The Zarqawi scandal

by John Q on March 28, 2004

As Richard Clarke’s unsurprising revelations continue to receive blanket coverage around the blogosphere and elsewhere, I’ve been increasingly puzzled by the failure of the Zarqawi scandal to make a bigger stir. As far as I can determine, the following facts are undisputed

* Abu Musab Zarqawi, leader of the group Ansar al-Islam is one of the most dangerous Islamist terrorists currently active. He is the prime suspect for both the Karbala and Madrid atrocities and the alleged author of a letter setting out al Qaeda’s strategy for jihad in Iraq. Although he has become increasingly prominent in the past year, he has been well-known as a terrorist for many years
* For some years, until March 2003, Ansar al-Islam was based primarily at Kirma in Northern Iraq, in part of the region of Iraq generally controlled by the Kurds and included in the no-fly zone enforced by the US and UK. In other words, the group was an easy target for either a US air attack, a land attack by some special forces and/or Kurdish militia or a combination of the two
* Nothing was done until the invasion of Iraq proper, by which time the group had fled

These facts alone would indicate a failure comparable in every way to the missed opportunities to kill or capture bin Laden before S11. But the reality appears to be far worse.

According to the MSNBC report that broke the story, three plans were drawn up for attacks on Zarqawi and all were killed by the National Security Council

Military officials insist their case for attacking Zarqawi’s operation was airtight, but the administration feared destroying the terrorist camp in Iraq could undercut its case for war against Saddam.

There are various hypotheses about the precise grounds, all highly discreditable, but the most plausible is that a watertight plan would have required co-operation between US air forces, and Kurdish ground forces. This would have been most unpalatable to the Turkish government, which was being courted, up to the last minute, as a partner for the Iraq war. So nothing was done, and by the time the camp was attacked at the beginning of the war, Zarqawi and most of his followers were gone.

An alternative, equally discreditable, explanation is that the Administration wanted to keep Zarqawi’s group in existence as a count in the indictment of Saddam, relying on the claim that Zarqawi had received treatment in a Baghdad hospital as ‘proof’ of Saddam’s links to terrorism, a claim that was unlikely to stand up to the kind of close examination that would follow an attack on the group.

Although it’s a peripheral point, there were also credible reports that Ansar al-Islam was engaged in the manufacture of ricin, a poison used in assassination. Ricin is scarcely a weapon of mass destruction but, if the Administration had applied the same criteria to Zarqawi as to Saddam, it would certainly have provided sufficient justification for a pre-emptive strike. It is, however, a peripheral point. The justification for attempting to kill Zarqawi and eliminate his group is and was the fact that he is a terrorist, not a legalistic quibble about his choice of killing technology. Similar attacks have been made in a number of countries under both Bush and Clinton, most notably including Clinton’s attempt on Osama.

When the story first broke about a month ago[1], it was widely covered by critics of the war, at least some of whom pointed out the seriousness of the implications. Brad de Long, for example, argued that it constituted grounds for impeachment of Bush and other members of the Administration. (There was some dispute about the legal feasibility of this, but none about the morality).

On the other hand, the warbloggers have been almost uniformly silent. The few who have mentioned the issue have mostly made the ludicrous claim that Zarqawi’s activities, undertaken in an effectively US-controlled part of Iraq, constituted proof that ‘Iraq really did have WMD’s’. I have found the single honorable exception of Andrew Sullivan, and I expect there are some others, but not many.

And there it rests. As far as I can tell, there’s been no follow-up story and no action on the political front. A failure that would appear to be, at best, a disastrous blunder and, at worst, a deliberate betrayal of the struggle against terrorism has simply been ignored while Washington plays the familiar game of “He Said, She Said”.

fn1. Even before the war, Dan Drezner wondered why the group had not been attacked.



marky 03.28.04 at 9:49 pm

I think the answer to your question is that the implications here are so outrageous that the public simply won’t consider the possibility. Remember, a big majority think Bush is doing great against terror. They don’t want to hear any bad news.


Chris Lawrence 03.28.04 at 9:56 pm

How about a simpler explanation: attacking then might have started a war with Iraq earlier than the allied timetable, before sufficient troops were in place to either protect the Kurdish area from a land assault (since the Kurds would be busy fighting Ansar) or Kuwait from another invasion.


Robin Green 03.28.04 at 10:01 pm

So, in summary, Bush was more interested in getting the support of Turkey than in taking out an actual known terrorist.

