Zarqawi lives: Iraq's Al Qaeda nightmare is back

The Syrian Mohammad al Golani, who is the leader of the al Nusra front, worked with Zarqawi in Iraq a decade ago. His group initially tried to play down its sectarian nature in Syria somewhat but now it uses all the symbols of Zarqawi, including his flag and much of his rhetoric about Iran and Hezbollah. Sunnis from across the Arab world are flocking to al Nusra’s banner. Dozens of Saudis, Tunisians, Libyans and Jordanians have already been martyred in the Syrian civil war fighting for al Nusra. Golani proclaims that he is independent of Baghdadi and reports directly to al Qaeda’s amir in Pakistan, Ayman Zawahiri, but on the ground the two al Qaeda groups increasingly cooperate.

The State Department this weekend said Baghdadi has now transferred his base into Syria, probably to make it harder for the Maliki government to find him. There is a $10 million U.S. reward for information that leads to his arrest or killing. But the violence in Iraq is only likely to get worse even if Baghdadi was found and eliminated. Al Qaeda in Iraq has proven it can survive decapitation more than once. Nonetheless, al Qaeda can not take over Iraq. It is a minority in a minority. It appeals to angry Sunni Arabs who are less than a third of Iraqis. It can create chaos and terror but not a Sunni return to power in Baghdad.

The regeneration of al Qaeda in Iraq and its expansion into Syria is a warning to American decision makers. Few al Qaeda franchises or associated movements have ever been permanently destroyed. They can be disrupted and dismantled and yet fully regenerate once the pressure subsides. The same is likely to happen in Pakistan and Afghanistan if the NATO transition after 2014 does not included a robust counter terrorism capability to target al Qaeda in South Asia.