For those of us who feel a strange compulsion to analyse the seedy world of US black operations, and who had always doubted the recent existence of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, vindication probably doesn’t come any closer than this.
“Zarqawi used in US propaganda blitz” ran the headline in the Sydney Morning Herald of Tuesday 11 April 2006, over a Washington Post story by Thomas Ricks.
It was another of those slippery pieces, based on official leaks, by which the Bush regime micro-manages public perceptions.
“The US military is conducting a propaganda campaign to magnify the role of the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, according to internal military documents and officers familiar with the program”, the article began.
It would be more accurate to say that the US military hasn’t been conducting such a campaign for some weeks. With propaganda preparations for a war on Iran in full swing, recalcitrant Shiites are now the US enemy of choice and a concerted push to demonise the Iranians and their puppet Iraqi militias and curry favour with Sunni politicians and even the Sunni and Baathist resistance is under way.
Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s recent sweeping claim that Shiite Muslims are loyal to Iran rather than their home countries is another sure sign of the new orientation. Mubarak is a dog-loyal American stooge, and his conclusion fits neatly with the line from Washington: Coalition troop withdrawal “would be a blow”, he said. “The war would be inflamed among Iraqis. It would become a theatre for a dreadful civil war and then the terrorist operation will be escalated – not only in Iraq”.
But back to the strange case of the Tin Leg Terrorist …
One of the documents on which Ricks’ bases his article is an alleged transcript of a conference of US army types, “meeting in Kansas last year”. A “Colonel Harvey” is alleged to have said “Our own focus on al-Zarqawi has enlarged his caricature, if you will – made him more important than he really is, in some ways”.
The idea that Zarwaqi really exists puts one in mind of Mark Twain’s celebrated remark that rumours of his own death were “greatly exaggerated”, except in Zarqawi’s case the subject of a whole speculation industry almost certainly died some years ago, so he isn’t in a position to challenge the claim that he hasn’t yet gone to meet the houris. In fact, Zarqawi’s death had been reported even before the US invasion of Iraq.
And of course there’s no way of knowing if “Colonel Harvey” really exists either, or whether such a meeting actually happened. The entire story has the feel of being another ripping yarn thrown together by the psychological warfare specialists.
It’s worthwhile analysing Ricks’ story as a study in slippery writing:
“For the past two years US military leaders have been using Iraqi media [actually, they’ve been paying Iraqi papers to run black ops stories] and other outlets in Baghdad [fake jihadist websites] to publicise Zarqawi’s role in the insurgency. The documents explicitly list the ‘US home audience’ as a target of the broader propaganda campaign” [well, imagine that].
“The military’s propaganda program has largely been aimed at Iraqis, but seems to have spilled over into the US media …”
This last is revisionist nonsense. Right from the start the al-Zarqawi campaign was aimed at the Western public. Zarqawi’s alleged links to Saddam Hussein was a central plank of Colin Powell’s justification for the invasion and he was blamed for the Madrid train bombings and the beheading of Nick Berg. The internet release of a low-quality video of Zarqawi decapitating the young American contractor was particularly well-timed for the Bush regime.
” … One ‘selective leak’ about Zarqawi was made to Dexter Filkins, a New York Times reporter and psyops conduit based in Baghdad. Filkin’s resulting article, about a letter supposedly written by Zarqawi and boasting of suicide attacks in Iraq, ran on the Times front page in February 2004. The report also ran in the Sydney Morning Herald.”
This is a reference to an unsigned letter from Zarqawi to Osama bin-Laden which was supposedly on a CD captured by Kurdish forces and subsequently published on the website of the now defunct Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). It was thereafter constantly cited by CPA and military spokespersons as evidence of a vicious al-Qaeda campaign to provoke a sectarian civil war in Iraq and repeatedly trotted out by pro-warcemmentators like William Safire and David Brooks. It is therefore gratifying to read that:
“Filkins said he was not told there was a psychological operations campaign aimed at Zarqawi, but he assumed the military was releasing the letter ‘because it had decided it was in its best interest to have it publicised’.
