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

During the next fourteen months, al-Zarqawi based himself primarily in Iran and in the autonomous area of Kurdistan, in northern Iraq, traveling from time to time to Syria and to the Ayn al-Hilwah Palestinian refugee camp in the south of Lebanon—a camp that, according to the former Jordanian intelligence official, became his main recruiting ground. More often, however, al-Zarqawi traveled to the Sunni Triangle of Iraq. He expanded his network, recruited and trained new fighters, and set up bases, safe houses, and military training camps. In Iran, he was reunited with Saif al-Adel—who encouraged him to go to Iraq and provided contacts there—and for a time, al-Zarqawi stayed at a farm belonging to the fiercely anti-American Afghan jihad leader Gulbaddin Hekmatyar. In Kurdistan he lived and worked with the separatist militant Islamist group Ansar al-Islam, ironically in an area protected as part of the “no-fly” zone imposed on Saddam Hussein by Washington.

One can only imagine how astonished al-Zarqawi must have been when Colin Powell named him as the crucial link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s regime. He was not even officially a part of al-Qaeda, and ever since he had left Afghanistan, his links had been not to Iraq but to Iran.

“We know Zarqawi better than he knows himself,” the high-level Jordanian intelligence official said. “And I can assure you that he never had any links to Saddam. Iran is quite a different matter. The Iranians have a policy: they want to control Iraq. And part of this policy has been to support Zarqawi, tactically but not strategically.”

“Such as?” I asked.

“In the beginning they gave him automatic weapons, uniforms, military equipment, when he was with the army of Ansar al-Islam. Now they essentially just turn a blind eye to his activities, and to those of al-Qaeda generally. The Iranians see Iraq as a fight against the Americans, and overall, they’ll get rid of Zarqawi and all of his people once the Americans are out.”

In the summer of 2003, three months after the American invasion, al-Zarqawi moved to the Sunni areas of Iraq. He became infamous almost at once. On August 7, he allegedly carried out a car-bomb attack at the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad. Twelve days later, he was linked to the bombing of the United Nations headquarters, in which twenty-two people died. And on August 29, in what was then the deadliest attack of the war, he engineered the killing of over a hundred people, including a revered cleric, the Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim, in a car bombing outside Shia Islam’s holy shrine in Najaf. The suicide bomber in that attack was Yassin Jarad, from Zarqa. He was al-Zarqawi’s father-in-law.

“Even then—and even more so now—Zarqawi was not the main force in the insurgency,” the former Jordanian intelligence official, who has studied al-Zarqawi for a decade, told me. “To establish himself, he carried out the Muhammad Hakim operation, and the attack against the UN. Both of them gained a lot of support for him—with the tribes, with Saddam’s army and other remnants of his regime. They made Zarqawi the symbol of the resistance in Iraq, but not the leader. And he never has been.”

He continued, “The Americans have been patently stupid in all of this. They’ve blown Zarqawi so out of proportion that, of course, his prestige has grown. And as a result, sleeper cells from all over Europe are coming to join him now.” He paused for a moment, then said, “Your government is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Western and Israeli diplomats to whom I spoke shared this view—and this past April, The Washington Post reported on Pentagon documents that detailed a U.S. military propaganda campaign to inflate al-Zarqawi’s importance. Then, the following month, the military appeared to attempt to reverse field and portray al-Zarqawi as an incompetent who could not even handle a gun. But by then his image in the Muslim world was set.

Of course, no one did more to cultivate that image than al-Zarqawi himself. He committed some of the deadliest attacks in Iraq, though they still represent only some 10 percent of the country’s total number of attacks. In May 2004, he inaugurated his notorious wave of hostage beheadings; he also specialized in suicide and truck bombings of Shiite shrines and mosques, largely in Shiite neighborhoods. His primary aim was to provoke a civil war. “If we succeed in dragging [the Shia] into a sectarian war,” he purportedly wrote in a letter intercepted by U.S. forces and released in February 2004, “this will awaken the sleepy Sunnis who are fearful of destruction and death at the hands of the Shia.” (The authenticity of the letter came into question almost immediately.)