I’m not a military expert, so could someone answer this question: What was the primarily value of support from Turkey – a military one, or a public relations one?


libertas 03.28.04 at 10:08 pm

Didn’t I see it reported somewhere that some evidence is starting to emerge that Zarqawi may have been behind the Mardrid bombings. If this emerges with any support, I don’t see how you can avoid coming to the conclusion that the choice and method of prosecution of the war against Iraq directly contributed to enabling al Qaeda to accomplish it’s most successful operation after 9/11.


praktike 03.28.04 at 10:11 pm

I wonder what to make of the idea that Zarkawi might have been behind the Spain attacks.

Does that show that we should have gotten him a long time ago, or does it prove that he was a bad man affiliated with Al Qaeda, thus bolstering the case of the Iraq hawks?


John Quiggin 03.28.04 at 10:16 pm

chris, Saddam was in no position to make a successful attack on teh Kurdish zone – the absolute air command of the no-fly zone by the US ensured this.

Moreover, such an action would have given Bush the pretext he needed, taking as much time as he felt necessary before beginning the ground attack.

As noted, the military had no concerns about the attack – the objections were purely political.


ogged 03.28.04 at 10:35 pm

The right-wing response to the Zarqawi charge seems to be that international opinion wouldn’t have tolerated a strike against Zarqawi and would have made war in Iraq, which, according to this logic, was more important, even more difficult. Make of that what you will.

But I wouldn’t be so sure that this story has fully disappeared. The Madrid connection could be just the news peg that will allow people–in the post-Richard Clarke environment–to ask whether the Bushies blew it.


Jon H 03.29.04 at 2:48 am

robin writes: “What was the primarily value of support from Turkey – a military one, or a public relations one?”

Well, Turkey COULD have been of military value, except Bush’s ham-handed antagonistic diplomacy pissed them off.

There had been a plan to bring some troops into Iraq from the North, bringing them into Turkey from a Mediterranean port. Turkey decided not to allow that.


LJ 03.29.04 at 3:53 am


To answer your question, the reason getting Turkey on board was so important was because it would provide a northern staging front in the war. And as it turns out now, it would’ve helped special forces go down and crush the insurgents as they fell back north. It probably would’ve severely devastated the insurgents and would’ve curtailed the problem we are having to deal with now.


Dick Thompson 03.29.04 at 4:33 am

But Clarke was the first criticism that did really register on the public’s radar/ First 60 minutes. then the hearing, thaen Larry King, and on and on. And Bushe’s popularity took a strong hit in the tracking polls. Now would be the time to hit on the Zarqawi outrage. Give ’em the old one-two.


Raymond 03.29.04 at 6:44 am

Good lord. This Zarquari thing actually makes the case for the invasion of Iraq, if true.

Get a grip.


epistemology 03.29.04 at 6:46 am

The scandal is that Zarqawi is the only link between Iraq and al Qaeda that Bush has adduced. This link is refuted by:

1. Zarqawi’s request for help from al Qaeda was not honored.
2. Zarqawi lived in the US controlled no-fly zone.
3. When Bush had a chance to kill him he refused.



mandarin 03.29.04 at 6:48 am

(There was some dispute about the legal feasibility of this, but none about the morality).

No dispute, huh? None?

Do you have any idea, Quiggin, what a fool you reveal yourself to be? One gob-smackingly stupid assertion after another…


John Quiggin 03.29.04 at 7:04 am

Do you have a point, Mandarin, or are you content to rely on quibbles and (anonymous) abuse?


dsquared 03.29.04 at 8:18 am

On past experience, it’s the second.


Matthew 03.29.04 at 9:04 am

I have question about this to all the timberites: Wasn’t Ansar al-Islam an anti-Saddam terrorist group??
I think I heard once (at the time of the “Ricin plot” in London) that that group was in struggle against Saddam. It marked me because it made the claims of links of Iraq to terrorists sound pretty stupid. Can anyone tell me more about this?


dsquared 03.29.04 at 11:42 am

As I recall it, A-A-I wasn’t really anti-Saddam. Pre the war, its main reputation was for fighting vicious battles against the Kurds.


james 03.29.04 at 12:39 pm

I don’t get it…surely the possibility of a Turkish front would have been an entirely legitimate consideration – and if delaying “taking out” a single suspected terrorist advanced that possibility, fair enough, no?

