Iraq is a public relations disaster…for al Qaida and the rest of the so-called “insurgency”. This spectacular failure is epitomized by the most recent suicide bombing attempt on the Palestine Hotel. In his letter to Zarqawi, Zawahiri complains about the lack of proper media attention and instructs Zarqawi that the larger war is taking place in the media. Interestingly, Zawahiri also asks Zarqawi to publish his two books, Bitter Harvest and Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner. Both books contain multiple passages complaining about the lack of media attention for the mujihadeen in Egypt, directives to capitalize on this important tool for the Islamist movement and analyzes the failure of the Islamist movements that came before. One can wonder if this was a veiled message for Zarqawi to take direct action against the media or if, as he has in the past, Zarqawi has taken the directive literally and to the extreme, making one more disastrous step in the battle for public opinion: attacking the media directly.
It’s one thing to complain about the media, but it is quite another to try to kill them with purpose and malice afore thought.
The most apparent public relations failure is the continued killing of innocents. Not accidental killings during operations against government or military targets, but direct attacks on civilian only targets. Zarqawi has stated that the Shi’ites are an enemy of the Islamists because they collaborated with the US, something he has stated is just one more betrayal of the Islamic caliphate since the time Suleiman I (the magnificent) had to split his forces into three parts to quail the Shi’ite Safavid empire in the east while attempting to take Vienna in 1532 . He succeeded against the Shi’ite’s but lost Vienna. Zawahiri, as politely as possible, suggests to Zarqawi that this may not be the best tactic since the creation of the caliphate would necessarily require the cooperation of the Shi’ites in the territories and it would be very difficult to kill them all. Let’s not forget that Iran, a largely Shi’ite nation, is “hosting” some of the Al Qaida leadership element. Continuing to label Shi’ites as enemies and killing them, particularly those that may belong to groups supported by Iran, is a public relations nightmare. This leadership element includes Osama bin Laden’s sons who have been in Iran for at least four years along with Abu Ghaib, a spokesmen for al Qaida.
And, it isn’t just the Shi’ites that are dying during these attacks. A half-inch bolt from the oil pan of an exploding car, flying at 1000 ft per second, cannot divine the ethnicity, political or religious affiliation of its victim. The media often notes that an explosion took place in a “largely Shia” neighborhood or market. This is very misleading since most neighborhoods are mixed and many Iraqis are intermarried within the different ethno/religious groups. There is no such thing as “only” killing Shia.
These are the largest and most apparent public relations failures of Al Qaida and it’s affiliates. The smaller, less noted failures but no less significant, happen every day on the ground in little towns like Qaim and Husaybah or larger cities like Fallujah and Mosul. It’s not just the military losses where Coalition forces are able to fix, kill, capture or route any “insurgents” that foolishly coalesce in one place. The fact is, the Coalition finds these forces and individuals because the very people the Islamists wish to rule betray them even under the fear of death and retaliation.
Take, for instance, Fallujah. Zarqawi had publicly declared it the “Emirate of Fallujah”. In 2004, a Marine Major writing at The Greenside (now defunct blog as he has returned home), prior to the November invasion, reported that the citizens of Fallujah were coming to the Marines almost daily, begging them to enter Fallujah and end the cruelty of the mujihadeen. He also reported that, daily, bodies were found on the side of the road and in the Tigris River, shot, stabbed, tortured and beheaded. This included men, women and children regardless of ethnicity or religious affiliation.
Instead of concentrating on building support among the citizens through public works and diplomacy, Zarqawi and his minions set about “purifying” the rank and file demanding not only assistance and allegiance, but also adherence to their specific brand of Islam. Kurds and Shi’ites were immediately suspect, targeted and killed wherever the “mujihadeen” could get their hands on them. These groups were some of the first to leave the city. Equally important were the Sunni victims. It didn’t matter that a person was a Sunni, what mattered most was adherence to the strict Salafist Islamist doctrine. Clothing, socializing, business and worship became the domain of the Islamists. They were quick to set up arbitrary Islamic courts to try “violators”. Worse yet, the mujihadeen who came with them were undisciplined, unruly and just plain cruel, roaming the streets as gangs, claiming to be the “Vice and Virtue” police, detaining, torturing and executing people without even the travesty of the Islamic kangaroo courts for something so insignificant as not having a proper beard, listening to music or hair showing from beneath a hijab.