Al-Zarqawi courted chaos so that Iraq would provide him another failed state to operate in after the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan. He became best known for his videotaped beheadings. One after the other they appeared on jihadist Web sites, always the same. In the background was the trademark black banner of al-Zarqawi’s newest group: al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad, or Monotheism and Jihad. In the foreground, a blindfolded hostage, kneeling and pleading for his life, was dressed in an orange jumpsuit resembling those worn by the detainees at Guantánamo Bay. Al-Zarqawi’s first victim was a Pennsylvania engineer named Nicholas Berg. In the video, five hooded men, dressed in black, stand behind Berg. After a recitation, one of the men pulls a long knife from his shirt, steps forward, and slices off Berg’s head. The U.S. military quickly announced that the executioner was al-Zarqawi himself, and although no one doubts that he planned the operation, questions soon arose: the figure seems taller than al-Zarqawi, and he uses his right hand to wield the knife. Al-Zarqawi was said to be left-handed.

Regardless of his growing notoriety in Iraq, al-Zarqawi never lost sight of his ultimate goal: the overthrow of the Jordanian monarchy. His efforts to foment unrest in Jordan included the 2002 assassination of the U.S. diplomat Lawrence Foley, and, on a far larger scale, a disrupted plot in 2004 to bomb the headquarters of the Jordanian intelligence services—a scheme that, according to Jordanian officials, would have entailed the use of trucks packed with enough chemicals and explosives to kill some 80,000 people. Once it was uncovered, al-Zarqawi immediately accepted responsibility for the plot, although he denied that chemical weapons would have been involved.

Later that year, in October 2004, after resisting for nearly five years, al-Zarqawi finally paid bayat to Osama bin Laden—but only after eight months of often stormy negotiations. After doing so he proclaimed himself to be the “Emir of al-Qaeda’s Operations in the Land of Mesopotamia,” a title that subordinated him to bin Laden but at the same time placed him firmly on the global stage. One explanation for this coming together of these two former antagonists was simple: al-Zarqawi profited from the al-Qaeda franchise, and bin Laden needed a presence in Iraq. Another explanation is more complex: bin Laden laid claim to al-Zarqawi in the hopes of forestalling his emergence as the single most important terrorist figure in the world, and al-Zarqawi accepted bin Laden’s endorsement to augment his credibility and to strengthen his grip on the Iraqi tribes. Both explanations are true.

It was a pragmatic alliance, but tenuous from the start.

“From the beginning, Zarqawi has wanted to be independent, and he will continue to be,” Oraib Rantawi, the director of the Al-Quds Center for Political Studies in Amman, said to me. “Yes, he’s gained stature through this alliance, but he only swore bayat after all this time because of growing pressure from Iraqis who were members of al-Qaeda. And even then he signed with conditions—that he would maintain control over Jund al-Sham and al-Tawhid, and that he would exert operational autonomy. His suicide bombings of the hotels in Amman”—in which some sixty civilians died, many of them while attending a wedding celebration—“was a huge tactical mistake. My understanding is that bin Laden was furious about it.”

The attacks, which represented an expansion of al- Zarqawi’s sophistication and reach, also showed his growing independence from the al-Qaeda chief. They came only thirteen months after he had sworn bayat. The alliance had already begun to fray.

The signs were visible as early as the summer of 2005. In a letter purportedly sent to al-Zarqawi in July from Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian surgeon who is bin Laden’s designated heir, al-Zarqawi was chided about his tactics in Iraq. And although some experts have cast doubt on the letter’s authenticity (it was released by the office of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence), few would dispute its message: namely, that al-Zarqawi’s hostage beheadings, his mass slaughter of Shiites, and his assaults on their mosques were all having a negative effect on Muslim opinion—both of him and, by extension, of al-Qaeda—around the world. In one admonition, al-Zawahiri allegedly advised al-Zarqawi that a captive can be killed as easily by a bullet as by a knife.

