Rumors on the status of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi continue to swirl. Earlier this week it was believed he suffered a gut shot. The latest has Zarqawi fleeing the country with a serious chest wound:
An Islamic Web site statement claimed Wednesday that Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi, al Qaeda’s point man in Iraq, has fled to a “neighboring country” (see Dan Darling’s thoughts on where that might be) with two Arab doctors treating him for gunshot wounds to his lung…. It said al-Zarqawi was in “stable condition now” after he incurred a “bullet wound which penetrated his right lung.”
A Zarqawi lieutenant named Abu Karrar states Zarqawi was wounded in the chest and shoulder, is currently in the care of doctors, and the group is debating who should succeed Zarqawi if he does indeed die. The fact there is no designated successor may provide further insight to al Qaeda in Iraq. Abu Abdelrahman al-Iraqi is designated as the Deputy Commander (see this leadership chart, PDF). A debate on succession may indicate the organization has no confidence in his ability to lead. Another possibility is that al Qaeda plans on having an outsider lead the group. The Deputy Commander’s surname is ‘al-Iraqi’ (from Iraq), and Abu Karrar did state 3 ‘Arabs’ and an Iraqi were in the running for the leadership mantle. While Iraqis are Arabs, Abu Karrar most likely was referring to Arabs as non-Iraqi citizens. [Update: Dan Darling offers a third possibility: factional infighting between the foreign al Qaeda elements and the local Iraqi recruits and Baathist converts.]
Harlan Ullman states this entire report may be a ruse to throw the Coalition off of Zarqawi’s trail. Counterterrorism expert Evan Kohlmann states; “It makes me wonder if al-Zarqawi’s injury is severe enough that they are afraid to lie about it, and are instead just trying to minimalize the impact… In other words, they ‘steal the thunder’ from the Western media… a crude form of defusing a potential public relations disaster.”
While Zarqawi’s status remains uncertain, the assault on al Qaeda’s middle managers continues. Mullah Kamel al-Aswadi, the “most-wanted terrorist in north-central Iraq” and Mohammed Daham Abd Hamadi, commander of the al-Noaman Brigades have been captured. Hamdi is a cell leader and will have intimate knowledge of the al-Noaman Brigades, who were responsible for the kidnapping of a Turkish worker. Sabhan Ahmad Ramadan, another al Qaeda middleman and aide to Abu Talha, was killed.
Al Qaeda in Iraq has taken a beating, with well over two-thirds of its known lieutenants killed or captured. Some will argue the death of Zarqawi or his lieutenants is insignificant as there are those ready to take their places. Besides the obvious boost to morale the killing a high profile al Qaeda leader like Zarqawi would provide, he is a man who cannot be easily replaced. To a lesser extent this applies to his lieutenants.
Organizations to not become stronger by losing their best and brightest. The same holds true for al Qaeda in Iraq.