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
[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.
Salah al-Hami, a Jordanian of Palestinian descent, was al-Zarqawi’s brother-in-law and one of his closest friends. We met him outside the garden of his Zarqa home. Dressed in a long blue robe, and with a red-and-white-checkered kaffiyeh hanging loosely from his head, he sported a full Islamist beard. He was polite but refused to be interviewed; after every interview he’d given, he said, he’d been arrested. But being arrested wasn’t what bothered him most. What bothered him was that he had been misquoted repeatedly. As a journalist himself, he was fed up.
I told him that I simply wanted to verify a few dates and facts, and was interested in talking to him not about Iraq but about Afghanistan. He looked at me skeptically but agreed to chat as we stood at his garden gate. He and al-Zarqawi had met in Afghanistan, he said, during al-Zarqawi’s first stay there, from 1989 to 1993. Al-Zarqawi was based initially in the border town of Khost, which, after both the Americans and the Soviets had left Afghanistan, was the site of intense and heavily contested battles between the mujahideen and the pro-Soviet Najibullah regime. At the beginning, al-Hami continued, al-Zarqawi had not been a fighter but had tried his hand at being a journalist. He had worked as a reporter for a small jihadist magazine, Al-Bonian al Marsous, while al-Hami was a correspondent for Al-Jihad magazine, which the mujahideen published in Peshawar. But then one day al-Hami stepped on a land mine and lost one of his legs.
It was during al-Zarqawi’s visits to the hospital that he and al-Hami became close friends. I didn’t ask al-Hami any personal questions, but I had been told earlier by another of al-Zarqawi’s friends that one day in the hospital, al-Hami had spoken of the impossibility of ever having a family or a wife. “A one-legged man?” al-Hami reportedly said to al-Zarqawi. “Who would want to marry him?” In response al-Zarqawi offered him the hand of one of his sisters, and al-Hami agreed. So did the sister, and the two were married in Peshawar, in a lavish ceremony presided over by al-Zarqawi, whose father had died when he was young. The video of the reception was the only authenticated footage of al-Zarqawi ever publicly seen—until this April, when, for the first time, al-Zarqawi released a videotape of himself.
Al-Hami moved to Zarqa when he returned from Afghanistan. For a number of years now he has looked after al-Zarqawi’s family, as well as his own, while his brother-in-law traveled on a path that took him to prison, back to Afghanistan, then to Iran, northern Kurdistan, and, finally, Iraq.
“If you want to understand who Zarqawi is,” a former Jordanian intelligence official had told me earlier, “you’ve got to understand the four major turning points in his life: his first trip to Afghanistan; then the prison years [from 1993 to 1999]; then his return to Afghanistan, when he really came into his own; and then Iraq.” He thought for a moment. “And, of course, the creativity of the Americans.”
"He was an ordinary guy, an ordinary fighter, and didn’t really distinguish himself,” Huthaifa Azzam said of al-Zarqawi’s first time in Afghanistan. “He was a quiet guy who didn’t talk much. But he was brave. Zarqawi doesn’t know the meaning of fear. He’s been wounded five or six times in Afghanistan and Iraq. He seems to intentionally place himself in the middle of the most dangerous situations. He fought in the battles of Khost and Kardez and, in April 1992, witnessed the liberation of Kabul by the mujahideen. A lot of Arabs were great commanders during those years. Zarqawi was not. He also wasn’t very religious during that time. In fact, he’d only ‘returned’ to Islam three months before coming to Afghanistan. It was the Tablighi Jamaat [a proselytizing missionary group spread across the Muslim world] who convinced him—he had thirty-seven criminal cases against him by then—that it was time to cleanse himself.”
A Jordanian counterterrorism official expanded on al-Zarqawi’s time in Afghanistan for me. “His second time in Afghanistan was far more important than the first. But the first was significant in two ways. Zarqawi was young and impressionable; he’d never been out of Jordan before, and now, for the first time, he was interacting with doctrinaire Islamists from across the Muslim world, most of them brought to Afghanistan by the CIA. It was also his first exposure to al-Qaeda. He didn’t meet bin Laden, of course, but he trained in one of his and Abdullah Azzam’s camps: the Sada camp near the Afghan border inside Pakistan. He trained under Abu Hafs al-Masri.” (The reference was to the nom de guerre of Mohammed Atef, an Egyptian who was bin Laden’s military chief and, until he was killed in an American air strike in Afghanistan in November 2001, the No. 3 official in al-Qaeda.)
Abu Muntassir Bilah Muhammad is another jihadist who spent time fighting in Afghanistan and who would later become one of the co-founders of al-Zarqawi’s first militant Islamist group. “Zarqawi arrived in Afghanistan as a zero,” he told me, “a man with no career, just floundering about. He trained and fought and he came back to Jordan with ambitions and dreams: to carry the ideology of jihad. His first ambition was to reform Jordan, to set up an Islamist state. And there was a cachet involved in fighting in the jihad. Zarqawi returned to Jordan with newfound respect. It’s not so much what Zarqawi did in the jihad—it’s what the jihad did for him.”
With an eye to the future, al-Zarqawi also used the jihad years to begin the process of cultivating friendships that would eventually lead to the formation of an international support network for his activities. “Particularly when he was in Khost, his primary friendships were with the Saudi fighters and others from the Gulf,” Huthaifa Azzam told me. “Some of them were millionaires. There were even a couple of billionaires.”
But perhaps as important as anything else, it was in Afghanistan that al-Zarqawi was introduced to Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (whose real name is Isam Muhammad Tahir al-Barqawi), a revered and militant Salafist cleric who had moved to Zarqa following the mass expulsion of Palestinians from Kuwait in the aftermath of the Gulf War. The Salafiya movement originated in Egypt, at the end of the nineteenth century, as a modernist Sunni reform movement, the aim of which was to let the Muslim world rise to the challenges posed by Western science and political thought. But since the 1920s, it has evolved into a severely puritanical school of absolutist thought that is markedly anti-Western and based on a literal interpretation of the Koran. Today’s most radical Salafists regard any departure from their own rigid principles of Islam to be heretical; their particular hatred of Shiites—who broke with the Sunnis in 632 A.D. over the question of succession to the Prophet Muhammad, and who now constitute the majority in Iran and Iraq—is visceral. Over the years, al-Maqdisi embraced the most extreme school of Salafism, closely akin to the puritanical Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia, and in the early 1980s he published The Creed of Abraham, the single most important source of teachings for Salafist movements around the world. Al-Maqdisi would become al-Zarqawi’s ideological mentor and most profound influence.
“It’s not surprising that Zarqawi embraced Salafism,” I was told by Jarret Brachman, the research director of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. “Jihadi Salafism is black and white—and so is everything that Zarqawi’s ever done. When he met al-Maqdisi, he was drifting, trying to find an outlet, and very impressionable. His religious grounding, until then, was largely dependent upon whose influence he was under at the time. And since his father had died when he was young, he’d been seeking a father figure. Al-Maqdisi served both needs.”
Al-Zarqawi and al-Maqdisi left Afghanistan in 1993 and returned to Jordan. They found it much changed. In their absence the Jordanians and the Israelis had begun negotiations that would lead to the signing of a peace treaty in 1994; the Palestinians had signed the Oslo Accords of 1993; and the Iraqis had lost the Gulf War. Unemployment was up sharply, the result of a privatization drive agreed to with the International Monetary Fund, and Jordanians were frustrated and angry. The Muslim Brotherhood—the kingdom’s only viable opposition political force, which had agreed to support King Hussein in exchange for being allowed to participate in public and parliamentary life—appeared unable to cope with the rising disaffection. Small underground Islamist groups had therefore begun to appear, composed largely of men who had fought in the Afghan jihad, and who were guided by the increasingly loud voices of militant clerics who felt the Muslim Brotherhood had been co-opted by the state.
After the two men returned home, al-Maqdisi toured the kingdom, preaching and recruiting, and al-Zarqawi sought out Abu Muntassir, who had already acquired a standing among Islamic militants in Jordan. “We talked a lot, over a couple of days,” Abu Muntassir told me. “He was still pretty much a novice, but very willing, very able, and keen to learn about Islam. I was teaching geography at the time in a government school, so it was easy for me to teach Islam as well. After some time, Zarqawi asked me to work with him in an Islamic group; al-Maqdisi was already on board. The idea was there, but it had no leadership and no name. First we called it al-Tawhid, then changed the name to Bayat al-Imam [Allegiance to the Imam]. We were small but enthusiastic—a dozen or so men. Our primary objective, of course, was to overthrow the monarchy and establish an Islamic government.”
