November 21, 2005,
Is Abu Musab al Zarqawi dead? Has he finally cashed it in for the 72 maidens, going out in a blaze of gunfire and explosives at a not-so-safe house in Mosul? Some reports said yes, the White House doubts it, and investigators are combing through the rubble looking for evidence. If ever there was a time you'd wish the White House was wrong about something, this is it.
The origins of the story of Zarqawi's demise do not give one encouragement. Early on November 20 the "Islammemo" website ran a news story about U.S. forces surrounding a house in Mosul with al Qaeda leaders inside, and posted a picture of Zarqawi along with it, but did not mention him specifically as being in the house. Over at the "Al-Firdaws Jihadist Forums" poster Hajjah Luwayzah speculated that maybe there was more going on than could be reported, that "Islammemo" was hinting without saying that Zarqawi was among the people who were surrounded. The "Elaph" online Arabic news service then picked up the story, speculating that he may have been there, and by then some of the people in the house had blown themselves up, by design or by accident, and the house taken in a vicious gun battle. Conclusion: Zarqawi dead. The Jerusalem Post repeated the "Elaph" story, and from there it vaulted to the rest of the world. I would say that this is a good example of why one should treat reports from that part of the world with caution, but given numerous recent scandals and credibility problems in our own mainstream media it would be wrong of me to make that kind of distinction. Skepticism pays whether the byline is Hajjah Luwayzah or Bob Woodward.
Before I knew much about it, the story made sense to me. Zarqawi is not a popular fellow these days. The triple bombing he sponsored in Amman Jordan November 9 is still haunting him. Last week I noted that Zarqawi had to rush out a second justification for why he made the attack, trying to explain that his targets were not the hotels per se, but the intelligence services that use them. Since then he felt it necessary to issue another, very lengthy clarification, in which his arguments take on a strange pleading quality.
That wedding? We did not mean to target it. If we had wanted to target a wedding we could have hit one with fewer guards around. Anyway, the bomber did not really detonate his bomb in the reception, that is a lie. (Note to Zarqawi: The mother of the bride died last Thursday of her wounds.) He also notes, in curious terrorist logic, "if we wanted to shed blood, God forbid, it would have been easier for us that these martyrs detonated in public places where hundreds of people gather." Like a wedding reception at a hotel? No, he means in a public square, a mall, "or other commercial complexes like Safeway." Safeway? Is he making a cruel pun? Like bombing a Target?
Right, so because his attacks only killed 57 and wounded over 100, they were obviously not intended to be high casualty. Got it. But Zarqawi is having a hard time selling the bombing to Jordanians. A new survey shows al Qaeda with a 90-percent disapproval rating in Jordan, with a like number saying it is a "terrorist organization." I guess sometimes it takes something like multiple hotels blowing up for people to draw these kinds of conclusions, particularly when the attacks are in your own country.
Meanwhile Zarqawi's direct threat to behead King Abdullah has now made him persona non grata within his own family. Seventy-five members of the Al-Khalayilah tribe placed full-page ads in Jordanian newspapers with a letter to the King stating that Ahmad Fadil Nazzal (Zarqawi's real name) was banished. Being a man without a country is one thing, but being a man without a tribe is much worse in that part of the world. The Al-Khalayilah are influential, and when Zarqawi was in jail in Jordan in the 1990s he was able to use family connections to make life easier behind bars. Moreover, tribal connections can stretch well beyond national boundaries. One of the reasons I thought the report of Zarqawi's death was credible at first was that his tribe had forsaken him. Extended tribal ties among groups in al-Anbar Province in Iraq may be what has kept him safe thus far. Now anyone who wants to betray him for the reward money does not have to worry about having Zarqawi's kinfolk coming after him in a blood feud. No, he is out and the expulsion is unequivocal. "Whoever dares to commit such acts in our exalted kingdom is not a Jordanian," the tribal leaders wrote. "He is not related to Jordan, has never drunk its water, or sought its shade, because a Jordanian does not aim his arrow at his own people. We disown him until judgment day." In Zarqawi's case I sure hope that was yesterday.