The Short, Violent Life of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

How a video-store clerk and small-time crook reinvented himself as America’s nemesis in Iraq
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[Edited for the Web, June 8, 2006]

On a cold and blustery evening in December 1989, Huthaifa Azzam, the teenage son of the legendary Jordanian-Palestinian mujahideen leader Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, went to the airport in Peshawar, Pakistan, to welcome a group of young men. All were new recruits, largely from Jordan, and they had come to fight in a fratricidal civil war in neighboring Afghanistan—an outgrowth of the CIA-financed jihad of the 1980s against the Soviet occupation there.

The men were scruffy, Huthaifa mused as he greeted them, and seemed hardly in battle-ready form. Some had just been released from prison; others were professors and sheikhs. None of them would prove worth remembering—except for a relatively short, squat man named Ahmad Fadhil Nazzal al-Khalaylah.

He would later rename himself Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Once one of the most wanted men in the world, for whose arrest the United States offered a $25 million reward, al-Zarqawi was a notoriously enigmatic figure—a man who was everywhere yet nowhere. I went to Jordan earlier this year, three months before he was killed by a U.S. airstrike in early June, to find out who he really was, and to try to understand the role he was playing in the anti-American insurgency in Iraq. I also hoped to get a sense of how his generation—the foreign fighters now waging jihad in Iraq—compare with the foreign fighters who twenty years ago waged jihad in Afghanistan.

Huthaifa Azzam, whom I first met twenty years ago in Peshawar, bridges both worlds. He first went into battle at the age of fifteen, fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan with his father and Osama bin Laden (to whom his father was a spiritual mentor); three years later, on that December night at the Peshawar airport, he met al-Zarqawi for the first time. The two Azzams and bin Laden had fought against the Soviets in the early days of the jihad; al-Zarqawi would fight in the war’s second phase, after the Soviets had pulled out. Both Huthaifa Azzam and al-Zarqawi would eventually leave Afghanistan to pursue two very different lives, but their paths would once again cross on the battlefields of jihad in Iraq, after the U.S. invasion of 2003.

A self-described jihadist—one who believes in struggle, or, more loosely, holy war—Azzam now lives in the Jordanian capital, Amman, where he is at work on a doctorate in classical Arabic literature, but he moves routinely between Jordan and Iraq. Seeing him again for the first time since he was a teenager, I was struck, as we chatted in a friend’s drawing room, by how little he resembled the conventional image of a jihadist. He wore jeans, a light denim jacket, and an open-necked shirt, and his light-brown beard was neatly trimmed.

I asked Azzam if he knew who was funding al-Zarqawi’s activities in Iraq.

He thought for a moment, and then replied without answering, “At the time of jihad, you can get vast amounts of money with a simple telephone call. I myself once collected three million dollars, which my father had arranged with a single call.”

“A bank transfer?” I asked.

“No. I collected it on my motorbike.

“I was in Syria when the war in Iraq began,” he went on. “People were arriving in droves; everyone wanted to go to Iraq to fight the Americans. I remember one guy who came and said he was too old to fight, but he gave the recruiters $200,000 in cash. ‘Give it to the mujahideen,’ was all he said.”

He then told me about a young boy he had met in the early days of the war.

“He was from Saudi Arabia and had just turned thirteen. I noticed him in the crowd at a recruiting center near the Syrian-Iraqi frontier. People would come and register in the morning, then cross the border in the afternoon by bus. I first saw him at the registration desk. The recruiters refused to take him because he was so young, and he started to cry. I went back later in the day, and this same small guy had sneaked aboard the bus. When they discovered him, he started to shout Allahu Akhbar!—‘God is most great!’ They carried him off. He had $12,000 in his pocket—expense money his family had given him before he set off. ‘Take it all,’ he pleaded. ‘Please, just let me do jihad.’”

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, barely forty and barely literate, a Bedouin from the Bani Hassan tribe, was until recently almost unknown outside his native Jordan. Then, on February 5, 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell catapulted him onto the world stage. In his address to the United Nations making the case for war in Iraq, Powell identified al-Zarqawi—mistakenly, as it turned out—as the crucial link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s regime. Subsequently, al-Zarqawi became a leading figure in the insurgency in Iraq—and in November of last year, he also brought his jihadist revolution back home, as the architect of three lethal hotel bombings in Amman. His notoriety grew with every atrocity he perpetrated, yet Western and Middle Eastern intelligence officials remained bedeviled by a simple question: Who was he? Was he al-Qaeda’s point man in Iraq, as the Bush administration argued repeatedly? Or was he, as a retired Israeli intelligence official told me not long ago, a staunch rival of bin Laden’s, whose importance the United States exaggerated in order to validate a link between al-Qaeda and pre-war Iraq, and to put a non-Iraqi face on a complex insurgency?

