Friday, June 17, 2005

Catching Abu Talha

Edited to update link: 6-19-05

Coalition forces in Iraq scored a major victory on Tuesday with the capture of Muhammad Khalaf Shakar, known as Abu Talha, leader of al Qaeda in the key city of Mosul. Talha was one of the top figures in the Iraqi al Qaeda hierarchy. As Bill Roggio of Winds of Change has pointed out, his loss is merely the latest in a series of damaging setbacks for the terrorist organization.

Just over a month ago, while the media focused almost exclusively on reporting the wave of terrorist car bombings, it was left to Bill and other bloggers to note that two thirds of the known al Qaeda in Iraq leadership had been either killed or captured. The arrest of Abu Talha now takes this figure to over 70%. Of course, another terrorist will be promoted to take his place. However, as Bill also pointed out, the new man will lack Talha's experience and stature within the organization. It is easy to dismiss the impact of capturing individual terrorist leaders, since a successor will inevitably arise. The cumulative effect of losing such veteran commanders, however, eventually takes a toll on the effectiveness of the network. If Talha provides useful intelligence on the inner workings of al Qaeda in Iraq, his loss will be even more devastating.

The capture of Abu Talha is also a major victory in the struggle to secure the city of Mosul. One of Iraq's largest cities, Mosul sits in the northwest part of the country and has a mixed Arab and Kurdish population. Tensions between Kurds and Sunni Arabs have been a major source of instability that the terrorist insurgency has been able to exploit. The terrorists came to Mosul in force last November, and the area has been one of Iraq's major hotspots since then. As Michael Yon has chronicled, coalition and Iraqi forces have made substantial progress in restoring peace to the city, in the face of fierce resistance from the jihadists. While much remains to be done, the arrest of the top al Qaeda terrorist in Mosul bodes well for the outcome of that campaign.

Finally, Talha's seizure is also a possible indicator of yet another trend that has gone largely unnoticed: the growing rift between many of Iraq's Sunni Arabs and al Qaeda. A number of Sunni tribes in Anbar province are now in a state of open war with al Qaeda as the result of the terrorists' barbarous and oppressive conduct. At the same time, Iraq's Sunnis are slowly, if painfully, being integrated into the democratic political process. Even some of the less radical, indigenous parts of the insurgency are seeking to negotiate a political solution with the new Iraqi government.

The possible success of Iraq's fragile democratic experiment is al Qaeda's worst nightmare, and they are desperate to prevent such an outcome at all costs. In particular, al Qaeda knows that if the Sunnis are successfully incorporated into the new democratic Iraq, it spells the end for the terror network in that country. This is why the terrorists, at the behest of their murderous "Emir", Abu Musab al Zarqawi, have inflicted the recent wave of horrific car bomb attacks on Iraqis. Zarqawi has sought to justify this indiscriminate slaughter by citing Islamic doctrine. Fortunately, many in the Muslim world are rejecting Zarqawi's efforts to turn their religion into an ideology of mass murder. Within Iraq itself, as Strategy reported on June 12th, "(e)ven Iraqis who support al Qaeda cannot understand this reliance on car bombs, which kill many innocent bystanders, and generate much hatred against al Qaeda".

How does this growing division between Iraqi Sunnis and al Qaeda relate to the capture of Abu Talha? A statement recently posted on the Web by al Qaeda gives a tantalizing clue. To quote Reuters:

Iraq's al Qaeda vowed to kill anyone negotiating with the U.S.-backed Iraqi government in a Web statement on Tuesday, a sign the group was worried about possible divisions among its Sunni Muslim allies.

The group led by Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was responding to what it said were reports that tribal leaders in Iraq's third-largest city Mosul, the scene of frequent outbreaks of guerrilla violence, were seeking talks.

"Liars claim that the sheikhs of tribes in Mosul plan to hand over mujahideen (holy fighters) and assist the crusaders and apostates, and we do not know which tribes or sheikhs they speak of," the Sunni Muslim group said.

Ironically, this statement was released the same day that Abu Talha was arrested. Is there a connection? Was Talha's capture part of a broader deal between Sunni leaders in Mosul and the Iraqi government? Possibly. For one thing, according to a coalition spokesman, it was information from Iraqis that led to Talha's capture. In addition, numerous tribal sheikhs in the nearby city of Tal Afar, which has been virtually overrun by al Qaeda and other insurgent groups in recent months, have all but begged US forces to come and wipe out the terrorists, a process that is now underway. So, there is reason to believe that Abu Talha may have been turned in by Sunni sheikhs or other local leaders in Mosul as part of a broader agreement with the Iraqi government. If this is indeed the case, and such deals become commonplace, then al Qaeda's days in Iraq are truly numbered.

Even if Talha's capture was merely the result of a tip from an ordinary Iraqi fed up with the terrorists and their violence, this event still conveys an importance well beyond the arrest of a single man. Al Qaeda in Iraq has amply demonstrated its ability to inflict death and destruction. Yet it has alienated the vast majority of Iraqis in the process. Even Iraq's Sunni Arabs, the heart of the insurgency, are now turning against Zarqawi and his jihadists. Barring a disgraceful collapse of will here in the United States, there is no way that al Qaeda can ultimately win in Iraq. Talha's capture both reminds us of this essential truth, and helps bring it closer to fruition.


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