Zarqawi lost Fallujah, not only because US forces are the finest fighting forces on the planet, but also because the citizens of Fallujah provided information on the size and position of the enemy. They told them about safe houses, caches and under ground tunnels. They told them about the mosques, the torture and execution chambers.
They repeat this mistake in every town they try to hide in. They alienate the people; they instill fear; they kill indiscriminately; they provide no services, no food, no political process and no hope. Worse yet, they are not humble warriors from and for the people sharing their hardships and concerns, but instead style themselves as “Amirs” and de facto rulers wherever they set foot. These are the mistakes that no guerilla force can survive.
This was born out again in Qaim where the mujihadeen killed a local important sheikh, rending the tribal compact of hospitality and coming under direct attack by the sheikh’s tribesmen.
In Zawahiri’s captured letter, he twice warns Zarqawi that he runs the risk of being killed or captured giving him multiple examples of historic and current figures that were. He warns of “brothers” who are captured or turned against the mujihadeen who might be induced to set Zarqawi up for capture in the way of Mohammed Sheikh Khalid and Abu al Farraj. Later he says:
“I do not know the details of the situation where you are, but I do not want us to repeat the mistake of Jamil al-Rahman~, who was killed and whose organization was shattered, because he neglected the realities on the ground.”
Jamil Al Rahman was the leader of the Afghanistan Wahhabi party Jama`at Ahl-al-Kitab wal-Sunna that split from the Hezbi Islami party in 1985. He was assassinated by an Egyptian gunman in 1991. Al-Kitab was subsequently defeated by the the Hezbi Islami (party of Islam) in the Afghan Civil War and fell apart. Here Zawahiri is warning Zarqawi that his puritanical purification of the ranks might end up getting him betrayed or killed by one of their own allies, destroying their efforts, if he does not refrain from enforcing his version of Islam wherever he goes and on all who come to contribute to the effort.
Zarqawi and his allies cannot change their condition. First, Zarqawi does not want to change his strategy. In a statement by Zarqawi shortly after the release of Zawahiri’s letter, Zarqawi rejects this part of Zawahiri’s advice and goes on to say that he will kill the “kuffirs” wherever he finds them and that there is no distinction between military targets and civillian targets. Second, in order to undertake a political and public works process, they need a secure area where they can operate freely and openly in relative peace. They cannot currently do so because they are continuously harassed from one town to the next by Coalition and Iraqi forces, betrayed by the people they hoped to rule and by their own inability to change a failed public relations policy.
What they hope for is that the Coalition forces withdraw, the Iraq forces are too weak or uninterested in continuing to chase them around Iraq and that they have the time to settle down and create an “Amirate” in western Iraq. From there they can recruit and train fighters, set up a political and public relations program (ie, food, medicine, schools, Shura councils) and launch attacks at their leisure.
Zawahiri said to Zarqawi that the Taliban did not change and suffered for it. Then, they tried to change, but it was too late, and they suffered for it. He warns Zarqawi several times not to wait to develop this important aspect of guerrilla warfare. But, his advice is a day late and a dollar short. Zarqawi will not change and he cannot wash the blood of innocents from his hands.
In 2004, Zarqawi predicted his own failure:
1 - We fight them, and this is difficult because of the gap that will emerge between us and the people of the land. How can we fight their cousins and their sons and under what pretext after the Americans, who hold the reins of power from their rear bases, pull back? The real sons of this land will decide the matter through experience. Democracy is coming, and there will be no excuse thereafter.
2 - We pack our bags and search for another land, as is the sad, recurrent story in the arenas of jihad, because our enemy is growing stronger and his intelligence data are increasing day by day. By the Lord of the Ka`ba, [this] is suffocation and then wearing down the roads. People follow the religion of their kings. Their hearts are with you and their swords are with Bani Umayya (the Umayyads), i.e., with power, victory, and security. God have mercy.
Hind sight is 20/20. There is no way Al Qaida can escape the public relations disaster that is Iraq.
See Winds of War