Now that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is dead, there seems little certainty who will succeed the brutal killer who was the most wanted terrorist in Iraq.
A U.S. general thinks it will be Egyptian-born, Afghanistan-trained Abu al-Masri, whose name is an obvious alias, meaning “father of the Egyptian.”
Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said Thursday that al-Masri was the “most logical” successor but offered no details on why.
Caldwell said al-Masri is thought to have come to Iraq in 2002 after training in Afghanistan with the mission of creating an al-Qaida cell in Baghdad. Al-Masri is believed to be an expert at constructing roadside bombs, the leading cause of U.S. military casualties in Iraq.
But there are other possibilities.
For example, U.S. and Iraqi officials announced that al-Zarqawi’s spiritual adviser, Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Iraqi, was among others killed with the Jordanian-born terror mastermind when U.S. warplanes bombed a house northeast of Baghdad on Wednesday evening.
But an Internet statement that al-Qaida posted Thursday confirming al-Zarqawi’s death was signed by a man with the same name, casting doubt on the supposition that al-Iraqi had been killed.
“My perception is that if they released a statement in the name of Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Iraqi, then he is still around. And, as the deputy head of al-Qaida in Iraq, he presumably is the new leader,” said Evan Kohlmann, a New York-based terror consultant and founder of globalterroralert.com.
But, he added, “It is possible that two guys have the same name.” He said an al-Qaida member known as Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Iraqi previously was identified as an al-Qaida military leader, not a spiritual leader.
Caldwell said the U.S. military had discussed the succession question with the Iraqi government even before al-Zarqawi was killed.
‘We will kill’ successor
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Thursday that it made no real difference. “Whenever there is a new Zarqawi, we will kill him,” al-Maliki told reporters.
It may not be that easy. It took the U.S. and Iraqi military three years to get al-Zarqawi, and there is little likelihood al-Qaida in Iraq will crumble now that its leader is gone.
“The death of our leaders is life for us,” said the Web statement from al-Qaida in Iraq, which is notorious for Iraq’s bloodiest terror bombings and beheadings. “It will only increase our persistence in continuing the holy war so that the word of God will be supreme.”
Caldwell agreed the group might respond to al-Zarqawi’s death by staging some big attacks to assert its “viability” as a durable organization.
Some experts on Islamic extremism said they suspected there might not be a ready successor for al-Zarqawi, whose organization has been reeling from the death or capture of dozens of middle and top operatives in recent months.
But while al-Zarqawi’s death may be a blow to the group’s morale, it will not stop the group from producing a successor, said Italian researcher Andrea Nativi in Rome.
“No one is deluded in thinking that in the long-term he will not be replaced. Even if they kill Osama bin Laden, it doesn’t mean al-Qaida will stop existing,” Nativi said.
Rime Allaf of London’s Chatham House, an international affairs think tank, said a successor was anyone’s guess. But, she said, it would happen sooner rather than later.
Not who, but what
“Recent statements had suggested some al-Qaida figures were unhappy with the brutality of al-Zarqawi’s attacks and his targeting of civilians,” she said. “It could be that his replacement, or replacements, will adopt a very different style.”
Magnus Ranstorp, research director at the Swedish National Defense College in Stockholm, had a similar view.
“The big question is not who succeeds al-Zarqawi, but whether they will continue to encourage Sunni against Shia violence, or whether they change tactics,” Ranstorp said.
“Al-Zarqawi had lost credibility within the insurgency before his death because of the tactics he was using and because he inflated his own importance.”