“He said he was sceptical about the document’s authenticity then, and remains so now.”
Indeed. Thank you Ricks. If Filkins really was sceptical back in 2004, he hardly made it obvious. Internal evidence suggested that the letter was a crude forgery and many bloggers, internet writers, and even a few mainstream journalists said so.
In the Washington Post’s version of his story Ricks quotes an internal briefing, produced by the U.S. military headquarters in Iraq, which revealed that Brigadier-General Mark Kimmitt – then the US military spokesperson in Iraq – had concluded that, “The Zarqawi PSYOP program is the most successful information [sic] campaign to date.”
Considering the extent to which the legend of the Wicked Wahabist has been retailed by the mainstream media, he’s absolutely right.
I think we can regard Ricks’ story as the closest we’re likely to get to an admission by the US military that the whole Zarqawi story, post 2003, is a psyops concoction. Sadly for fans of the long-running black operations soap-opera, it seems the Tin Leg Terrorist will finally be written out of the show.
Astute fans could see that Zarqawi’s run was over when the ever-obliging Filkins piped another psyops yarn into New York Times on March 25:
“Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist and the head of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, has sharply lowered his profile in recent months, and his group claims to have submitted itself to the leadership of an Iraqi.
“In postings on Web sites used by jihadi groups, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the terrorist network’s arm in Iraq, claims to have joined with five other guerrilla groups to form the Mujahedeen Shura, or Council of Holy Warriors. The new group, whose formation was announced in January, is said to be headed by an Iraqi named Abdullah Rashid al-Baghdadi. Since then, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia has stopped issuing its own proclamations.”
In fact, things were looking grim for Zarqawi a year ago when breathless reports surfaced to the effect that he’d been badly wounded and that following his brush with death a power struggle had broken out within al-Qaeda in Iraq Incorporated. As Nick Possum remarked on this site, and in the Sydney City Hub:
“But then the plot had thickened. By Thursday 26 May the mainstream media were breathlessly reporting that a struggle for succession had broken out within al-Qaeda Iraq Inc., which was leaking like Australia’s Liberal Party during a leadership contest. Half the organization was spending hours on the phone to Western journalists, who were offering direct quotes from a variety of talkative terrorists. Yeah, right. How likely is that?
“On that day Donald Rumsfeld, no less, told thousands of US paratroopers that Zarqawi was cornered like Hitler in his bunker (he must have just seen the movie). Even hardened observers like me were thinking the scriptwriters had decided to kill off their creation. Perhaps he’d evaded his pursuers so often they were looking incompetent. Perhaps they were risking making him into a kind of Robin Hood.
“But it wasn’t to be. How could they replace an asset as useful as Zarqawi? Even as Rummy was speaking, the black ops scriptwriters were moving their prize asset out of harm’s way.
“Iran. Yes, that’s it. Let’s get him to Iran. That’s more evidence of Iranian perfidy. Another reason why we should bomb the crap out of them.”
But in the end, the myth of the Satanic Salafi got in the way of the new line. Making the scourge of the Shiites an ally of Tehran was just too silly for words, and the man had to go.
So how much more of the Zarqawi legend is, shall we say, “greatly exaggerated”? What about the Nick Berg killing – where Zarqawi supposedly wielded the knife in the infamous beheading video? That was back in April 2004, at a time when the Zarqawi letter to Osama bin Laden letter we now know to be a fake was the centrepiece of the Coalition psyops campaign. The beheading rescued Bush’s fortunes by providing the neo-conservative shills with an example of a resistance atrocity that neatly offset the breaking Abu Ghraib torture story. The authenticity of the video and scepticism about the role of al-Zarqawi in it surfaced immediately on the internet, largely because Berg, shortly before his disappearance, had just been released from US incarceration – where he had been interrogated because of suspicions he had been involved in insurgent activities (see Nick Possum’s detailed analysis here and here and here).
The collapse of the Zarqawi myth provides an opportunity for a US lawmaker of goodwill to demand the opening of the State Department, CIA, FBI and US military files on the Berg case (including the video records of his interrogation in Iraq by the FBI).