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What Does Al-Zarqawi's Death Mean?

PRAGUE, June 8, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Terrorism expert Magnus Ranstorp says the death of Al-Qaeda leader in Iraq Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi is an important blow to the Iraqi insurgency and will also be demoralizing for the Islamist militant movement worldwide. Ranstorp, a senior researcher at the National Defense College of Sweden, spoke to RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke.

RFE/RL: Just how important is the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi?

Magnus Ranstorp: I think it is important because he has been the figurehead of Al-Qaeda in Iraq for a long time, he has also been responsible for the escalation in brutality of the beheadings; he has also been responsible for stoking up the fires between the Shi'a and Sunni [Muslims]. So he has been at the heart of things, complicating the insurgency particularly for the coalition forces. The removal of such an important figurehead is going to be significant politically, perhaps in the short term. I think over the long term it won't make very much difference because there are always individuals lurking in the background that will replace him.

RFE/RL: Is this a heavy blow for the Iraqi insurgents, and also for Islamist militants internationally, insofar as he was one of the most successful guerrilla leaders?

Ranstorp: His removal may have a temporary effect, in terms of the technical sophistication [of insurgent operations] and therefore it is a blow for the insurgency, but, on the other hand, he has now become a martyr for the cause, so there will be others perhaps who are propelled by his loss to travel to Iraq to try to follow in his footsteps, so I think [his death] is a double-edged sword.

RFE/RL: But will the insurgency be able to find someone as able as he was, in tactical terms?

Ranstorp: It is such a diffuse insurgency. He was part of a very small section of the insurgency, but it was important because it created a lot of tension in Iraq. He [also displayed skill in increasing] the sophistication of explosive devices and how to deliver these [to targets]; it also became very clear that his skill in the delivery [of such devices] has actually been exported to other conflicts, like in Afghanistan and elsewhere, so I think that the skill, advice, and experience will not be replaced immediately. But there are others that do have that skill already, and [I think] that we will soon see another name coming to the fore. Who that will be, I don't know.

RFE/RL: He is one of the most active Al-Qaeda leaders ever killed, wasn't he?

Ranstorp: He was such an elevated figure, particularly he came to the fore in [former U.S. Secretary of State] Colin Powell's speech [on Iraq] to the UN Security Council [in February 2003], and in making that connection a pretext for linking Iraq with terrorism. He was also part of an international [terrorism] network stretching into Europe, so I think to that extent he is one of the more senior individuals that have arisen and also subsequently now eliminated.

RFE/RL: Can the U.S-led coalition capitalize on his death and take the initiative against the insurgency?

Ranstorp: I hope they do. I hope that they will have thought through what kind of information operations they can deploy in order to demoralize those foreign elements that he represents, and also to calm Shi'ite-Sunni differences. So I hope they will be able to use this opportunity wisely to sow divisions among the insurgents and demoralize those elements within the insurgency. But I don't think the insurgency is going to go away because it is much larger than just Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi.

RFE/RL: Apparently U.S. and Iraqi forces were using intelligence information to find al-Zarqawi. Does this mean they are getting better at using intelligence?

Ranstorp: It always takes time and one has to work to sew together all the information coming from prisoners, from the local community; they have been close a number of times to capturing him, and obviously this time they had the necessary information that enabled them to kill him.


Copyright (c) 2006 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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