Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan: The death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late commander of al Qaeda in Iraq, has provided the Coalition forces and the Iraqi people with a moral victory against al Qaeda in Iraq. Zarqawi was a powerful symbol of modern jihad, a ruthless commander willing to exercise brutality on the battlefield. Zarqawi is a legend in the jihadi community, who is often said to rival Osama bin Laden in popularity among the younger breed of jihadists. Zarqawi’s image and audio and video tapes are widely distributed, and his trademark skullcap a fashion statement.
Task Force 145 was very likely the linchpin in the success in killing Zarqawi, Sheik Abd-Al-Rahman, his spiritual adviser, and other lieutenants during a high-level meeting. Over the past two months, TF-145 has conducted numerous raids and killed or captured numerous high-level members of Zarqawi’s organization in the area directly north and west of Baghdad. Known strikes against senior members of al Qaeda in Iraq’s organization were executed in Baghdad, Ramadi, Yusifiyah, Muthana Chemical Complex at Lake Thar Thar, Samarra, Karbala, Jublayah, and Balad. Zarqawi was finally identified and targeted in Baquba, a city with an entrenched insurgent presence. “Tips and intelligence from Iraqi senior leaders from his network led forces to al-Zarqawi and some of his associates who were conducting a meeting approximately eight kilometers north of Baqubah hen the air strike was launched,” according to Multinational Forces-Iraq.
Task Force 145’s operations were not random, but a concerted operation based on intelligence on al Qaeda’s organization and whereabouts in the region north and west of Baghdad. Zarqawi and al Qaeda focused their efforts on the Iraqi capital of Baghdad in an effort to influence the western media, incite a civil war and destabilize the nascent Iraqi government. This required moving their operational capabilities closer to the capital.
The tightening of al Qaeda’s network in and around Baghdad provided Task Force 145 an opportunity to focus on Zarqawi’s organization. Task Force 145 systematically began to dismantle al Qaeda’s organization from the bottom up. Cell leaders, financiers, facilitators and military commanders were rolled up in a series of target raids, slowly degrading al Qaeda’s capabilities while opening a window to al Qaeda’s organization and operations. The raids provided intelligence for follow-up strikes, which ultimately led to the attack of Zarqawi’s safe house.
Despite the popular perception that killing or capturing al Qaeda mid-level commanders is a game of “whack-a-mole”, the reality is al Qaeda in Iraq has limited resources and a finite pool of expertise. Over time, as less experienced leaders fill the positions of the more experienced, this impacts al Qaeda’s organization in effectiveness, leadership, ability to network and degrades operational security.
The death of Zarqawi will not end the insurgency or bury al Qaeda in Iraq. The race is now on to find a suitable replacement to Zarqawi. His organization has been degraded over the past year, and Zarqawi’s death will show the west the real status of the Mujahideen Shura Council. Zarqawi’s last audiotape called for a furthering of the Sunni-Shiite divide, a position which al Qaeda senior command was at odds with (not from a philosophical perspective but from an operational perspective – al Qaeda was concerned with alienating the Muslim world while fighting the “far enemy” in Iraq.) Another question which is raise is who will succeed Zarqawi in his international terrorist organization, al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad (Unity and Jihad Group), which operates in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, and his network extends into Northern Africa and Europe.
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