War on Iraq

How the Media Made -- and Killed -- Zarqawi

Middle Eastern news outlets fed Zarqawi's public image as a fearless and indiscriminate killer -- but the truth is more complex.
[Editor's Note: Jamal Dajani is the director of Middle Eastern programming at Link TV. Here, he looks at Arab media's news coverage of the lethal airstrike on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Al Qaeda's leader in Iraq.]

He was interviewed by Brian Shott, an editor at New America Media.


Brian Shott: You've had a busy day monitoring Arab and Western media. Any significant differences in coverage of this story so far?

Jamal Dajani: Early on, Arab media showed the gruesome pictures. On CNN they showed Zarqawi in death as if he were asleep. They didn't show him all bloodied; Arab television did.

BS: Do Arab commentators think Zarqawi's death will weaken the insurgency?

JD: Well, for example, you have (Dubai-based) Al-Arabiya Television, which is closely allied with the Saudi government. They always give a more favorable view of the war, and they are saying this is a major blow -- a major blow to Al Qaeda, to the terrorists, and a major signal to civilians that they can cooperate with the Iraqi government. This is what Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told the Iraqi public, saying, "Don't be afraid; with your help we were able to nail him. And if you give us more information, we'll end the terrorism."

Other networks, such as (Qatar-based) Al Jazeera, have pointed to the similarities between this and the capture of Saddam Hussein. Yes, in the short term you may have some disarray among Al Qaeda. But at the end of the day, it's not going to end the resistance.

BS: Has Zarqawi's death at least left the foreign fighters in Iraq leaderless?

JD: Well, Al Qaeda has already announced on their Web site that they have appointed a successor, Abu al-Masri.

BS: What's been the most memorable Arab take on this situation so far, in your mind?

JD: I saw one very good discussion on Zarqawi on Al Jazeera. One analyst said that Zarqawi was created by the media and now he's been killed by the media. Meaning, what made him were those early beheading stories. He became this famous, or infamous, persona. And it got to him, he kind of liked that image, and in his last video he's walking around like Rambo with a gun. Because he came back into the arena, there may have been more of a push to capture him -- and there may have been more clues for those looking to kill him, because of the video.

BS: What about reports that he was betrayed?

JD: If you listen to Iraqi Prime Minister Malaki, he essentially thanked the public. If the government was able to work with some of the Sunni tribal leaders to give up Zarqawi, that's a shift in tactics and a major achievement. Zarqawi's base is not really Al Qaeda and the foreign fighters, it's really the Sunnis. He managed to hide between them, between those tribal areas. One analysis I've seen is that it's not a coincidence he got betrayed -- people got tired of his indiscriminate killing.

And another analysis, this one from an Egyptian analyst more to the left, is that now the strongest spy agency in Iraq is coming from Iran, and this might be an Iranian gift to the United States. After all, Zarqawi had killed indiscriminately, but he's really been hitting Shiites hard. And of course Iran has strong ties with Iraqi's Shiite population.

BS: Are Arab commentators surprised that Zarqawi was killed?

The opposite. It was a major surprise that he managed to stay alive for three years. Because he was not a popular guy. He never made a clear mission statement about attacking, say, only American convoys. He attacked everyone. Police, the students, foreigners, locals, everyone.

BS: So what took coalition forces and the Iraqi government so long to find him?

JD: The argument here is about the complexity of Iraq. That you cannot just come in with 150,000 troops and you're going to control the area. At the end of the day, you need an Iraqi, someone who knows the terrain, the language. The Americans can maybe go and surround a town and destroy it, but they don't have the informers, the knowledge from within. And so Arab media is asking what's next after Zarqawi -- he's only one of thousands in the formula of Iraq.

BS: What other questions are Arab media raising about the killing?

JD: There is some talk about the timing. Is this a gift from God to the Americans to bury the Haditha massacre? How will Haditha play out a few weeks down the line? Will it come back, or will the Americans get a kind of "get out of jail free" card? There's some speculation that after Haditha, Americans put their minds together and said, "We've got to do something quick."
Brian Shott is an editor at Pacific News Service.
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