Victory in Death: The Political Use of Islamist Martyrs

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 19

Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi

The past week once again saw the international media intensely focus on the capture and death of prominent Islamist leaders. On May 8, hundreds of reports appeared that al-Qaeda’s commander in Iraq Abu Ayub al-Masri (a.k.a. Abu Hamza al-Muhajir) had been captured by U.S. and Iraqi forces in Mosul; this claim proved false (Telegraph, May 9). Then on May 11, Western media flocked to an al-Qaeda internet communiqué announcing that one of its senior field commanders, Abu Suleiman al-Otaibi, had been killed in Afghanistan in a “fierce battle with the worshippers of the cross” after returning from fighting in Iraq (Reuters, May 11). On the same day, the British media focused on the arrest at Manchester airport of an Islamist named Hassan Butt, who is reputed to have helped “200 British Muslims train for jihad” (Guardian, May 11).

The consistent and enormous media coverage of the capture and death of Islamist leaders is due in part to the still-strong tendency of U.S. and Western governments to look at the battle against Islamist terrorists and insurgents as a law enforcement issue. President George W. Bush, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, and other leaders have repeatedly pronounced their intentions in some form of the phrase: “We will bring the terrorists to justice one man at a time.” The legalistic mindset of these officials leaves their citizens with the impression that (a) there must be a finite number of terrorists to make the one-at-a-time approach plausible and (b) each terrorist caught or killed subtracts from this finite number and therefore brings the U.S. and the West closer to victory. These views are reinforced by broad media coverage and the over-hyping frequently afforded to each kill or capture by politicians of all parties.

Now, there is no doubt that each senior Islamist insurgent or terrorist who is captured or killed is a notable success which removes a skilled fighter from the battlefield. The United States and its allies are safer today because senior al-Qaeda leaders Khalid Shaykh Muhammad, Abu Hafs al-Masri, Tawfiq bin Attash, and Abu Laith al-Libi are either dead or in prison, as well as because the U.S. military has killed or captured innumerable al-Qaeda no.2’s, no.3’s and no.4’s in Iraq and Afghanistan. And there is no doubt that Russians are safer today because Moscow’s military and intelligence services have killed the senior-most Chechen insurgent leaders Shamil Basayev, Dzhokhar Dudayev, Omar Ibn Khattab, Abu Walid, Aslan Mashkadov, and Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev. Likewise, there can be no doubt that Saudi Arabia is safer because Riyadh’s security forces have killed Abdul-Aziz al-Muqrin and several other chiefs of al-Qaeda-in-the-Arabian Peninsula. But have these successes been tactical or strategic in nature?

On balance, the captures and killings above appear to rank as tactical successes that have done little to alter the strategic balance of the struggle in favor of the United States and its allies or Russia. This judgment is not based on anything al-Qaeda or other insurgent groups have said or claimed, but rather on the widely publicized statements of senior U.S. intelligence and military officials. The U.S. director of national intelligence said in 2007 that al-Qaeda had regrouped and regained its military potency. In early 2008, the director of the CIA said that al-Qaeda was again a “clear and present danger” to the United States. And the U.S. military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, recently testified before Congress and said that the progress U.S. forces had made against Islamist insurgents in Iraq certainly was reversible. From Moscow, the commander of the troops of Russia’s Interior Ministry recently told the media in March that there had been a “surge in militant activity” in Chechnya and across the North Caucasus (Chechnya Weekly, March 27).

From the Islamist side of the battlefield it is instructive to examine the use Islamist leaders make of their captured and killed senior operatives. It would be incorrect to claim that their organizations do not suffer from these losses because they surely do. No Islamist chief could look on the loss of such talented operatives as Ibn Khattab, al-Muqrin, and Abu Hafs al-Masri with anything but regret and dismay. But because their organizations are modeled on insurgent groups—not terrorist groups—these leaders have put extensive amounts of time and resources into succession planning and are able to install as replacements men who have been trained for the job they are to fill. In some cases, in fact, the replacement is a better leader than his predecessor. There seems little doubt, for example, that al-Qaeda-in-Iraq is far better off with Abu Ayyub al-Masri in charge than it was when Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi was in the saddle.

It also is clear that Islamist leaders have little or no fear that news of the death or capture of senior operatives will undermine the morale of their fighters or curtail funding or other forms of aid from their supporters. Neither al-Qaeda, the Chechen insurgents, nor al-Qaeda in Iraq nor Saudi Arabia has tried to hide the death of prominent members. The Islamist leaders appear to believe that “martyrs are recruiters, too,” and at times have used the death of a leader to make light of the success of their foes. When al-Muqrin was killed in a gunfight with Saudi police, for example, al-Qaeda quickly used the internet to announce his death, name his successor, and describe the successor’s qualifications.

The most recent addition to the ways in which Islamist leaders exploit the death or capture of operatives for positive purposes is one that attempts to strengthen recognition among jihadis worldwide that they are involved in a single struggle for Islam’s defense. This tack began to emerge after the death of Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi when eulogies were issued not only by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, but also by the leader of al-Qaeda-in-the Islamic-Maghreb and Taliban chief Mullah Omar. All the eulogies praised al-Zarqawi not only for the contribution he made in Iraq, but also for the example of bravery and self-sacrifice he set for all mujahideen. More recently, the al-Qaeda organization in Yemen issued communiqués claiming that its recent attempt to mortar the U.S. embassy in Sana was conducted to exact revenge from the Americans for the deaths of Taliban military commander Mullah Dadullah and senior al-Qaeda field commander Abu Laith al-Libi [1].

Finally, the capture and death of senior Islamist fighters may well be contributing to the increasing sophistication of the mujahideen’s technical and communications skills. While the loss of older and experienced fighters is not welcomed, their departure from the scene has increased—indeed, forced—the pace of generational change in some Islamic groups. Al-Qaeda, for example, has replaced older leaders of its media component with younger and more technology-savvy individuals that have made the group’s Al-Sahab media organization a nearly state-of-the-art operation. These new men also have trained the media arms of other Islamist groups—including the Taliban and probably some Iraqi insurgent groups—and maintained a degree of covertness that has prevented the disruption or destruction of Al-Sahab by Western security services. In Iraq, mujahideen improvised explosive device (IED) makers from multiple insurgent groups have consistently shown a technical capability that keeps them a step ahead of technical efforts by the U.S.-led Coalition to defeat IEDs.

In sum, therefore, it is fair to conclude that Western officials, analysts, and commentators probably are overestimating the impact of killing and capturing senior Islamist fighters. While these men are unquestionably missed by their organizations—and all praise must go to their U.S. and Western killers and apprehenders—Islamist leaders seem to have learned to make pretty good quality lemonade from the lemons of their losses. They have replaced the fallen in an orderly manner with fairly talented successors—often several times over in places like Chechnya and Saudi Arabia—and at a pace that clearly suggests their bench strength is not finite. Moreover, by identifying and publicizing the fallen as martyrs—if God so wills—the Islamist leaders attract more and frequently better-educated fighters; begin to build a pantheon of heroes who become role models for young Muslim men and whose deeds resonate with mujahideen around the world; and convert the loss of valued fighters into a means that prompts gradually increasing numbers of Islamic insurgents around the world to see their local conflict as an integral part of a bigger struggle for the survival of their faith.


1. Statements by al-Qaeda-in-the-Arabian Peninsula, Media Division of the Jund al-Yemen Brigades, April 1,8; IntelCenter, May 8-9.