by Daniel on September 21, 2004

Two more hostages murdered by Ansar-al-Islam, and a third (the Briton) likely to die tomorrow … all one can do in these circumstances is to express the deepest sympathy for the families and repeat everything John said at the time of the Nick Berg murder. We had the chance to take out Zarqawi before the war; why the hell didn’t we take it?

(Update) By which I mean two things: 1) can it really be true that it wasn’t done in order to avoid undermining the case for war; has anyone denied or shot down this theory yet? and 2) are there any other good reasons why it might not have been done, or at least attempted?



BenA 09.21.04 at 10:56 pm

Well if we had taken out Zarqawi, it would have been harder to sell the American people on the war, and the glorious spread of democracy across the Middle East would never have begun.


Giles 09.21.04 at 11:36 pm

“has anyone denied or shot down this theory yet?”

well if you read the ariticle you’ll see that the first time they refuesed to kill him was 2 years before hand ie way before Iraq needed to be “justified”.

Reason why they didnt – well exactly the same as why Clinton didnt do bin laden- there just wasnt the domestic or interantional will to justify it
2. cant do every thing right all the time

Anyway if they had and al quaeda had attacked anywhere in the west subsequently- you’d be writing posts about look what happens if you take pre-emptive action etc.

You’ll also notice that the article says they didnt at the time have the capacity to use ricin – so are you now adopting the strong pre cog pre emption policy?


PG 09.21.04 at 11:51 pm

Remember when people were saying that Zarqawi, having been identified as a Qaeda leader, would be taken out by Saddam himself before the war? I guess he decided that there was no point in doing the work for us; “any enemy of Colin Powell’s…”


Sock Thief 09.22.04 at 1:24 am

The theory that Zarqawi was deliberately not taken out makes as much sense as arguing that Clinton acted the same with bin Laden. Does anyone, apart from the truely paranoid, really think that Bsuh and Clinton would sit around thinking “well if we just hold off getting them a little longer..”.

Apart from that it fails for the same reason that all conspiracy theories fail – it is too complicated and assumes the central actors have more control over events than they actually do.


Matt 09.22.04 at 1:46 am

I really have no opinion as to whether the US could or should have tried to attack Zarqawi before the start of the present war. But, the idea that we should compare the situaiton regarding him to Clinton against Bin Laden seems strained to me. Zarqawi was opperating in an area we had some nominal control over, and bombed regularly (the Northern No-fly zone) and where we had proxi forces. (The Kurds.) For reasons unknnow (maybe good for all I know, but unknown) we didn’t move against him. Bin Laden was in a country where we had no control, no local air power, and, at the time at least, no proxy forces. (We only recruited the Northern Alience later, w/ the help of big bags of cash.) Yet, Clinton did at least make some feable attempts against him w/ some cruise missle attacks. Again, I don’t know if this was the right thing to do or not, but the crys that since Clinton did nothing Bush can’t be held accountable really don’t add up, so let’s have an end to those, please.


Jim Birch 09.22.04 at 3:46 am

I don’t recall rationality playing a big part in the push for war.


David M 09.22.04 at 3:46 am

For more information on this story, see:




Also, Jacob Levy at volokh.com wrote a lot of good information about this story around the same time (beginning of July).

We may have passed up on Zarqawi a sceond time: part of the Larry Franklin story is that we had the chance to trade some MEK captives for Zarqawi and others with Iran. We passed, based on backchannel support for the MEK. See here: http://fugop.blogspot.com/2004/08/mek.html

I apologize for the whoring, but I put a lot of work into those posts.


ChrisPer 09.22.04 at 3:51 am

There is no justification necessary for deciding NOT to commit an international, state-sponsored murder.


ruralsaturday 09.22.04 at 4:36 am

If “we” just kill everybody, and all at once would be kinder I think, then “we” won’t have to worry about the bad people doing bad things anymore, because there won’t be anymore bad people.