Despite their enthusiasm, al-Zarqawi, al-Maqdisi, and Abu Muntassir did not appear to be natural revolutionaries. Their first operation was in Zarqa, in 1993, a former Jordanian intelligence official told me, when al-Zarqawi dispatched one of their men to a local cinema with orders to blow it up because it was showing pornographic films. But the hapless would-be bomber apparently got so distracted by what was happening on the screen that he forgot about his bomb. It exploded and blew off his legs.
In another botched operation, al-Maqdisi (according to court testimony that he denied) gave al-Zarqawi seven grenades he had smuggled into Jordan, and al-Zarqawi hid them in the cellar of his family’s home. Al-Maqdisi was already under surveillance by Jordan’s intelligence service by that time, because of his growing popularity. The grenades were quickly discovered, and the two men, along with a number of their followers, found themselves for the first time before a state security court. Al-Zarqawi told the court that he had found the grenades while walking down the street. The judges were not amused. They convicted him and al-Maqdisi of possessing illegal weapons and belonging to a banned organization. In 1994, al-Zarqawi was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. He would flourish there.
Swaqa prison sits on the southern desert’s edge, sixty miles south of Amman, and its political prisoners, both Islamist and secular, are housed in four wings. Al-Zarqawi embraced prison life in the extreme—as he appears to have embraced everything. According to fellow inmates of his with whom I spoke, his primary obsessions were recruiting other prisoners to his cause, building his body, and, under the tutelage of al-Maqdisi, memorizing the 6,236 verses of the Koran. He was stern, tough, and unrelenting on anything that he considered to be an infraction of his rules, yet he was often seen in the prison courtyard crying as he read the Koran.
He was fastidious about his appearance in prison—his beard and moustache were always cosmetically groomed—and he wore only Afghan dress: the shalwar kameez and a rolled-brim, woolen Pashtun cap. One former inmate who served time with him told me that al-Zarqawi sauntered through the prison ward like a “peacock.” Islamists flocked to him. He attracted recruits; some joined him out of fascination, others out of curiosity, and still others out of fear. In a short time, he had organized prison life at Swaqa like a gang leader.
“Zarqawi was the muscle, and al-Maqdisi the thinker,” Abdullah Abu Rumman, a journalist and editor who had been in prison with al-Zarqawi, told me one morning over tea. (Abu Rumman had been held for three months in 1996, for a series of articles he wrote that were considered unflattering toward King Hussein.) “Zarqawi basically controlled the prison ward,” Abu Rumman went on. “He decided who would cook, who would do the laundry, who would lead the readings of the Koran. He was extremely protective of his followers, and extremely tough with prisoners outside his group. He didn’t trust them. He considered them infidels.”
There were also confrontations and altercations with prison officials and guards. Whether al-Zarqawi was ever tortured is a matter of dispute: some of his followers say he was; Jordanian government officials, perhaps predictably, say he was not.
When Abu Rumman entered Swaqa, al-Zarqawi was in isolation following a prison brawl. “It was quite extraordinary,” Abu Rumman said. “My first glimpse of Zarqawi was when he was released. He returned to the ward as a hero surrounded by his own bodyguards. Everyone began to shout: Allahu Akhbar! By that time Zarqawi was already called the ‘emir,’ or ‘prince.’ He had an uncanny ability to control, almost to hypnotize; he could order his followers to do things just by moving his eyes.”
Al-Zarqawi controlled not only his followers but also the ward’s television sets. No one could really watch them, however, since he had covered them with black cloth to prevent the display of female forms. All the inmates could do was listen—and only to the evening news at eight o’clock. “Zarqawi and his followers had scant interest in political affairs, except for what was happening in Algeria and Afghanistan,” Abu Rumman said. “At the pre-arranged hour, they’d all rush into the television room. When shouts of ‘Allahu Akhbar!’ reverberated through the ward, we all knew that the Taliban was meeting with success.”
Al-Zarqawi and al-Maqdisi’s Bayat al-Imam continued to grow, both inside prison and in Zarqa, Irbid, and Salt. Al-Zarqawi used his Bedouin credentials to good effect, as his own profile began to ascend. His Bani Hassan tribe is one of the Middle East’s most prominent, and its tribal lands spill across the borders dividing Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. In Jordan, many of its members hold high-level positions in the government, the army, and the intelligence service. As a result, many of the prisoners, and many of Swaqa’s guards, deferred to al-Zarqawi. Al-Maqdisi, a Palestinian, was also accorded special treatment, but largely as a result of his links to al-Zarqawi and the Bani Hassan. Between mentor and pupil, the roles had subtly begun to shift inside the prison walls.
