It may take weeks before we know whether the death of Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi would have a lasting impact on the terrorist campaign in Iraq. One thing, however, is already clear: the demise of the terror leader has attracted little more than a yawn in the Muslim world. The self-styled Jihadist has not even inspired one of those saccharine requiems, labelled “qasida” , posted on the Internet each time an Islamist terror leader leaves this infidel-infested world.
In leading his group into Iraq three years ago, al-Zarqawi was acting on a strategy worked out at a conference of militants from all over the Muslim world in 1993.
Held in Khartoum, that conference set up a nine-man “Guidance Council” of which both Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri were members.
The strategy was based on three assumptions.
The first was that in every Muslim country power was in the hands of small Westernised elites that ruled with the backing of major “Infidel” powers, notably the United States. The second assumption was that the elites would not be able to meet the Jihadi challenge and would thus oblige their “Infidel” patrons to do the fighting for them. Finally, the Khartoum strategists believed that their brand of extremism was the only alternative to the status quo in the Muslim world.
The first experience to inspire that strategy was shaped in Afghanistan during the war against the Communist-led government and its Soviet backers. Divided into two rival factions, the Afghan Communist Party, with its narrow popular base, was unable to control the country without Soviet support.
Contrary to popular myth, the “Arab Afghans” played a marginal role in the war against the Soviet-backed regime. Almost all of the fighting was done exclusively by the Afghan Mujahedin who disliked the Arab intruders as much as they did the Soviets. The outside world, led by the United States, helped the Afghans by providing money, arms and political legitimacy.
In Afghanistan, power was eventually won by the Pakistani secret services in the name of the Taliban, an outfit they had created after the Soviet had left. The Taliban, in turn, invited the Arab Jihadists, who had been chased away by the Afghan Mujahedin, to return to Afghanistan.
Nevertheless, the Jihadists somehow decided to claim the end of Soviet rule in Afghanistan as a victory for themselves although none of the groups with which they were associated had played a role in capturing Kabul.
The Jihadists drew two conclusions from the Afghan experience.
The first was that the “Infidel” powers, in this case the Soviet Union, did not have the stomach to fight for years and sustain high casualties. One key aim of the Jihadists, therefore, was to undermine the morale of the “Infidel” at home, forcing their leaders to withdraw their troops.
The second conclusion was that local elites, ruling with foreign support, would also cut and run as soon as they realised that their “Infidel” supporters were no longer ready to stay the course.
The Afghan experience contained a number of elements that confirmed the Jihadists’ analysis. Hundreds of thousands of middle-class Afghans, who might have helped the Communist regime broaden its base and develop popular policies, simply fled the country. At the same time the Soviet public, which had once sustained tens of millions of casualties in the war against the Nazis without qualm was soon in virtual revolt over the few thousand deaths the Red Army had suffered in Afghanistan.
Next, the Jihadists tried the same strategy in Algeria where they started an insurgency in January 1992. There, they identified France as the “Infidel” power backing the local ruling elite, although the then French President Francois Mitterrand, had publicly stated his readiness to work with an Islamist regime in Algiers. By 1994, the insurgents had succeeded in driving all but a handful of Westerners out of Algeria alongside more than 1.5 million middle class Algerians who should have provided the government’s principal support base.
Soon, however, it became clear that the Jihadist strategy would fail in Algeria just as it had failed in Afghanistan. In Algeria, the ruling elite decided to broaden the base of the regime through a series of elections that, though far from perfect, helped isolate the Jihadists.
With the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, it was Iraq’s turn to become the testing ground for the Jihadist strategy. In a sense, Iraq was the Jihadists’ dream country. It was a sizeable country at the heart of the Arab region and endowed with immense natural wealth in the form of oil and water.
In a conversation in 2005, this is how an Arab intellectual sympathetic to the Jihadists put their analysis of the situation in Iraq: the Americans will run away as soon as they have lost 1000 soldiers. They will be followed by the Shi’ites who will fell to Iran and the Kurds who will head for any neighbouring country that would let them in!
Thus, the key aim of the Jihadist campaign of which al-Zarqawi was a major, though by no means the only, leader was to break the morale of the Americans and their allies, notably the British, at home. I the pursuit of that aim, al-Zarqawi and other terror leaders soon discovered a number of unexpected allies inside the “Infidel” camp, individuals and groups that wanted Iraq to fall to the Jiahdists only to settle their own scores with President George W Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Nevertheless, the Jihadist strategy has failed in Iraq- just as it failed in both Afghanistan and Algeria. The Americans and their allies, with the exception of the Spaniards, have not run away. Nor have Iraq’s Shi’ites and Kurds who together account for almost 80 per cent of the population. Worse still, from the Jihadist point of view, Project Iraq has been implemented in every one of its aspects in accordance with a timetable fixed in August 2003.
The failure of the Jihadists does not mean the many different movements that emphasise the role of religion in politics have no future. On the contrary, the end of Jihadism, whenever it comes, could boost the chances of non-violent Islamist parties to win a share of power in some Muslim-majority countries.
The only country where an avowedly Islamist movement controls the government is, paradoxically, secularised Turkey- something that could have not been achieved through Jihadist terror.
Violent Islamist groups fought for a quarter of a century in Egypt and caused tens of thousands of the death. Nevertheless, they failed to win a share of power. Last year, however, the Muslim Brotherhood managed to win an unexpected number of seats in the first reasonably free parliamentary elections held in Egypt since 1952.
Algeria has had a similar experience. The Islamists won nothing through a violence that claimed some 150,000 lives. Nevertheless, they are now part of the government thanks to their showing in the last two general elections.
In Afghanistan, the nation’s first freely elected parliament includes a good contingence of Islamists, something that could not have been won through terrorism.
In Iraq, too, various Islamist parties, Shi’ite and Sunni, account for almost half of the seats in the newly elected National Assembly while terrorists a la Zarqawi are out in the cold.
The message is clear: you can win with ballots what bullets will never win for you.