Amanda 09.22.04 at 4:51 am

Having followed this story only at a distance, I certainly don’t understand all the nuances. But I think a partial answer to your question #2 is suggested by this Christian Science Monitor article: http://www.csmonitor.com/2004/0921/p01s04-woiq.html

If Zarqawi really ISN’T the mastermind he’s been made out to be, and instead he’s more of a garden-variety thug, then murdering him might make a public martyr out of him in a way that would only increase the amount of mayhem attributed to his name. So if the goal is to decrease terrorism, it might be counter-productive.

I hesitate to attribute this level of rationality to a political decisionmaking process (and I shudder to think that we even have a “decisionmaking process” about whether to assassinate people), but it was the first thing that came to mind when I saw your post, after reading the CSM article earlier today.


Luc 09.22.04 at 5:59 am

The point is that there is absolutely no basis at all for the trust you put in US intelligence about Zarqawi.

The US supposedly knew where he was and what he was doing. Saddam supposedly conspired with Zarqawi.

Yet the moment the US takes over Iraq,
a) they don’t know shit about Zarqawi anymore. They don’t know where he is, don’t have any info to disrupt his terror organization, can’t prevent any of his terrorist activities.
b) they start to blame a lot of things on Zarqawi and his organization.

If it looks, smells and taste like propaganda, it may be just that. Or not, but then I would suggest you’ll need a bit more than a story that the US knew where he was before the war.

Those stories that have been fact checked have been proven wrong time and again.

And as noted before, the links between Saddam – Zarqawi – Ansar al Islam – al Quada are mostly based on innuendo and convenience rather than on undisputed facts.

One example to show the sillyness.

Colin Powell in his infamous speach to the UN – “One of his specialties and one of the specialties of this camp is poisons” – yet nobody has been poisoned in Iraq, and the mysterious camp where Zarqawi gave his poison training has never been found.

And last, the murders are “claimed” by “Monotheism and Holy War” or “al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad”. Not by Ansar al Islam. They are supposed to be different. But who cares?


David M 09.22.04 at 6:05 am

Zarqawi is the leader of al-Tawhid. Ansar al-Islam was the camp in northern Iraq (the Kurdish areas). They are only tangentially related. Al-Tawhid was centered in Europe, and was heavily monitored by German intelligence.

The NBC news story is much more about the chance to take out the alleged Ansar camps than Zarqawi himself.


luci phyrr 09.22.04 at 9:17 am

david m’s link above is a good one, and it reconfirms my skepticism of any link between al Qaeda and Zarqawi.

No less an administration mouthpiece than the New York Times (only slightly kidding!) said so on 6/26/04 (don’t know how to link an archived story).

It quotes an al Tawhid member saying his group was more “in rivalry” with bin Laden, and an NSC counterterrorism guy saying “Zarqawi’s camp was set up as much in competition as it was in cooperation with Al Qaeda.

And even freedom-hating, dictator-appeasing Rumsfeld (I’m not really kidding) saying “someone could legitimately say he’s [Zarqawi] not Al Qaeda.”

Of course, that wouldn’t stop the NYT from repeating the admin’s spin, probably the next day, about “al Qaeda’s top lieutenant in Iraq” or some-such @#$%.

If the administration is saying something, which might be in any way favorable to any position (say, al Qaeda in Iraq) you’re safer betting it’s a lie.

This is a bit OT from Daniel’s point about the horribleness of it all, and what might have been done beforehand.


mitch p. 09.22.04 at 10:07 am

I have argued elsewhere (see end of that post) that Iraq was behind al Qaeda (or behind KSM, at any rate) from the beginning, the US government knew or suspected this from the beginning, but for some reason has always found other reasons to publicly justify its actions against Iraq. (If that theory has you rubbing your eyes in disbelief at its twistedness, please read what I’ve posted at that link, especially about the events of 1993, 1995, 1998, and 2001-2003, and offer me an alternative explanation. I’m all ears.)

