April 28, 2006,
There must have been high-fives this week around the media commission of the Mujahedin Shura Council. They were the outfit that produced the new video of al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The tape got monster coverage, which illustrates the most critical power of terrorists, the ability to gain attention. The Washington Post was emblematic an above-the-fold headline with large centered color still from the video. The headline itself was instructive: "Zarqawi Taunts U.S. in Video." Taunts? Imagine if he had done something substantive. I was reminded of John Cleese's rude French man-at-arms in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: "Now go away or I shall taunt you a second time!"
That terrorist taunting is front-page news demonstrates the significant advantage the bad guys have in the information domain. Last month Secretary Rumsfeld said that the U.S. gets a "D or D+" in communicating in the battle of ideas. Small wonder when you are up against things like this. We saw the same response to the recent videos from Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri. They don't even have to say anything new or particularly significant to seize control of the news cycle. They just have to show up. There is no other group of people in the world who can guarantee saturation coverage simply by issuing a press release. O.K., Bradgelina, but other than them.
The most newsworthy things about the video was the fact that we finally got to see Zarqawi. Yes there have been pictures, usually the same black-and-white mug shot we've been enjoying for years. Now we got to see him in action. And this was not like those dull Osama and Zawahiri videos. This one kept the viewer's attention. They used multiple cameras, in various settings. Great production values, and not a single beheading. Here is Zarqawi greeting his masked followers in the desert. Here he is taking a briefing on wonder weapons the insurgents have developed. At the end he fires a submachine gun towards a target off screen, then turns to the camera to deliver his final threat. "By the will of the Exalted, Almighty God, America will be defeated in Iraq and they will exit the Land of the Two Rivers defeated, humiliated, sorrowful, and disgraced." Run away! Run away!
The context of the video was more interesting than the message itself, which was the usual type of thing, exhortations to the loyal followers, denunciations of the lowly apostates. He dwelled at length on the betrayal of the Sunni tribes who have begun backing the regime, which tracks with reports that Zarqawi is not as welcome as he used to be in western Iraq. It also comes in the wake of reports that Zarqawi has been demoted within the Shura Council, losing his policymaking prerogatives; yet he was content to use their logo and trademarks in his video. The ferment inside the insurgent ranks is continual and difficult to follow. The video was recorded the day after a group called The Victorious Sect in the Land of the Two Rivers pledged allegiance to Zarqawi. Things like this are very important in the feudal world of the insurgency, they indicate power and influence. If you prefer mafia analogies, it is like someone's crew transferring loyalty to a new capo. So maybe Zarqawi was feeling better about himself and wanted to strut a little. Plus with all the negative press he has been getting lately he had to do something or risk being completely marginalized.
But does he really have any power to speak of? An underreported story concerns Mahmud Suaydat, a Jordanian driver working in Iraq who was recently kidnapped by Zarqawi's people in order to set up an exchange for Sajidah al-Rishawi, the woman currently on trial in Jordan for her role in the Amman bombings last November. She was the (nominal) wife of one of the bombers who was left alive when her wardrobe malfunctioned and her vest bomb failed to detonate. Sajidah's brothers were members of Zarqawi's inner circle who were killed by Coalition forces, and he personally approved her going on the mission. Zarqawi was seeking leverage to get her back. But the Jordanian government reached out to tribal leaders in Iraq and negotiated Suaydat's release without a quid pro quo. Furthermore, Zarqawi was called on the carpet and made to promise he would not undertake any more attacks against Jordanian targets because the hotel bombings (particularly the one that hit that wedding party) had so tarnished the image of the insurgency. So Zarqawi was humiliated in front of his cohorts, made to look ridiculous. And a man in his position can't afford to be made to look ridiculous.
So it was a good time to take to the airwaves, to finally show his face, to demonstrate to the world and to the movement that he is still out there fighting, a well-respected leader of a dangerous group of fanatics, Osama bin Laden's personal emir in Iraq, someone to be reckoned with. Not to mention the taunting.
James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, a trustee for the Leaders for Liberty Foundation, and author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point. Robbins is also an NRO contributor.