If you are looking for the legacy of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, do not look in the concrete rubble of so-called safe house in Baqubah that became his final resting place. Instead, look less than 10 miles to the west, on the side of the road in the desert town of Hadid, for a pile of cardboard banana boxes.
Inside those boxes were nine human heads.
Some of the heads still had their blindfolds on. Iraqi police are still attempting to identify the murdered men.
Days earlier, in Baquba, Iraqi police found another eight severed heads. One of those heads belonged to a prominent Sunni Muslim imam, who preached peace and tolerance.
For the past few weeks, U.S. military intelligence analysts had seen a spike in beheadings—a specialty of the Zarqawi network.
Of course, Zarqawi will be remembered chiefly as a beheader. He apparently enjoyed wielding the knife and slowly hacking off the head of Nicholas Berg of West Chester, Pa. In a video that Zarqawi’s followers proudly posted on the Internet, Berg screams in pain in seven long minutes as Zarqawi saws through his neck.
Zarqawi also is believed to have beheaded Eugene Armstrong of Hillsdale, Mich.
Zarqawi is also believed to have beheaded Ken Bigley, the Liverpool, U.K.-based engineer who came to Iraq “to help people,” in October 2004.
Now it is Zarqawi’s own head that is capturing the world’s attention. Displaying his head has several immediate benefits: it boosts the morale of Iraqi police and military officers, who have been taking increased casualties in the past few weeks and were spooked by the Zarqawi video released last month. In that video, Zarqawi made a point of firing an M-4 and an M-249—two automatic weapons that are only used by U.S. forces. If he can take guns from the hands of Americans he killed and turn those weapons against the world’s sole remaining superpower, maybe Zarqawi is invincible after all. Yesterday’s air strike has already reversed the downward spiral of Iraqi police morale, one source told me.
Nor can Zarqawi be easily replaced. He had a kind of rogue-ish charisma that resonated in the Arab world. He was featured in Arabic-language pop songs and feted on Arabic soap operas. His persona drew hundreds of Saudis, Syrians and other foreigners to fight alongside him in Iraq. There is simply no one else in the organization who has his aura.
At the very least, the beheadings and suicide attacks will decline sharply.