From that point of view, I can well believe that Zarqawi’s camp in Iraqi Kurdistan was left alone because the objective in Iraq was always going to be regime change, and the existence of the Ansar camp facilitated the cover story. As I recall, Zarqawi and ricin were the centerpiece of Colin Powell’s argument to the Security Council that Iraq might engage in WMD terrorism. I think they were a sort of substitute for Bin Laden and anthrax, the Iraqi connection to which is the real “forbidden truth”.


Luc 09.22.04 at 10:15 am

Zarqawi is the leader of al-Tawhid. Ansar al-Islam was the camp in northern Iraq (the Kurdish areas). They are only tangentially related. Al-Tawhid was centered in Europe, and was heavily monitored by German intelligence.

I followed the links to an old blog entry from John Quiggin, and he defended the same “mistake” as follows:

“To start with, Zarqawi is the leader of Al-Tawhid, not Ansar Al-Islam, as John states.”

This is a quibble. While our knowledge of these groups is conjectural to some extent, it appears that a number have linked together, beginning with the establishment of the Kirma camp and developing further. These groups are now generally referred to, collectively, by the name of Ansar-al Islam and Zarqawi is generally referred to as the leader. Google gives thousands of references to this effect.

Personally I think this is wrong. But it is mostly useless to fight the common wisdom. Especially when there are no reliable sources to refer to on this issue.


John Quiggin 09.22.04 at 10:30 am

luc, how can the common wisdom be wrong about a question of common usage? It is a matter of fact that a variety of groups are now referred to, collectively, by the name of Ansar-al Islam and that Zarqawi is generally referred to as the leader of Ansar-al Islam.

It may be that this standard usage is misleading as regards the origins of the group, but so what?


dsquared 09.22.04 at 10:38 am

Apart from that it fails for the same reason that all conspiracy theories fail – it is too complicated and assumes the central actors have more control over events than they actually do.

I just love it when people come out with this old chestnut and believe themselves to be hugely wise and realistic to have done so. What the hell happened at the Watergate Hotel then, lugnuts? Was there a shoot-to-kill policy in Northern Ireland or wasn’t there? Did the Pentagon Papers have funny superscripts in them? How did the Contras get all that Iranian money? As Carl Ogleby said, conspiracy is the normal continuation of normal politics by normal means.


Luc 09.22.04 at 1:11 pm

It may be that this standard usage is misleading as regards the origins of the group, but so what?

But that is the whole point. There has been so much disinformation spread about Ansar al Islam before the war that it is hard to get a straight and true story about what it was then. And sticking to that old name gives the impression of ignoring all the changes that have occurred after the war, both in the story and in the actual organization of the group. And the difference is such that I think it is misleading to speak of the same group.

Even the evil people at the WINEP can’t get that story straight. Jonathan Schanzer first described the group as Ansar and left Zarqawi mostly out:

Ansar al-Islam: Back in Iraq

And then described the group as led by Zarqawi and using the al-Tahwid name:

Inside the Zarqawi Network

But at least he switched the name when the story changed.

Not that I think both stories contain much truth, but then I haven’t read any believable description of Ansar al Islam, Zarqawi and al-Tahwid.


mitch p. 09.22.04 at 3:15 pm

Dan Darling has just made a detailed post about the current composition of Zarqawi’s network.

Here is the big picture as I see it. Sociologically, al Qaeda, Tawhid, and Ansar al-Islam are all part of what Gilles Kepel calls “salafi-jihadism” and Marc Sageman calls the “global Salafi jihad”. Al Qaeda is bin Laden’s organization. Tawhid is Zarqawi’s organization and exists because Bin Laden didn’t want Jordanians in al Qaeda, since they might be working for pro-Western Jordanian intelligence. (I picked up this idea from an article at SAAG.org or Jamestown.org, not sure which.) Ansar al-Islam is the movement to bring about a Sunni Islamist state specifically in Iraq. It is not restricted to Kurds, but it was first formed in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Comments on this entry are closed.