Austin Bay

In February 2004, Iraqi and coalition intelligence intercepted a message to al-Qaida's "senior leaders." Written by al-Qaida's Iraqi commander, the now-deceased Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the letter outlined al-Qaida's last ditch "surge" plan for defeating democracy in Iraq and avoiding what it saw as a looming, devastating defeat for its totalitarian theology.

Zarqawi's letter lamented al-Qaida's "failure to enlist support" in Iraq and "to scare the Americans into leaving." After Iraqis run their own government, Zarqawi wrote, "the sons of this land will be the authority. ... This is the democracy. We will have no pretexts."

Fearing an American and Iraqi strategic victory (creating a democracy defending itself against terrorists), Zarqawi saw only one strategic option: exploit Iraq's Shia-Sunni religious divide by slaughtering Iraqi Shia civilians. The Shia would respond to al-Qaida's terror attacks by igniting a "sectarian war." He believed the religious war would "rally the Sunni Arabs" to al-Qaida. This war against Shiites, he wrote, "must start soon -- at "zero hour" -- before the Americans hand over sovereignty to the Iraqis."

The February 2006 attack on the Golden Mosque in Samarra brought Iraq to the precipice of Zarqawi's sectarian war, but even that failed to produce the apocalyptic schism al-Qaida desired. Credit Iraq's people and its new government with not buckling in 2006, as Shia-Sunni strife escalated.

This week, Reuters reported an Iraqi government claim that Zarqawi's successor, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, had died in a battle with "Sunni Arab insurgent groups over al-Qaida's indiscriminate killing of civilians and its imposition of an austere brand of Islam in the areas where it holds sway." At the moment, that report remains unconfirmed. However, for the last 24 months, conflict between al-Qaida and Iraqi Sunnis has become more open and deadly.

The coalition and the Iraqi government have tried to exploit divisions within the terrorist groups. Al-Qaida's method of exploitation is mass murder of civilians. The Iraqi government employs incorporative politics.

This is tactical and operational exploitation, and though its successes are incremental, they are still successes. However, defeating al-Qaida's totalitarian ideology requires a strategic approach, as well. At the moment, the poisoned minds in Washington won't admit it, but the democracy project in Iraq is part of that strategic approach. Zarqawi understood that democracy robs the terrorists of their breeding grounds.

Al-Qaida presents an ideological challenge. Understanding al-Qaida's origins is essential to understanding its appeal and how to defeat it.

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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