During my time in Jordan, I asked a number of officials what they considered to be the most curious aspect of the relationship between the U.S. and al-Zarqawi, other than the fact that the Bush administration had inflated him.

One of them said, “The six times you could have killed Zarqawi, and you didn’t.”

When Powell addressed the United Nations, he discussed the Ansar al-Islam camp near Khurmal, in northern Kurdistan, which he claimed was producing ricin and where al-Zarqawi was then based. On at least three occasions, between mid-2002 and the invasion of Iraq the following March, the Pentagon presented plans to the White House to destroy the Khurmal camp, according to a report published by TheWall Street Journal in October 2004. The White House either declined or simply ignored the request.

More recently, three times during the past year, the Jordanian intelligence service, which has a close liaison relationship with the CIA, provided the United States with information on al-Zarqawi’s whereabouts—first in Mosul, then in Ramadi. Each time, the Americans arrived too late.

After I returned from Jordan, in mid-March, what had appeared to be a growing challenge to al-Zarqawi from local Sunni insurgent groups, which had reportedly expelled hundreds of his fighters from the troubled western province of al-Anbar alone, seemed to have been put aside. The upsurge in Sunni-Shiite killings, as the result of the February bombing of Samarra’s Askariya Shrine (one of Shia Islam’s holiest sites), had led, at least for the moment, to a newfound unity between al-Zarqawi and the Sunni insurgency. Then, in early April, Huthaifa Azzam announced that the “Iraqi resistance’s high command” had stripped al-Zarqawi of his political role and relegated him to military operations. It was the second time that al-Zarqawi’s profile had seemingly been lowered—or that he had lowered it—this year. The first had come in January, when it was announced that al-Qaeda in Iraq had joined five other Sunni insurgent groups to form a coalition called the Mujahideen Shura Council. By early May, U.S. counterterrorism analysts were still puzzling over what the two events meant and what changes they could portend.

As they debated, al-Zarqawi sprang to life again, in a video posted on the Internet on April 24. It was the first time he had appeared in a jihadist videotape, and the first time he had shown his face. Dressed in black fatigues and a black cap, he had ammunition pouches strapped across his chest. He appeared fit, if overweight, as he posed in the desert firing an automatic weapon and as he sat with a group of masked aides, apparently plotting strategy. It seemed an extremely risky thing for him to do, and yet it also appeared to be very deliberate. It was a useful tool for recruitment, intending to show al-Zarqawi as both a flamboyant fighter and a pensive strat­egist. More important than anything else, however, it was meant to show the world that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—the brash young man who had come of age in the rough-and-tumble of Zarqa—remained relevant.

Before leaving Amman, three months before al-Zarqawi’s death, I had asked the high-level Jordanian intelligence official with whom I met whether al-Zarqawi, in his view, was a potential challenger to Osama bin Laden.

“Not at all,” he replied. “Zarqawi had the ambition to become what he has, but whatever happens, even if he becomes the most popular figure in Iraq, he can never go against the symbolism that bin Laden represents. If Zarqawi is captured or killed tomorrow, the Iraqi insurgency will go on. There is no such thing as ‘Zarqawism.’ What Zarqawi is will die with him. Bin Laden, on the other hand, is an ideological thinker. He created the concept of al-Qaeda and all of its offshoots. He feels he’s achieved his goal.” He paused for a moment, then said, “Osama bin Laden is like Karl Marx. Both created an ideology. Marxism still flourished well after Marx’s death. And whether bin Laden is killed, or simply dies of natural causes, al-Qaedaism will survive him.”

Presented by

Mary Anne Weaver is the author of Pakistan: In the Shadow of Jihad and Afghanistan (2002).

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus