ABU MUSAB AL ZARQAWI is among the least interesting Islamic terrorists since modern Islamic terrorism took shape in Iran and Egypt in the 1950s and '60s. Compared with Osama bin Laden, with his elegant prose, his appreciation for redolent historical Muslim narrative, his seemingly conscious imitation of the Prophet Muhammad, and his refined, almost feminine movements, Zarqawi was Islamist trailer trash, a crude man whose love of violence was unvarnished, organic, perhaps perversely sexual. But Zarqawi was a man of his age: He is a big red dot on the graph charting the Islamic world's moral free fall since modernity began battering traditional Muslim ethics, with ever-increasing effectiveness after World War One.
It is by no means clear that Zarqawi is near the bottom of this plunge. His joy in massacring infidels--along with all the Muslims the extremists deem apostates--could even become the defining feature of bin Ladenism in the future. Zarqawi's death is a cause for jubilation, especially among Iraq's Shiites, whom he zealously slaughtered. No single man did more to bring on the sectarian strife that is crippling Iraq. If the Shiites give up on the idea of Iraqi brotherhood--which grows ever more likely as half-hearted, undermanned American counterinsurgency strategies continue to fail--and grind the Sunni Arab community into dust, possibly provoking a vicious duel among Sunnis and Shiites across the region, Zarqawi can posthumously and proudly take credit.
Zarqawi was tailor-made for post-Saddam Iraq: a barbaric, very modern Sunni fundamentalist in a society pulverized and militarized by Saddam Hussein. Through oppression and support, Saddam had energized Sunni militancy. Starting in the late 1980s, the Butcher of Baghdad became one of the great mosque builders of Islamic history, and under his domes, Islamic fundamentalists increasingly gathered. Long before Saddam fell, a reinvigorated Sunni Islamic identity was replacing the desiccated, secular Baath party as a, if not the, lodestone of the Sunni community. Always looking outward toward the larger Sunni Arab world (and away from the Shiite Arabs and Sunni Kurds, who comprise about 80 percent of Iraq's population), Iraq's Sunni Arabs were playing catch-up with their foreign brethren, who had already downgraded, if not buried, secular Arab nationalism as an inspiring ideology and given birth to bin Ladenism.
Zarqawi lasted as long as he did in Iraq because he had many sympathizers, probably even among those who were revolted by his gruesome tactics, often aimed at Shiite women and children. Zarqawi and his men were regularly, so it is said, obliged to move their headquarters and areas of operation because of Iraqi Sunni resistance to his methods and his overbearing ways. This may well be true. But Iraq's Sunni insurgents could have easily killed him and his foreign and Iraqi jihadist allies. Their numbers and means dwarfed his. They could have betrayed him long ago, to either his American or his Iraqi enemies. Sunni Arab Iraq is a region of villages, towns, and cities surrounded by great swaths of desert where city kids, like Zarqawi and his foreign holy warriors, cannot sustain themselves. (Important rule about modern Islamic holy warriors: They are urbanites who know not camels.)
The Sunni will to power is deep-rooted and ferociously strong in Iraq. Underestimating this force and failing to confront it head on early in the occupation remains perhaps the single greatest analytical error of the U.S. military, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Coalition Provisional Authority under Ambassador L. Paul Bremer. It distorts and has so far defined the ethics of the Iraqi Sunnis as a community.
Their belief in Sunni supremacy has made mincemeat of those Americans and secularized Iraqis who were certain that Iraqis thought of themselves as Iraqis first, without reference to sectarian loyalties. Sunni hubris has made compromises with the Kurdish and especially the Arab Shiite communities extraordinarily difficult. Whether it be dividing oil wealth, assigning senior positions in government, or striking the balance between purging and tolerating the former Baathists, Iraq's Sunnis could surely have cut a better deal without the Sunni insurgency. More than any other factor, the insurgency has converted Iraq's traditional Shiite clergy from hostility to federalism in Iraq to neutrality or even sympathy. Zarqawi understood the dynamic here and did all that he could to ensure that sectarian sensitivities were inflamed after Saddam's fall.
