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?