Also would this not constitute an “extra-judicial killing” a la Sheikh Yassin in Gaza? Not to make any comment on the merits of such practices, but I wasn’t aware that CT was so unambiguously hawkish on these matters.


mandarin 03.29.04 at 2:35 pm

Do you stand by your assertion, then, Quiggin? That no one – not even the evil Bush-lovers – has disputed, or would dispute, the “morality” of impeaching Bush for failing to assassinate Zarqawi when he had the chance?

If you would like me to develop my incredulity into a point, very well: What we have here, I think, is a rhetorical move intended to shut down opposition by assuming, and assuming that your readers will share your assumption, that it (the opposition) does not, and indeed cannot, exist.

The trouble is, you’ve botched the rhetoric. You should have said something like “All right-minded people agree…” or used the normative construction “There CAN BE no dispute…”

Instead you present it as an empirical matter: “(There was some dispute about the legal feasibility of this, but none about the morality).” – Which is so plainly false, I wonder how you can expect anyone to take you seriously.


JW 03.29.04 at 2:45 pm

Mandarin —

Quiggin was referring to the morality of taking out Zarqawi, not the “‘morality’ of impeaching Bush for failing to assassinate” him, you twit.


mandarin 03.29.04 at 2:58 pm

I believe you’re mistaken, jw. Here’s the quote again, along with the preceding sentence:

Brad de Long, for example, argued that it constituted grounds for impeachment of Bush and other members of the Administration. (There was some dispute about the legal feasibility of this, but none about the morality).

Even if you were correct, jw, the statement still would be preposterous. No dispute about the morality of taking out Zarqawi? As commenter James observes, “I wasn’t aware that CT was so unambiguously hawkish on these matters.”


Sam Jackson 03.29.04 at 3:42 pm

I am certainly aware of no such dispute…if there was one, could you perhaps link to it/cite it. If you intend to debate this peripheral statement, at least bring facts to the table.
We’re not talking about whether it is hypothetically possible to have such a dispute, but whether there was indeed one.


Jack 03.29.04 at 4:02 pm

James — Sheikh Yassin could have been arrested at any time and indeed was until recently jailed by the Israelis. He was not directly a threat to anyone. Little attention was paid to the people with Yassin when he was killed.
His situation was not like an assault on a military encampment. If it were possible to arrest all the A A I people using non-violent methods then that would be fine.

In any case one needn’t sign up to someone elses methods to wonder why they are inconsistent in their application.


Thomas 03.29.04 at 7:03 pm

And so Quiggin endorses the Bush National Security Strategy.

Except when he doesn’t.


Marky 03.29.04 at 7:57 pm

I don’t think Quiggin supports the Bush policy, which is to ignore the real threats and attack the fake ones.


John Quiggin 03.29.04 at 8:29 pm

I’ll begin by responding to the serious points. I supported Clinton’s attempt to kill bin Laden and agree (with the wisdom of hindsight) with critics who said he should have done more. Similarly, I have frequently referred to the need for a more serious effort in Afghanistan, both to produce a stable democratic government there and to capture or kill bin Laden.

I’ve stated many times that my opposition to the Iraq war is based on the fact that it’s a diversion from the struggle against terrorism. I think the Zarqawi case proves this.

The defences that have been posted on this thread, for example, by James, are based on the implicit presumption that the war on Iraq was more important than the struggle terrorism. This is the only presumption on which Bush’s decisions make sense.

No hindsight was required to see, at the time the US military proposed to do it, that Zarqawi’s group was a terrorist threat that should be eliminated. As it’s turned out, it’s the biggest active threat we face.

I may post on Israel-Palestine and Yassin at some time in the future, but for the moment I’ll simply say that this case differs in a number of important respects.


John Quiggin 03.29.04 at 8:40 pm

On Mandarin’s insistent quibble, my parenthetical aside on this point was meant to refer to the CT comments thread on this topic, rather than to the public debate as a whole, and, now I reread it, did not make that clear – since I linked to at least one rightwing defence of the Administration, I was obviously not claiming that no-one in the world would defend the Administration on this.

But now that Mandarin mentions it, I have seen no response to the MSNBC article from anyone in the Bush Administration, on or off the record, so if there has been one I would glad if someone would point it out.

