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Top Two al-Qa’ida in Iraq Leaders Killed: Big Deal or No Big Deal?

21/04/2010

In June 2006 the infamous leader of al-Qa’ida in Iraq, Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, was killed in US airstrikes north of Baghdad. Amidst the general excitement, President Bush announced at the time that the killing was “a severe blow to Al Qaeda and… a significant victory in the war on terror.

In these post-Bush days, nobody says too much about the War on Terror, although the hunt for terrorists continues apace. In fact, with regard to Iraq, US forces have long been fighting against an ‘insurgency’ as opposed to a ‘terrorist campaign’ in common parlance, even if the insurgency is driven by terrorists…. The Iraqi government, meanwhile, has been less troubled by what it apparently considers to be semantic concerns.

Yesterday it was announced that Zarqawi’s two replacements as the top leaders of al-Qa’ida in Iraq; Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri had been killed by a US/

Iraqi rocket attack near Tikrit.  Nuri al-Maliki described the killings as “a quality blow breaking the back of al-Qa’ida”, whilst US vice President Joe Biden said they were a “potentially devastating blow” to al-Qa’ida in Iraq. And so they are… potentially.

Biden’s relatively cautious welcome to the news reflects the sea of change in the attitude towards combating terrorism in Iraq over the past few years, and the recognition that the very amorphousness of al-Qa’ida has enabled it to produce new figureheads to replace defeated ones – even if they are not entirely real (the existence of al-Baghdadi was long questioned). Of course, dynamics in Iraq have changed: it is no longer the primary theatre for jihad, and as such has lost appeal to many ardent jihadis. But irrespective of this, many political commentators suspect that the leadership of al-Qa’ida in Iraq is of limited importance.

In the aftermath of the US confirming the killings yesterday, Reuters rapidly collected some feedback from political analysts to the news. These included Gareth Stansfield from Chatham House, Mustafa Alani of the Gulf Research Centre, Jeremy Binnie, editor of Jane’s Terrorism and Security Monitor, and Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group. Their respective views draw attention to the nuanced strengths and weaknesses of al-Qa’ida in Iraq and the Iraqi government itself, but overall reflect a careful hedging of bets on the significance of al-Baghdadi’s and al-Masri’s deaths. One view that does come across loud and clear is that right now, their deaths are overshadowed by the post-electoral Iraqi political situation. As Peter Harling notes, “the next government is the talk of the town”; and personally, I think that’s how it should be.