As the U.S. military announced Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s death, al-Zarqawi’s lieutenants did the same, with a statement on his own Web site, with a highly positive spin.
“We are bringing the good news of the martyrdom of our Sheikh,” reads the site. “What hit us is a blessing to our nation. ... It will encourage us to continue waging Jihad.”
Jihadi bulletin boards and chat rooms were quickly overwhelmed. Al-Zarqawi’s photo was posted, adorned to glorify his death. One posting said: “Zarqawi’s blood will serve as fuel to burn the invaders and the apostates.”
It is fitting for a man who experts say pioneered the use of the Internet as a powerful tool for terrorists.
Master of propaganda
“Zarqawi really created the idea of a comprehensive information war on the Internet,” said Evan Kohlmann of globalterroralert.com, a terrorism analyst for NBC News. He pioneered “the use of the Internet in order to provide disinformation, in order to provide support, in order to recruit people directly over the Internet.”
Al-Zarqawi was a master of the propaganda war — martyrdom videos, military successes and images that repulsed and shocked the West and inspired his followers.
One month into his campaign, he had the full attention of the world with a video of his personally beheading U.S. contractor Nicholas Berg. When the beheading videos got old, he moved to suicide bombing videos. When those got old, he moved to full-length Hollywood-style productions.
Al-Zarqawi also used the Internet to create his own larger-than-life persona — as a masterly military commander and an equal to Osama bin Laden.
Only recently did the U.S. military unearth outtakes that dented that image, including a video showing al-Zarqawi failing to operate his own weapon correctly.
But in the end — as U.S. military video showed the smoldering ruins of a house crushed in the attack that killed one of the most ruthless men on the planet — it was the Pentagon that won the battle of images, at least for this day.
Word from bin Laden awaited
In response, counterterrorism officials told NBC News, bin Laden or his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, will likely release a new video or audiotape of their own embracing al-Zarqawi and his mission.
But privately, the officials said, the leaders of the worldwide al-Qaida movement will not be mourning his death. Al-Zarqawi, they said, actually caused more problems for the movement than he solved, by stealing attention from bin Laden.