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Expert: Al-Zarqawi 'more important than bin Laden'

International security expert Jim Walsh
Video shows a man who identifies himself as an American before he is beheaded.

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Osama Bin Laden

(CNN) -- An al Qaeda-linked Web site posted video Tuesday of an American man in Iraq speaking briefly before being beheaded. His captors said the United States refused to exchange him for detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison.

CNN's Anderson Cooper spoke with Jim Walsh, an international security expert at Harvard University, about the terror tactic.

COOPER: What do the terrorists want to do by releasing this video now?

WALSH: I think it needs to be understood that every time we make a mistake in Iraq, the Islamic extremists are going to seize that and try to use it for their own advantage, and this is evidence A in that cause.

They tried to say to the Muslim and to the Arab community, look, the U.S. has done this awful stuff, and I'm standing up to them. I'm going to take revenge on your behalf.

[It's] trying to tap into the anger of the Muslim world and bring more recruits, more power.

COOPER: They're very media savvy. I know in the past, people say terrorism is theater. These guys know how to grab the stage.

WALSH: Absolutely. They may be murderers, but they're not stupid and they know how to astutely take advantage of our weaknesses.

It's clear that this fiasco with the prisons and the abuses is on every television screen in the Arab and Muslim world.

It is feeding that anti-American sentiment, and they are not wasting any time. They're seizing that opportunity and saying we're the ones who are standing up to the Americans, and they hope, I think, by doing that, to try to bring more recruits, more money, more political support for their cause.

COOPER: Interesting, though, that on the Web site they release the name Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, saying that he was the person, the masked person there, slitting the throat of this young American. Why would they add that detail?

WALSH: That's a really good question, and it makes one speculate, and this is only speculation here. But Zarqawi is arguably more important than Osama bin Laden right now.

While bin Laden is out avoiding capture in the frontier provinces of Pakistan, Zarqawi is executing operation after operation after operation.

This may be his attempt to assert his own claim to the leadership mantle, to say he's really the most important terrorist in the world today, and that he is, in some sense, replacing bin Laden.

COOPER: Just about every terrorist happening that has occurred in the last year or so has suddenly been linked to Zarqawi. Is it possible that people are just kind of naming him when they don't know who else to name?

WALSH: Absolutely. I mean he has been alleged to have been responsible for everything from bombing the Kurds, bombing the Shiite mosques, the attack in Spain and so on.

Maybe he's responsible for all of them. Maybe he's not. But insofar as we say he's responsible or he is responsible, his reputation grows and then he acts on it.

He really takes a page out of bin Laden's book, by airing this videotape or having this videotape aired and is really personally asserting his role in this, saying he is the one who is taking vengeance on behalf of Muslims and Arabs.

COOPER: I read the transcript of what the man alleged to be Zarqawi was saying before they murdered Nicholas Berg, and I was interested to see that he calls what happened in Fallujah, the Marines pulling back, a victory. Clearly they got the message that that was a sign of American weakness.

WALSH: This is one of those horrible dilemmas that the U.S. faces in Iraq. On the one hand, if you're too aggressive and you go in to suppress the insurgents, then you will alienate the majority, but if you pull back and try to resolve it diplomatically, then you'll be accused of being weak, and they will take signs of weakness as an opportunity to assert themselves.

It appears, at least for now, as if it's a no-win situation. But, again, we can expect more, not less, of this in the future.

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