Sunday, July 02, 2006

The Jihadist Graceland?

Osama bin Laden and his chief lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, have been busy of late in the propaganda wars. Zawahiri appears more confident after that recent American airstrike that killed several of his subordinates along the Afghan border--and might have killed Al Qaida's #2 man, if he had followed through on his original dinner plans.

After laying low for a bit, Zawihiri recently released a new videotape. The message wasn't particularly new, but the production values were notably improved from previous Al Qaida efforts. The terrorist group has apparently upgraded their video production capabilities, using computer-generated backgrounds to cover potential geographic clues. Zawahiri apparently learned a lesson from the recent rub-out of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Don't give your trackers any video clues to your whereabouts, as did Zarqawi in his infamous "machine gun" video.

As for bin Laden, he has released two new tapes on consecutive days, suggesting (again) that Al Qaida is finding it easier to get its messages to the internet and other friendly media forums. The terrorist leader used his first message to pay homage to Zarqawi, urging the Jordanian government to allow his body to be buried in his homeland. Jordan's King Abdullah has steadfastly refused that request, and the chances that Zarqawi's remains will return to that country are approximately zero. Abdullah understands that a Jordanian grave for Zarqawi would create a shrine for jihadis and compound his internal security problems.

Likewise, Zarqawi's final resting spot in Iraq will remain a closely guarded secret. Regarding the location of Zarqawi's grave, the Iraqi national security advisor has stated that it is somewhere in the Baghdad area, and the terrorist leader was interred in accordance with Muslim traditions. Members of Zarqawi's family were reportedly upset, and initiated a request to bring his remains "home" for burial, a theme bin Laden was happy to echo in his recent message.

There is a certain irony that Zarqawi received a proper Islamic burial from the "Crusaders" and their Iraqi allies, reminding us that the U.S. military and the new Iraqi government are more sensitive to Muslim traditions than Zarqawi ever was. And that begs another question: given Zarqawi's perverted past in Jordan--and his role in the deaths of thousands of Iraqi civilians--wasn't there a point when the terrorist leader ceded his right to a traditional Muslim burial? There is no evidence that Zarqawi ever repented of his murderous ways; indeed, at the moment that Air National Guard F-16 sent him in search of his virgin quota, Zarqawi was meeting with associates, probably plotting more attacks against Iraqi civilians and coalition forces.

The timing of bin Laden's announcement was equally ironic, coming about the same time that Al Qaida's #1 enemy, George Bush, visited a shrine to one of history's most enduring icons, Elvis Presley. Mr. Bush toured Graceland on Friday, along with Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi who is described as something of an Elvis fanatic. The throngs who visit Graceland each year are, of course, a tribute to Elvis's enduring legacy and popularity, and (on a more cynical level), the understanding that some figures become immeasurably larger in death. When Elvis died suddenly in 1977, his career had long since peaked, and while he remained a popular concert draw, his record sales were a fraction of what they'd been just a decade earlier.

But that changed--and changed dramatically--with Presley's untimely passing. With renewed interest in The King (and shrewd management by his estate) Elvis in death became bigger than ever. A recent compilation of his #1 singles soared to the top of the Billboard charts, a remarkable feat for an artist who had been dead for years. "Nice career move," sneered wags in the entertainment industry--and they weren't far off the mark. Almost thirty years after he departed this life, Elvis remains the gold standard for deceased celebrities and their ability to endure over time. Graceland has become the ultimate shrine to its former owner, a place where fans and the curious can, for the price of admission, pay their respects to a long-dead superstar.

When bin Laden asked King Abdullah to allow burial of Zarqawi's remains in Jordan, I doubt that he had Elvis in mind. But the Al Qaida leader clearly understands the power of an iconic figure, particularly one that can be enshried for visits by the faithful. At the risk of offending Elvis fans everywhere (including your humble correspondent), it seems clear that bin Laden wants to elevate Zarqawi in death, with a Jordanian burial site become the Jihadi equivalent of Graceland. Wisely, King Abdullah, the Iraqi government and U.S. authorities have ignored that request. Some figures, including Elvis, deserve to be lionized by history. Others, like Zarqawi, deserve the fate of an anonmyous grave, eventually erased by the shifting sands of the desert.

One final thought: as Strategy Page (and others have noted), Zarqawi probably is more beneficial in death than in life. Over the last two years of his "leadership" in Iraq, Zarqawi played out an ultimately losing hand, undercutting potential support for Al Qaida by the wanton slaughter of innocent Iraqis. In death, bin Laden hopes that Zarqawi can become a potential rallying figure, playing a similar role deceased Latin American Revolutionary, Che Guevara. Che also attained iconic status after his death, masking the fact that Che was (ultimately) a miscast and failed guerilla leader. If we see a Middle Eastern version of "The Motorcycle Diaries" in 30 years, then bin Laden's attempts at revisionist image-making will be judged a success.

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