Al Qaeda: How Many No. 2s Are There?

Did that headline in the Los Angeles Times the other day -- the one about "No. 2 Al Qaeda Leader in Iraq is Killed" -- look familiar? There's a reason for that: you've read it before, or at least headlines a lot like it. Consider this one -- "Iraqis Nab Top Zarqawi Aide" -- that ran on the Fox News Web Site last Jan. 24, 2005 over an Associated Press story reporting the arrest of one Abu Omar al-Kurdi. Or the stories a year earlier reporting the apprehension of one, Husam al-Yemeni, described by the U.S. military as the shadowy Abu Musab Zarqawi's "right hand man." It turns out there's quite a pattern here.

"If I had a nickel for every No. 2 and Nov. 3 they've arrested or killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, I'd be a millionaire," Evan Kohlmann, a brainy counter-terrorism analyst who tracks the Iraqi insurgency, told me for my weekly "Terror Watch" column (written with my colleague Mark Hosenball) on the Newsweek web site. (Here's the link...) It turns out that despite the hype about the killing of Abu Azzam by outgoing Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Richard Myers and even President Bush (who called the fallen Azzam " the "second most wanted Al Qaeda leader in Iraq"-- he may not have actually been Zarqawi's "number two" after all. Whatever his ranking, his death doesn't seem to have had any immediate impact on the rate of suicide bombings, if today's news ("Car Bomb Onslaught Kills at least 60 in Iraq") is any yardstick.