Monday, June 5, 2017

The Insurgency Face ...ZARQAWI The New Face of Al-Qaeda. By Jean-Charles Brisard with Damien Martinez. Illustrated. 283 pp. Other Press. Paper, $13.95.

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There  is no substitute for war as a way of separating out talented field commanders from the rest. In Iraq, America's terrorist enemies have benefited from these winnowing effects as much as any conventional force. Now the jihadists have a hardened cadre of leaders, and none is more brutally distinguished than Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

With a $25 million price on his head and the United States military desperately trying to corner him, Zarqawi has become the face of the insurgency, if not exactly "the new face of Al Qaeda," as the subtitle of Jean-Charles Brisard's disjointed biography, "Zarqawi," asserts. His organization may be committing only a fraction of the attacks in Iraq, but, as Brisard and his collaborator, Damien Martinez, rightly observe, "His are the ones that are commented on throughout the world." These attacks have included the destruction of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad and large-scale bombings of Shiite targets in Najaf and Karbala, which have helped speed the way toward wider sectarian violence and the current undeclared civil war.

A Jordanian with a background as humble as Osama bin Laden's is grand, Ahmad Fadil Nazzal al-Khalayleh (Zarqawi's nom de guerre is taken from his hometown near Amman) traveled a route sharply different from that of Al Qaeda's first generation of leaders. Unlike the patrician surgeon Ayman al-Zawahiri, the group's second-in-command and chief ideologist, or bin Laden himself, a member of the Saudi elite who studied engineering and economics, Zarqawi was a high school dropout, an abuser of alcohol, a drug dealer and possibly a participant in an attempted rape.

According to Brisard, this rebel from a criminal background went to fight in the Afghan jihad in 1989 after a quarrel with his father, a minor city official. He missed the glorious struggle against the Soviets but saw action in later battles among the various Afghan factions. He was arrested in his native country in 1994 for trying to bring the jihad home. In prison, Zarqawi came under the tutelage of a prominent radical imam, Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi, and matured into a hard-edged takfiri, a believer in the excommunication -- and slaughter -- of Muslims deemed guilty of apostasy. He became the leader of a jailhouse Islamist cell, acquiring a reputation for being relentlessly aggressive against those he opposed and extravagantly devoted to those who supported him.

These qualities have served him well in Iraq. While bin Laden, who is fastidious about the details of his violence, has been off making video addresses from the caves of Waziristan and casting himself as a world leader, Zarqawi is claiming credit for a dozen bombings a week. His videos show him personally beheading captives, like the young American Nick Berg. His passionate hatred of Shiites, whom he has compared unfavorably to Americans, has made him perfectly suited to be the catalyst for an Iraqi civil war -- a role that probably could not have been filled as well by bin Laden, since Al Qaeda has historically sought to avoid provoking Shiite Iran.

Zarqawi could be an excellent window into understanding radical Islam's appeal to the Arab world's swelling underclass, the various currents running through the movement (including its powerful anti-Shiite sentiment) and the way the jihadist struggle has been changed by the war in Iraq. But this biography has little to say about any of this. Nor is it helpful in explaining Zarqawi's volatile relationship with Al Qaeda. In the period preceding the war, while the Bush administration was portraying Zarqawi as the key intermediary between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, many Western intelligence services saw him less as a lieutenant of bin Laden than a rival -- a view now widely accepted. (The charge that Zarqawi was collaborating with Hussein's regime has long since crumbled.) The merger of his Tawhid and Jihad group with Al Qaeda in 2004 was a case of mutual exploitation. Zarqawi was able to show that he had the blessing of the greatest jihadist and bin Laden could create the illusion that he was a real presence in today's central field of battle.

Brisard describes a chaotic series of conspiracies, mostly failed, and he provides the names of legions of insignificant co-conspirators, but he scarcely explores Zarqawi's differences with the Al Qaeda leaders over doctrine (it may be hard to believe there are people more radical than bin Laden, but takfiris, with their "slaughter them all approach," are just that). There is also little discussion of the disagreements over strategy, in which Zarqawi pushed for bringing the jihad to the Middle East to topple Jordan's rulers and attack Israel, while bin Laden favored a global focus on the United States.

What's more, numerous errors of fact and a shabby use of sources makes this a self-undermining book. For example, Brisard refers to a mid-90's plot "to crash several airplanes simultaneously over the United States"; the goal of that plot was actually to blow up 12 wide-bodies over the Pacific. Brisard appears not to know that Pakistan's ruler in the late 90's was Nawaz Sharif, and he identifies Benazir Bhutto as the victim of Gen. Pervez Musharraf's 1999 coup, when in fact she was in exile at the time. Most bizarre is Brisard's claim that the United States has been trying to incite a "direct clash" between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq "so as to justify its presence in Iraq."

Charges like this only reinforce the reputation for reckless conspiracy theorizing that Brisard acquired with his last book, "Forbidden Truth: U.S.-Taliban Secret Oil Diplomacy and the Failed Hunt for Bin Laden." (There he alleged that the 9/11 attacks were a response to American pressure on the Taliban to permit oil and gas pipelines to be built in Afghanistan.) In a letter early this year, Osama bin Laden asked Zarqawi to start work on an operation against the United States. The world's foremost jihadist evidently thinks the Jordanian upstart has the resources to carry out such an attack, and surely this is reason enough for us to know more about him. But "Zarqawi" is a squandered opportunity.

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