As al-Zarqawi recruited, al-Maqdisi preached, and using the Internet, they broadcast their message of jihad across three continents. Sheikh Abu Qatada, a Palestinian cleric who is one of Salafism’s leading ideologues, was also one of al-Maqdisi’s closest friends. The two men had been together in Kuwait, then in Zarqa, then Afghanistan. Abu Qatada, after leaving Afghanistan, had moved to London (where he is currently under arrest, awaiting possible deportation to Jordan). Now al-Maqdisi’s religious tracts were smuggled out of Swaqa by prisoners’ wives and mothers, with help from sympathetic prison guards, and they were sent on to Abu Qatada, who posted them on the Web sites of Salafists and jihadists throughout Europe, the Middle East, and the Persian Gulf.
Al-Zarqawi’s own religious views became increasingly severe, as did his intolerance of anyone he believed to be an infidel. Al-Maqdisi sometimes angrily disagreed with him. (It was the first portent of what lay ahead. Al-Zarqawi began to eclipse his mentor in prison, and would continue to do so over the coming years, but their final, and public, break did not occur until November 2005, when, on Al-Jazeera, al-Maqdisi criticized his former protégé for the hotel bombings in Amman.) Nevertheless, despite their prison disagreements, al-Maqdisi, from time to time, permitted al-Zarqawi to draft his own religious tracts. Abu Muntassir (who would also later break with al-Zarqawi) was his editor. Al-Zarqawi was “a terrible writer,” he told me, “and didn’t really understand the Koran. He had learned it by rote.” Al-Zarqawi never learned to write a fatwa, Abu Muntassir said, and as a result had to set up his own fatwa committee in Iraq.
In 1998, three or four of al-Zarqawi’s tracts were posted on the Internet, after heavy editing. Soon they came to the attention of Osama bin Laden, in Afghanistan. It was the first time he had ever heard of al-Zarqawi.
In May of the following year, Jordan’s King Abdullah II—newly enthroned after the death of his father, King Hussein—declared a general amnesty, and al-Zarqawi was released from Swaqa. He had made effective use of his time there. As he had done nearly a decade before—when he befriended wealthy Saudi jihadists in Khost—he had expanded his reach and his appeal during his prison years. Among the fellow inmates he had converted to Salafism and brought into the Bayat al-Imam were a substantial number of prisoners from Iraq.
After returning for a few months to Zarqa, al-Zarqawi left again and traveled to Pakistan. He may or may not have known that Jordan was about to declare him a suspect in a series of foiled terrorist attacks intended for New Year’s Eve of 1999. The plan, which became known as the “Millennium Plot,” involved the bombing of Christian landmarks and other tourist sites, along with the Radisson Hotel in Amman. Had it succeeded, it would have been al-Zarqawi’s first involvement in a major terrorist attack.
Whatever the case, al-Zarqawi planned ahead before he left for Pakistan. He arrived bearing a letter of introduction from Abu Kutaiba al-Urduni, one of Jordan’s most significant leaders during the jihad in Afghanistan. Al-Urduni had been a key deputy to—and the chief recruiter inside Jordan for—Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, Huthaifa Azzam’s father. (Having worked for years in Peshawar as the leader of the Service Office, or the Maktab al-Khidmat, the sheikh had become the pivotal figure in the Pan-Islamic recruitment of volunteers for the jihad.) Al-Urduni’s letter was the first endorsement that al-Zarqawi had received from such a senior figure—and the letter was addressed to Osama bin Laden.
In December 1999, al-Zarqawi crossed the border into Afghanistan, and later that month he and bin Laden met at the Government Guest House in the southern city of Kandahar, the de facto capital of the ruling Taliban. As they sat facing each other across the receiving room, a former Israeli intelligence official told me, “it was loathing at first sight.”
According to several different accounts of the meeting, bin Laden distrusted and disliked al-Zarqawi immediately. He suspected that the group of Jordanian prisoners with whom al-Zarqawi had been granted amnesty earlier in the year had been infiltrated by Jordanian intelligence; something similar had occurred not long before with a Jordanian jihadist cell that had come to Afghanistan. Bin Laden also disliked al-Zarqawi’s swagger and the green tattoos on his left hand, which he reportedly considered un-Islamic. Al-Zarqawi came across to bin Laden as aggressively ambitious, abrasive, and overbearing. His hatred of Shiites also seemed to bin Laden to be potentially divisive—which, of course, it was. (Bin Laden’s mother, to whom he remains close, is a Shiite, from the Alawites of Syria.)
