The death of al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi three weeks ago set off a chain of events that has not yet ended. Because of the secret nature of counter-terrorism work, many of the details won't be known for some time. What is known is that the information found with Zarqawi appears to have filled in a lot of key gaps in what Americans knew about terrorist operations in Iraq. For example, nearly 60 foreign al Qaeda operatives were captured in June, mostly as a result of Zarqawi data. Another al Qaeda foreigner, Tunisian Yousri Fakher Mohammed Ali, was captured in late May, but information collected because of the Zarqawi raids, confirmed that Yousri Fakher Mohammed Ali was involved in last February's bombing of a Shia shrine in Samarra.
Over a hundred mid and high level al Qaeda leaders were killed or captured in the wake of Zarqawi's death, and capture of his records. Naturally, it was the records that were the most valuable byproduct of Zarqawi's death. Despite the number of times valuable information has been captured, al Qaeda leaders have not been able to come up with better security for this vital data. With no secure base to operate from, al Qaeda leaders carry their headquarters with them. Those who are directing operations, have to be constantly moving. Staying in one place too long. increases the risk of capture. Counter-terrorist operations are constantly picking up bits of information that will eventually reveal the location of someone who has stayed too long in one place.
The capture of Zarqawi's data revealed the location of many safe houses and people who provided transportation and other services to al Qaeda people on the lam. This terrorist infrastructure was quickly attacked, forcing many al Qaeda members to scramble for new hiding places, and people they could rely on. Suddenly, Iraqi troops and police were catching more terrorists at checkpoints, or on routine sweeps. In a few cases, the soldiers or cops apparently took a large bribe and let the bad guys through. But many of the police manning these checkpoints are Shia or Kurds who have lost someone to al Qaeda terrorism, and not easily tempted with a bribe.
In some respects, the Zarqawi data was a key to a lot of half-solved puzzles of how the Sunni Arab terrorist networks operated. When the Baath (pro-Saddam) groups and al Qaeda agreed to join forces in early 2004, Zarqawi got access to Saddam's experienced secret police network. These Saddam operatives had extensive contacts within the Sunni Arab community, and knew how to run a terrorism operation. These guys had been terrorizing Kurds and Shia Arabs for decades, and knew how to keep secrets. Those who were less adept got knocked out of the game by the end of 2005. When Zarqawi died, he was working with survivors, those of Saddams secret police who had learned how to survive under very trying conditions. But once Zarqawi's laptop and notebooks were in American hands, that network got whacked pretty good. "Al Qaeda in Iraq" is actually a loose confederation of like-minded Sunni Arab groups, dedicated to Islamic radicalism, and putting Sunni Arabs back in charge of Iraq. But the damage, from the Zarqawi data, was so severe that several of the smaller groups went out of business, and about a dozen of them joined together and tried to negotiate a ceasefire with the government. Other groups have gone on killing and terrorizing, but without the usual access to money, personnel and other support that was available before Zarqawi got killed, and the Zarqawi data was acquired by the Coalition.
The losses al Qaeda have suffered because of the Zarqawi hit won't put the Sunni Arabs out of business in Iraq, but it has made them a lot weaker. Meanwhile, those who are motivated by Islamic radicalism to commit terrorist acts, will keep at it. The Sunni Arab diehards still have good reason to keep killing. They have blood on their hands, from when Saddam was in power, and since then, and cannot expect amnesty. However, the terrorist diehards will be weaker as more Sunni Arab groups (tribes, followers of religious leaders) accept the amnesty, and turn away from terrorism work. Without these thousands of helpers and active supporters, the terrorists will be less effective, and more vulnerable. Zarqawi's successor will not last nearly as long as Zarqawi did.