More importantly, Mandarin doesn’t seem to have responded to my invitation to focus on the substantive issues being debated here. S/he hasn’t even come clean on whether s/he thinks leaving Zarqawi alone was a good thing to do.

i suggest to Mandarin that it’s time to put up or shut up.


james 03.29.04 at 9:10 pm


“The defences that have been posted on this thread, for example, by James, are based on the implicit presumption that the war on Iraq was more important than the struggle terrorism. This is the only presumption on which Bush?s decisions make sense.”

I had a feeling this might be where you were coming from – that this was a specific example of how the Iraq war set back the “war on terror”.

Fair point then, although you might say the presumption is not necessarily that the Iraq war was more important than the WoT, but part of it, directly or indirectly.

But then equally your point rests on the assumption that this wasn’t the case, no?

So it’s really a debate about the war in Iraq, not about some other improper acttion, or rather non-action.

Which brings us to what my initial point was getting at – once the war was decided upon, a northern front was of crucial and legitimate interest, and delaying any attempt at assasinating a particular terrorist was surely a price worth paying if it would advance that goal.

That you disagree with the prior decision to go to war is really the issue here – am I wrong?

And thus if there is reason to impeach Bush it isn’t this. It might well be something else, or various other things, relating to the Iraq war, but not this.


james 03.29.04 at 9:15 pm

re Yassin of course there are various differences (not least that he can’t have been as active a terrorist as Zarqawi), my reference was designed to refer to the general moral and legal issues of such actions. (Incidentally I find it hard to accept that the IDF could have just strolled through and picked up Yassin without a fight, and I don’t know if the PA would have done so, even if he was under some form of house arrest.)


Nat Whilk 03.29.04 at 9:45 pm

John Guiggin wrote:

“I have seen no response to the MSNBC article from anyone in the Bush Administration, on or off the record, so if there has been one I would glad if someone would point it out.”

Scanning through the list of headlines for Nexis hits for “al-Zarqawi”, I can’t even see any other news organization that thought MSNBC’s report was worth passing on (or at least putting it in the headline). How sure are we that MSNBC’s sources are more reliable than the statement that was signed by the “Leadership of the Allahu Akbar Mujahedeen” that claimed that al-Zarqawi was killed in the American bombing of Northern Iraq? Or that they are more reliable than the March 17 allegation by Al-Sharq al-Awsat that al-Zarqawi is in Iranian custody and has been there since April 2003?


John Quiggin 03.29.04 at 10:07 pm

nat, we can’t be sure that everything in the report is true, but that doesn’t seem to constitute grounds for ignoring it. If a fraction of the effort that has been allocated to the Clarke debate had gone into exploring this issue, we’d be a lot better informed.

As I point out in the post, the facts that are on the public record are bad enough in themselves to justify a detailed investigation.


Doug 03.29.04 at 10:11 pm

As Josh Marshall has written, and you add above, much of what Clarke has said has been widely known by people paying serious attention. That’s one reason it’s getting traction now, the other being his boilerplate credibility.

Now the al-Zarqawi story is out there, and people who are paying serious attention (e.g., yourself, DeLong) are getting wound up about it. If you stay wound up about it, more stories appear, and details accrete, it may also eventually turn into a big deal. In, say, July. If a story has legs, people will add details, fit it into a master narrative, while simultaneously modifying the narrative to accommodate the story. Then it hits a tipping point and it’s everywhere. People paying serious attention, of course, say we’ve known this for a long time, and indeed they have, but it’s just taking time for a story to sink in in a democracy.


dipnut 03.29.04 at 10:25 pm


If you want to talk to warbloggers, please drop this “War On Terror” crap. We do not agree that there is any such thing, regardless of the rhetorical bumbling of the Bush Administration. Call it the “War On Whatever”, if that’s what it takes to de-compartmentalize your thinking.

Saddam Hussein was obviously, conspicuously, flamboyantly our enemy, and he kept us in that wobbly little stalemate for 12 years too long. If Bill Clinton had ever said, “oh, by the way, we’re going to invade Iraq and kill Saddam Hussein, because I’m tired of seeing him on TV,” I and a lot of other Americans would have called it a good day. But he didn’t, so George W. Bush had to.

The Administration must have thought, rightly or wrongly, that taking out Zarqawi would break the political bank for the invasion of Iraq. If they were right about this, then they were right to let Zarqawi go for the time being. Zarqawi in his wildest dreams was never as important as Saddam Hussein, and Iraq is of inestimable strategic value, for so many reasons.

I can’t work out the political equation, myself. And frankly, if political bank-breaking was of concern, I tend to blame Bush for his poor communication skills.