Al-Zarqawi would not recant, even in the presence of the legendary head of al-Qaeda. “Shiites should be executed,” he reportedly declared. He also took exception to bin Laden’s providing Arab fighters to the Taliban, the fundamentalist student militia that, although now in power, was still battling the Northern Alliance, which controlled some 10 percent of Afghanistan. Muslim killing Muslim was un-Islamic, al-Zarqawi is reported to have said.
Unaccustomed to such direct criticism, the leader of al-Qaeda was aghast.
Had Saif al-Adel—now bin Laden’s military chief—not intervened, history might be written very differently.
A former Egyptian army colonel who had trained in special operations, al-Adel was then al-Qaeda’s chief of security and a prominent voice in an emerging debate gripping the militant Islamist world. Who should the primary target be—the “near enemy” (the Muslim world’s “un-Islamic” regimes) or the “far enemy” (primarily Israel and the United States)? Al-Zarqawi was a near-enemy advocate, and although his obsession remained the overthrow of the Jordanian monarchy, he had expanded his horizons slightly during his prison years and had now begun to focus on the area known as al-Sham, or the Levant, which includes Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and historic Palestine. As an Egyptian who had attempted to overthrow his own country’s army-backed regime, al-Adel saw merit in al-Zarqawi’s views. Thus, after a good deal of debate within al-Qaeda, it was agreed that al-Zarqawi would be given $5,000 or so in “seed money” to set up his own training camp outside the western Afghan city of Herat, near the Iranian border. It was about as far away as he could be from bin Laden.
Saif al-Adel was designated the middleman.
In early 2000, with a dozen or so followers who had arrived from Peshawar and Amman, al-Zarqawi set out for the western desert encircling Herat. His goal: to build an army that he could export to anywhere in the world. Al-Adel paid monthly visits to al-Zarqawi’s training camp; later, on his Web site, he would write that he was amazed at what he saw there. The number of al-Zarqawi’s fighters multiplied from dozens to hundreds during the following year, and by the time the forces evacuated their camp, prior to the U.S. air strikes of October 200l, the fighters and their families numbered some 2,000 to 3,000. According to al-Adel, the wives of al-Zarqawi’s followers served lavish Levantine cuisine in the camp.
It was in Herat that al-Zarqawi formed the militant organization Jund al-Sham, or Soldiers of the Levant. His key operational lieutenants were mainly Syrians—most of whom had fought in the Afghan jihad, and many of whom belonged to their country’s banned Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood’s exiled leadership, which is largely based in Europe, was immensely important in recruiting for the Herat camp, although whether it also supplied funds remains under debate. What is clear, however, is that al-Zarqawi’s closest aide, a Syrian from the city of Hama named Sulayman Khalid Darwish—or Abu al-Ghadiyah—was considered to be, until his death last summer on the Iraqi-Syrian frontier, one of al-Zarqawi’s most likely successors.
I asked a high-level Jordanian intelligence official how important the Herat camp was.
“For Zarqawi, it was the turning point,” he replied. “Herat was the beginning of what he is now. He had command responsibilities for the first time; he had a battle plan. And even though he and bin Laden never got on, he was important to them. Herat was the only training camp in Afghanistan that was actively recruiting volunteers specifically from the Sham. Zarqawi, for his part, is very conceited and likes to show off. In Herat, he called himself the ‘Emir of Sham’!”
At least five times, in 2000 and 2001, bin Laden called al-Zarqawi to come to Kandahar and pay bayat—take an oath of allegiance—to him. Each time, al-Zarqawi refused. Under no circumstances did he want to become involved in the battle between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban. He also did not believe that either bin Laden or the Taliban was serious enough about jihad.
When the United States launched its air war inside Afghanistan, on October 7, 2001, al-Zarqawi joined forces with al-Qaeda and the Taliban for the first time. He and his Jund al-Sham fought in and around Herat and Kandahar. Al-Zarqawi was wounded in an American air strike—not in the leg, as U.S. officials claimed for two years, but in the chest, when the ceiling of the building in which he was operating collapsed on him. Neither did he join Osama bin Laden in the eastern mountains of Tora Bora, as U.S. officials have also said. Bin Laden took only his most trusted fighters to Tora Bora, and al-Zarqawi was not one of them.
In December 2001, accompanied by some 300 fighters from Jund al-Sham, al-Zarqawi left Afghanistan once again, and entered Iran.
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.”