It would be comforting to believe that Zarqawi's atrocities have made the Iraqi Sunnis more reflective. The Jordanian holy warrior forced them to look into the abyss. Certainly, killing Zarqawi is both a tactical and philosophical triumph. Contrary to much left-wing mythology, there is not an endless supply of operational talent in third-world "liberation" movements, be they religiously or secularly based. Chop the head off military organizations, even when they are fairly rag-tag, and you can damage them severely, perhaps mortally. The ongoing political process in Iraq, which is drawing in more Sunnis, may have had something to do with Zarqawi's death.
His demise will give Iraqi Sunnis a moment to pause, reflect, and perhaps helpfully rewrite their own history. It would be too much to ask for the leaders of this community to confess the extent to which they contributed to the Zarqawi phenomenon in Iraq; certainly the surrounding Arab Sunni world seems quite willing to accept that decent men and women should experience frissons whenever bin Laden launches lethal attacks on the United States.
Few Sunni Arab intellectuals have responded with joy to the news of Zarqawi's death. Many seem uncomfortable with the tactics Zarqawi used (so, too, it appears, were bin Laden and his Egyptian second, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the tactically sensitive moral conscience of al Qaeda). Far fewer appear to be uncomfortable with Zarqawi's overall objective--humbling the Americans, the Shiites, and the Kurds. We will see in the coming weeks whether a serious, critical discussion of Zarqawi's barbaric treatment of the Shiites develops and who abstains from calling him a martyr.
If the Iraqi Arab Sunnis can stop speaking sympathetically of foreign jihadists, then they might be able to begin to question the ethic of martyrdom that fuels their insurgency against the new order in Iraq. If they can stop using the specter of violence as a negotiating strategy, then they might even be able to abort the growing Shiite violence against them before it consumes the country, destroying the clerically backed effort to create a functioning democracy. This may already be impossible, now that Shiite militias are terrifying the Sunni community. Again, Zarqawi knew what he was doing: Reconciliation would be brutally difficult once the Shiites started doing to Sunnis what the Baathists and the Sunni insurgents and holy warriors had been doing to the Shiites for years.
The dimensions of Zarqawi's possible success are thus enormous--greater than what bin Laden accomplished on September 11. Zarqawi was the right man, with the right tactics, at the right moment. In all probability, he would not have mattered if the United States had actually occupied the Sunni Triangle after the deposing of Saddam Hussein, thereby giving the fallen Sunni Arab community a chance to breathe before they became sentimentally and physically enmeshed by the homegrown insurgency and imported holy war.
But Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld chose not to send more troops to Iraq after the fall of Saddam, even after it became blindingly obvious that the insurgents, not the Americans, controlled the roads throughout the Sunni Triangle. General John Abizaid, the commander of American forces in the Middle East, married Rumsfeld's mania for new-age warfare and his lack of interest in post-Saddam Iraqi society with a very new-age, "light footprint" approach to counterinsurgency.
As this thinking has it, American forces, if deployed in large numbers, are more likely to provoke trouble than secure the peace. We are, as General Abizaid likes to say, "antibodies" in the Muslim Middle East. This is an odd position to hold after three years of ever-worsening insurgency--especially when violence has dropped in Iraq every time the Bush administration has increased U.S. troop levels for a national election. It's an odd position to hold after the victory in Tal Afar, where the American command saturated the town with U.S. troops, and the freed Sunni Arab residents were thankful.
It may well be that the manner of Zarqawi's death will send the wrong signal to the U.S. military, which seems determined to continue its "intelligence-driven" counterinsurgency. Good intelligence was followed by laser-guided munitions--just the kind of action that warms Secretary Rumsfeld's heart. But neither we nor the Iraqis are going to find salvation through good intelligence and smart bombs.
If we continue on this "easy" path, we will only guarantee that Abu Musab al Zarqawi's name will endure. Odds are decent that a historian looking back on our sojourn in Mesopotamia and the Iraqis' valiant effort to create a democracy on the ruins of Saddam's totalitarianism will find on our epitaph some tribute to Zarqawi, our monument no doubt safely inside the Green Zone, far from the carnage that this most savage of terrorists fathered.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.