Al Qaeda terrorist leader Abu Musab Zarqawi was a key strategic planner of deadly suicide bombings and gruesome execution-style slayings, and his death is a major setback for Islamist extremists in Iraq and elsewhere, U.S. counterterrorism officials said yesterday.
“He was leading the charge and was the jihadists’ driving force in both planning and operations, and in raising money,” one official said.
Zarqawi, killed in a U.S. air strike Wednesday night northeast of Baghdad, led a network of terrorists in Iraq, other parts of the Middle East and some parts of Europe who operated in small groups and who communicated secretly, mainly by couriers carrying messages.
He used the Internet to recruit terrorists and to spread the message of waging jihad, or holy war, against the West and those who opposed his Sunni Muslim extremist views.
“Over the last several years, no single person on this planet has had the blood of more innocent men, women and children on his hands than Zarqawi,” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said in Brussels. “He personified the dark, sadistic and medieval vision of the future of beheadings and suicide bombings and indiscriminate killings.”
Mr. Rumsfeld said the death is “a stunning shock to the al Qaeda system” both in Iraq and outside the country.” He suggested that Zarqawi’s presence near Baqouba was linked to the discovery of more than a dozen severed human heads.
Officials said he was both an operational commander and a charismatic leader of al Qaeda and that his goal was to create a caliphate, or Islamist state spanning several countries in the Middle East.
Until Zarqawi’s death, Al Qaeda in Iraq, as his group is called, was eclipsing Osama bin Laden’s branch of al Qaeda, which had been severely weakened since it carried out the September 11, 2001, terrorists attacks. Zarqawi in 2004 formally pledged his loyalty to bin Laden, who remains at large along with his deputy, Aymen al Zawahiri.
Zarqawi was born Ahmed Fadhil al-Khalayleh on Oct. 30, 1966, in Zarqa, Jordan. He was imprisoned in 1996 in Jordan for Islamist activities aimed at overthrowing the ruling Jordanian monarchy. His extremist views were hardened in prison.
He left Jordan after being freed in a 1999 amnesty and moved to Afghanistan, a major base for al Qaeda until 2001. Zarqawi fled Afghanistan in late 2001 and set up a camp in northeastern Iraq in early 2002 where he worked with terrorists on “poison and explosives production,” according to a National Counterterrorism Center report.
His initial goal was to use Iraq as a base to create an Islamist state in Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan.
In September 2005, he declared all-out war against Shi’ites in Iraq as part of his plan to foment a civil war in Iraq.
Zarqawi’s group is but one element of the insurgency in Iraq, and officials cautioned that violence in Iraq is expected to continue. However, the loss of Zarqawi is expected to reduce some of the more deadly suicide bombings, officials said.
Maj. Gen. William Caldwell told the Pentagon Channel that the death of Zarqawi boosted morale among U.S. and allied forces. “One, we’re excited by the fact that we finally took out the most terrible terrorist that existed here in Iraq today,” Gen Caldwell said. “It doesn’t mean his organization is going to go away, but clearly it’s a major setback for them at this point in time.”
Terrorist attacks that were in operation prior to Zarqawi’s death likely will continue but replacing Zarqawi over the longer term will be difficult.
“He did strategy and as a result we may not see any immediate impact,” a counterterrorism official said, noting that the replacement could be an Iraqi instead of a foreign national.
Last month, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch told reporters that it was “only a matter of time” before Zarqawi was captured or killed.
Zarqawi eluded capture in the past on several occasions. In one incident a U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle had identified a motorcade he was in, but he was videotaped jumping out of the vehicle shortly before it reached a checkpoint.