Speculation continues to swirl about the condition of terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Al Qaida's #1 man in Iraq. Depending on which press report (or website) you believe, Zarqawi was recently wounded in the stomach or the lung, during a firefight with U.S. troops. Various accounts placed that firefight at differing locations between Baghdad and the Syrian border. Meanwhile, other reports suggest Zarqawi sought treatment at a hospital at Ramidi, Iraq, but left that facility against his doctor's wishes. And with good reason; U.S. forces raided a Ramidi hospital about two weeks ago, looking for Zarqawi.
Officially, U.S. intelligence officials aren't saying much, noting that claims about Zarqawi being wounded have surfaced before. Officially, we haven't substantiated Zarqawi's condition, or his whereabouts. That's an appropriate (and prudent) position given the "reliability" of some of the sources these reports are based on.
However, the sudden flurry of reports about Zarqawi's injuries do lend some credence to the claims. Additionally, the recent arrest of several top Zarqawi aides have provided a wealth of new intelligence information, giving us a better idea of where the terrorist leader might be hiding. Over the past year, U.S. troops have staged a number of successful operations in places like Tikrit, Ramidi, Fallujah, and (most recently) along the Syria border, reducing the area where Zarqawi and his fellow jihadists can safely operate.
Based on all available information, I tend to believe Zarqawi has been wounded, although there's really no way to gauge the severity of his injuries. Obviously, an abdominal or chest wound could keep him out of commission for some time, and possibly force him to seek treatment in a neighboring country, probably Syria.
Zarqawi's uncertain status has helped create a leadership crisis within Iraq's terrorist network, according to the Associated Press. Like most terrorist leaders, Zarqawi has never bothered to groom a successor, leaving no one to run the organization in the event of his death or incapacitation. And despite a recent increase in insurgent attacks inside Iraqi, Zarqawi's successor would inherit an organization with severe logistical and operational problems. Overall, the number of terrorist attacks is still running about 35% below the peak levels of last year, suggesting it's becoming more difficult for them to operate.
There are also signs of factionalism within the insurgency. I've seen at least two reports suggesting that terrorists loyal to Saddam are increasingly dejected, and looking for a way out. Among the foreign-born jihadists, there are also indications that all is not well. I spoke to an intelligence officer who recently returned from Iraq; he observed that the terrorists are focusing on attacks using vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) because, in his words, "that's the only viable tactic they have left." He also told me that a number of recent suicide bombers have been heavily drugged prior to their attacks, suggesting that even "willing" martyrs need psychotrophic assistance to "die for the cause."
One final thought: there may be an alternate explanation for Zarqawi's "wounds." With the Iraqi insurgency having apparent problems--and Al Qaida's own, internal leadership issues--the organization may be using these reports to "cover" Zarqawi's departure from Iraq. Reported injuries would provide a convenient pretext for Zarqawi to leave Iraq, and assume leadership duties at another location. In March of this year, Osama bin Laden reportedly sent a message to Zarqawi, urging him to expand his operations beyond Iraqi territory and stage attacks against other targets, including those inside the United States. As we noted at the time, that suggestion indicated that Al Qaida's long-time leaders had their own problems, and probably lacked the ability to play and execute such attacks. Those problems were further compounded by the recent arrest of Al-Qaida's senior operations officer in Pakistan, creating a leadership vaccum in the organization's senior ranks.
A lot of pundits have tried to depict Iraq as a quagmire for the United States. In reality, the terrorist war is more of a quagmire for Al Qaida, forcing them to concentrate resources against the military power of the United States and its coalition partners. So far, Al Qaida has little to show for those efforts, and the dilution of its resources has clearly impacted its ability to stage persistent attacks the United States and Western Europe, long a cornerstone of terrorist strategy.
Are Zarqawi's wounds little more than an elaborate ruse, designed to mask his withdrawal from Iraq? Only time will tell. But Al Qaida has serious problems--in Iraq, and elsewhere. Zarqawi's potential move to another assignment would provide another indication that
bin Laden and his minions are losing the War on Terrorism.