June 1, 2006  

Spirit of Zarqawi lives on

Abu Musab al Zarqawi is barely cold in his grave, but the gruesome torture and execution of two U.S. soldiers near the Iraqi town of Yusufiya suggests that his spirit lives on.

Zarqawi made his name through spectacular violence, through beheadings and bombings intended not simply to kill but to shock ? indeed, mostly to shock. His audience was not only an American audience, which he was trying to intimidate, but an Arab and Muslim audience, which he intended to inspire by appealing to centuries of perceived failures in the face of the West. Additionally, his audience was young males: the demons that American adolescents how exorcise mostly through video games, Zarqawi brought to real life. The vicarious thrill of extreme violence transformed a thug into a mythic leader.

It also transformed him from a small-time operator into a rival of Osama bin Laden and the older generation of al Qaeda leadership. The famous letter from bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, to Zarqawi complained not only that sparking a sectarian war in Iraq was counterproductive but that some spectacles were too gruesome, were actually alienating the Sunni Muslim majority. Zarqawi did not heed the first directive – witness the Samarra mosque bombing – but he did seem to back off a bit when it came to the hostage executions that had been his other claim to fame.

The Yusufiya killings, which according to U.S. military spokesmen resulted in "severe trauma" and revealed signs that the two soldiers had been "brutally tortured" – to the point that DNA tests will be needed to positively identify the remains, raise the question of whether Zarqawi has set a new standard that ambitious al Qaeda lieutenants will imitate and aspire to. The chief of operations at the Iraqi defense ministry, Maj. Gen. Abdul Azziz Mohammed Jassim, said yesterday, "The torture was something unnatural."

Or has real, vicious torture, of the sort that makes Abu Ghraib look like frat-house pranks, become natural in a post-Zarqawi climate?