Nevertheless, I’ll be voting for Bush in November, barring a scandal one hell of a lot more scandalous than this Zarqawi thing. I far prefer Massacre In Spain to President Kerry.


John Quiggin 03.29.04 at 10:57 pm

dipnut, I searched my post and comments and can’t find any mention of “War on Terror”. Although I may occasionally slip up, I try to refer to the “struggle against terrorism” – I don’t think you can reasonably object to this phrase.

On your substantive comment, I take you to be saying that war with Iraq is more important than the struggle against terrorism and that this has always been the real, as opposed to rhetorical, position of the Bush Administration. I agree with you on the second point but not on the first.


dipnut 03.30.04 at 1:53 am


I do object to the phrase “struggle against terrorism”, the way you use it. It presumes a definition of “terrorism” which I do not agree with.

To me, a terrorist is defined not by his actions, but by his ideology. It is not what he does that makes him a terrorist, but why he does it. The same actions which we call “fighting” when done in self-defense, are terrorism when the object is enslavement or genocide. There is no other way to make the distinction without getting into hair-splitting quandaries.

Our enemies are tyrants or would-be tyrants, bent on conquest; most have genocidal ambitions. That they employ terrorists is a truism, and rather misses the point. You might as well talk about a “struggle against bombs”.

Do not be distracted by “terrorism”. Our enemies will use any weapons which come to hand.


Antoni Jaume 03.30.04 at 7:33 am

“Nevertheless, I’ll be voting for Bush in November, barring a scandal one hell of a lot more scandalous than this Zarqawi thing. I far prefer Massacre In Spain to President Kerry.”

And then people wonder that Spaniards did not want to go to Iraq. It had nothing to do against terrorism, but only to advance the policy of The Rogue State, of which dipnut is a typical member.

I remember the Maine.



Nat Whilk 03.30.04 at 2:24 pm

Antoni Jaume wrote:

“It had nothing to do against terrorism, but only to advance the policy of The Rogue State”

Remind me which American policies unrelated to security the war against Saddam’s Baathist regime was intended to advance.


Sebastian Holsclaw 03.30.04 at 6:29 pm

I think the “Zarqawi scandal” hasn’t gone very far because it isn’t much of a scandal.

At the time in question:

This ‘camp’ (the size of a large town or small city) couldn’t just be bombed it would need to be secured with troops.

Democrats in the US were complaining about being rushed into war against Iraq, making aninvasion of Iraq, just for Zarqawi, politically ridiculous. It would be seen as pretextual.

We were involved in negotiations with Turkey for an invasion of Iraq which would have gotten rid of Saddam and Zarqawi.

We were about to go to the UN. An invasion at that point wouldn’t have helped the diplomatic situation a whole lot.

Also there was some doubt at the time (at least as expressed in the international newspapers) regarding whether or not Zarqaqi was actually involved in Al Qaeda.

Since decision are made with the information you have at the time, and not the information you gain later, there isn’t much of a scandal.


John Quiggin 03.30.04 at 8:26 pm

Sebastian, there’s no need for perfect hindsight. As the post indicates, people inside and outside the government were calling for an attack on Zarqawi at the time.

As regards the UN, doubts about Zarqawi etc, this only makes the Administration look worse. Powell denounced the doubters of claims about WMDs in categorical terms, only to be proved comprehensively wrong. Meanwhile, the Administration had the real goods on Zarqawi (maybe not on the ricin story, but at least as regards terrrorism) and chose to do nothing.

They could, as Daniel Drezner urged at the time, have gone to the UN with their case against Zarqawi and urged action. The problem, as repeatedly indicated in your post and that of other defenders of the Administration is that this would have got in the way of the Iraq war.

In other words, however, you turn it around, the Iraq war was an obstacle to attempts to kill or capture the terrorists who are trying to kill all of us.


Sebastian Holsclaw 03.30.04 at 9:16 pm

Or alternatively, back when the US still thought the UN would act in Iraq which would make it easy for Turkey to help, we thought we could do both by delaying on Zarqwai for (we thought) a very few months. Your formulation only works if you assume that the UN would never act. It looks like a good assumption NOW….


james 03.31.04 at 10:39 am


So you agree then, that this is not a “scandal” such as might warrant an impeachment, unless the (as you would have it) strategic blunder of the war itself is itself that scandal?

That is to say, this is just one more item to be loaded onto the cost side of the war’s cost-benefit ratio?

Comments on this entry are closed.