Rumors are flying around the Iraqi battle zones that Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi has been severely wounded and could possibly be dead. An Islamic Web site has asked his followers to pray for his recovery.
While the U.S. military, no doubt, would very much like to nab the elusive insurrectionist, in truth his capture or killing would not alter much the reality on the ground as far as the insurgency is concerned.
The resistance targeting U.S. troops, as well as Iraqi civilians and units of the rebuilt Iraqi security services, appears to be a well-oiled machine, with ample supply of men and intelligence.
Were Zarqawi to disappear tomorrow, it would be a symbolic victory for the U.S.-led coalition but analysts believe it would not devastate the insurgency. There are multiple reasons why.
“First,” said Hiam Nawas, an analyst with the Eurasia Group, “his death would not diminish the intensity of the insurgency or have a serious long-term impact on its modus operandi and is not likely to represent any leadership vacuum. His group, although well publicized, is not the only insurgency group in Iraq.” Indeed, several Zarqawilike characters could as easily emerge to take his place.
At the start of the insurgency, United Press International reported from Baghdad on the insurgency structure. This was based on interviews with resistance members. Iraqi insurgents have mirrored the “cell” method of the Algerian National Liberation Front during its war of independence from France.
During the Algerian war, from 1954 to 1962, French troops resorted to heavy-handed methods to try to break down the resistance, identify and arrest its leaders and end the idea Algeria could secede from France.
When the National Liberation Front, or the FLN as it was known by its French initials, started setting off bombs in European establishments in Algiers and killing French settlers and soldiers — reminiscent of what is happening in Iraq today — Paris responded by calling in the elite paratroopers, tasking them with eliminating the FLN threat.
The FLN would emerge from the Arab quarter of the city, attack targets and retreat into the relative safety of the vast labyrinth of the Casbah, where few Europeans dared venture. Again, similarities may be drawn with Zarqawi.
French paratroopers were ordered to crush the resistance at all costs. Gen. Jacques Massu formulated a counterterrorist strategy and went after the resistance with a vengeance. That chapter of the war became known as the Battle of Algiers. It was a battle France won militarily but lost politically. And in the end lost the war, too. This echoes what some high-ranking Pentagon officers said last May: that the United States can win the war militarily but not politically.
In August 2004, the Pentagon arranged for some of its officers and employees a special viewing of Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterpiece, “The Battle of Algiers,” a film dealing with urban terrorism. The idea was that the 1965 film would help U.S. officers better understand the quandary of fighting urban terrorism and the situation in Baghdad today.
Somewhat similar to the Fallujah offensive, or the more recent raids by U.S. Marines on insurgent sites near the Syrian border, French paras arrested thousands of FLN activists. In citywide raids and street-by-street sweeps of the Casbah, French troops detained thousands of Algerians — not all of them FLN sympathizers. Many were tortured by the paras in hopes of obtaining information and quick results.
Similar to Iraq, some arrests produced results and led to additional arrests. Under interrogation, prisoners gave names and addresses of fellow militants, locations of arms and explosive caches and any other bits of intelligence.
The FLN — much like Zarqawi’s insurgents — was structured to avoid the worst when members broke under torture, as they almost always did. Operational cells formed a pyramid, with the leader at the top. He would know only his two deputies, who each knew only know two cell leaders below them.
Each cell leader was in charge of a small cell of five or six members. The cell leader knew only a single member in a cell above his own, as well as another member of the cell below his. The other cell members knew only the other members of their cell, and often only by their nom de guerre. At the bottom of the pyramid would be several hundreds or thousands of militants, but few knew each other.
The FLN would ask its militants to resist giving up information for 24 hours, if possible, to give remaining cell members time to disperse and reorganize. After that, they were free to reveal any information they wanted to avoid further torture.
Stepped-up pressures, prisoner abuses and arrests of large numbers of FLN fighters, political bosses and sympathizers eventually led to the arrest and death of many resistance leaders in the Casbah, including the top commander. However, it neither stopped nor deterred the resistance.
What makes Zarqawi “replaceable” is his lack of political message or philosophy. His claim to infamy is based on gruesome, violent acts, such as beheading hostages, something others could emulate. Killing Zarqawi would not deprive the resistance of a great leader.
Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.