, or more likely killing him, will have a profoundly positive effect on the morale of both U.S. and Iraqi forces and take a great deal of the wind out of the sails of the insurgency. If nothing else, it will prove that al-Zarqawi isn’t invincible and therefore must not have been protected by Allah, an important psychological element.”

The other school of thought is that while al-Zarqawi plays a leading role in his group's ideological and financial structure, the group can, and likely will, continue to function without him.

A recently updated organizational chart of al-Zarqawi’s group, posted on the website, provides insight into the operational structure of Tanzim Qa'idat Al-Jihad fi Bilad Al-Rafidayn. The commander of the military wing of the organization, Abu Usaid al-Iraqi, is still listed as a fugitive, as is Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Iraqi, the organization's deputy commander. The three main military leaders of fighting brigades are also free.

This would suggest that al-Zarqawi leaves the day-to-day planning of terrorist activities to commanders and cell leaders, rather than playing a direct role in insurgent activities.

How his possible permanent or temporary removal from action could impact on the group’s fighting ability is therefore problematic and premature to predict, but given the organization's structure, it is likely to function very well, at least in the short term, without him. The group's ability to function in the long-term would depend upon the ability of his successors to carry out recruitment and fundraising activities. Should al-Zarqawi die, Iraqis should expect a wave of terrorist attacks carried out in his honor, with insurgents declaring him a martyr.

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