Early one morning, with a driver who would also serve as my interpreter, I set out from my hotel in Amman for the forty-five-minute drive to Zarqa—the industrial city where, in October 1966, al-Zarqawi was born into a large family, and from which he took his new name. As we sped along the highway, I tried to recall the often contradictory descriptions I had heard of the man. U.S. officials, for example, had often reported that in 2002, al-Zarqawi had had one of his legs amputated in Baghdad, a claim presumably meant to substantiate a link between al-Zarqawi and Saddam Hussein’s regime. But he was later seen walking in a videotape, clearly in possession of both his legs. Some Bush administration officials called him a Jordanian-Palestinian, but in fact he came from one of the Middle East’s most influential Bedouin tribes. He was often reported dead, only to rise again. In recent years, some even suggested that he didn’t exist at all. The man was hard to distinguish from the myth.

One thing that brought me to Jordan was a desire to find out as much as possible about al-Zarqawi’s relationship with Osama bin Laden. The two men had little in common: bin Laden, like most of his inner circle, is a university graduate from an influential family; al-Zarqawi, like many who follow him, was from an anonymous family (even though they are members of a significant tribe) and an anonymous town—a man who was fired from a job as a video-store clerk and whose background included street gangs and, according to Jordanian intelligence officials, prison for sexual assault. He was a ruthless self-promoter who, U.S. officials claim, killed or wounded thousands of people in the past three years—in suicide bombings, mass executions, and beheadings that have been videotaped. He developed a mythic aura of invulnerability. But he was not the terrorist mastermind that he was often claimed to be.

Zarqa is a shambolic industrial city of some 850,000 people, a sprawl of factories, open fields, and dust. Twenty-five miles northeast of Amman, it is Jordan’s third-largest city, and one of its most militant. For years it has been a magnet for Islamic activists. Along with the cities of Irbid and Salt, it has sent the largest number of Jordanian volunteers to fight abroad, first in Afghanistan and now in Iraq. Al-Zarqawi was born and raised in the al-Masoum neighborhood of Zarqa’s old city, which sprawls somewhat haphazardly into the al-Ruseifah Palestinian refugee camp. (More than 60 percent of Jordan’s 5.9 million inhabitants are Palestinian, as are some 80 percent of the inhabitants of old Zarqa.) When we entered the al-Masoum neighborhood, the first thing that struck me was the sight of three “Afghan Arabs,” as the Arab veterans of the jihad in Afghanistan are called. They were easily identifiable by the shalwar kameezes they wore—the long shirts and bloused trousers that are Afghanistan’s national dress—and by their long, unkempt beards. Squatting outside a tiny neighborhood shop, they paid us little heed.

Until his death, al-Zarqawi kept a home on a quiet lane in Zarqa. It was indistinguishable from its neighbors—a two-story white stucco building surrounded by a whitewashed wall. The house was empty, a neighbor told us; al-Zarqawi’s sisters, who still live in Zarqa, would come by to look after it. At one point I glanced up at a window, which was slightly ajar. Someone abruptly slammed it shut.

I learned that the first of al-Zarqawi’s two wives had lived in the house until recently. She was his cousin, whom he had married when he was twenty-two. They had four children, two boys and two girls. But not long before my visit, al-Zarqawi had sent an unknown man to drive them across the border to be with him in Iraq. His second wife, a Jordanian-Palestinian whom he had married in Afghanistan, and with whom he has a son, was reported to be with him in Iraq as well. Al-Zarqawi’s mother, Omm Sayel, whom he adored—and who had traveled to Peshawar with him when he joined the jihad—died of leukemia in 2004; although he was the most wanted man in Jordan at the time of her death, al-Zarqawi returned to Zarqa in disguise to attend her funeral.

As I wandered with my driver around the al-Masoum neighborhood—visiting the al-Falah mosque, a tiny green-latticed structure where al-Zarqawi had been “returned” to Islam; searching for the cemetery that had been his favorite childhood playground (which we never found); and talking to al-Zarqawi’s neighbors and friends—it became clear to me that although government officials in Amman had said that al-Zarqawi’s popularity had plummeted since he had bombed the hotels there, Zarqa, at least, still appeared to be his town. We met three little boys riding their bicycles down an empty lane. When we asked for directions to al-Zarqawi’s house, they told us where to go—and then, with large grins on their small faces, they flashed the victory sign. An old man who ran a local grocery looked at us knowingly when we walked in. “You’re here for Zarqawi,” he said, a statement of fact rather than a question. When we responded that we were, he insisted on giving us free soft drinks and potato chips.

Everyone I spoke with readily acknowledged that as a teenager al-Zarqawi had been a bully and a thug, a bootlegger and a heavy drinker, and even, allegedly, a pimp in Zarqa’s underworld. He was disruptive, constantly involved in brawls. When he was fifteen (according to his police record, about which I had been briefed in Amman), he participated in a robbery of a relative’s home, during which the relative was killed. Two years later, a year shy of graduation, he had dropped out of school. Then, in 1989, at the age of twenty-three, he traveled to Afghanistan.

It was the first time he had ever been out of Jordan, and for him it changed everything.

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