Profile of a Killer

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is the most wanted man in Iraq. How did this high school dropout tie the United States down in its deadliest conflict since the Vietnam War? From the slums of Jordan to the battle of Falluja, this is how it happened.

The world first heard of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi on Feb. 5, 2003. That was the day that then U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell went to the United Nations to make the case for the invasion of Iraq. "Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network, headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda lieutenants," Powell told the U.N. Security Council. That information, we now know, was false. But it laid ground to one of the most powerful and enduring myths of the war on terror -- the myth of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

The world first heard of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi on Feb. 5, 2003. That was the day that then U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell went to the United Nations to make the case for the invasion of Iraq. "Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network, headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda lieutenants," Powell told the U.N. Security Council. That information, we now know, was false. But it laid ground to one of the most powerful and enduring myths of the war on terror — the myth of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

That Zarqawi and bin Laden would be mentioned in the same breath — and from an official as senior as Powell — probably shocked no one more than Zarqawi. There are, after all, hundreds of men just like him throughout the Arab world, committed jihadists with some penchant for leading others. Although Zarqawi had demonstrated a zeal for his cause, there was little about him to suggest that he would catapult to the top ranks of the world’s deadliest terrorists. Uneducated and from a poor, working-class family, Zarqawi lacked the pedigree, connections, and financing that marked bin Laden and other senior leaders of al Qaeda.

But, of course, Zarqawi is no longer a mere foot soldier. From New York to London, from Paris to Tokyo, Zarqawi has become the new face of Islamic terror. He has replaced Saddam Hussein as the poster boy of evil in the Arab world. He commands a cadre of Iraqi insurgents that have purportedly carried out many of the barbarous terrorist attacks in that country since the ousting of Saddam. Now with a $25 million bounty on his head, this high school dropout from the slums of Jordan has tied the United States down in its deadliest conflict since the Vietnam War.

But how did myth become reality? Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. government had never heard the name Zarqawi. The first time U.S. officials learned of his existence was near the end of 2001, from the Kurdish secret service. The U.S. government knew little about the 35-year-old Jordanian, but they had much to gain from the creation of his myth. At the time, Saddam’s regime stood accused of possessing weapons of mass destruction and supporting terrorist outfits. Without hard proof of the former, Saddam’s support of terror was the only trump card the Bush administration had to convince the world that the Iraqi dictator had to go. To play it, the administration needed to demonstrate a link between Saddam and al Qaeda. Their link was Zarqawi.

Powell’s words before the U.N. Security Council now appear to have been a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whereas Zarqawi was once just a young, frustrated Islamic radical, the insurgency he now commands threatens to lead Iraq into civil war. Indeed, his success on Iraq’s frontlines eventually did lead to a link between Iraq and al Qaeda — just not the one the Bush administration had imagined. Almost two years after Powell’s speech, on Dec. 27, 2004, bin Laden named Zarqawi the emir of al Qaeda in Iraq. Zarqawi’s route to this elevated position in the loose hierarchy of terrorists not only reveals radical Islam’s appeal among the Arab world’s poor, but it suggests that the way terrorists wage war may never be the same again.


Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was born Ahmad Fadil al-Khalayleh in Zarqa, a Jordanian city north of Amman, in October 1966. Zarqa’s residents have dubbed the city "the Chicago of the Middle East" for its poverty and crime. Zarqawi’s family belonged to a branch of the Bani Hassan, a large East Bank Bedouin tribe loyal to Jordan’s Hashemite royal family. Zarqawi grew up in a miserable, working-class neighborhood where traditional and tribal values mixed badly with the Western consumerism and rapid modernization of the late 1960s. He attended a local school and used his neighborhood cemetery as a playground. He was hardly a star pupil. His teachers remember him as rebellious and unruly.

At home, Zarqawi was respectful and deeply loved. "He was the apple of our father’s eye," recalls one of his sisters. Zarqawi’s father died in 1984 and, as the family sank deeper into poverty, an 18-year-old Zarqawi began acting out his frustrations. He dropped out of secondary school, joined a local gang, began drinking, and turned into a bully. Not long after, he was arrested for drug possession and sexual assault. He was convicted and sent to prison.

In Zarqa, as is the case across the Middle East, the worlds of petty crime and revolutionary Islam constantly crisscrossed on the margins of society — especially in prison. And it was in captivity that Zarqawi received his first jihadist indoctrination. After his release, he married and began frequenting the al Hussein Ben Ali mosque, a radical hotbed on the outskirts of Zarqa. Fascinated by the stories of mujahideen fighters who regularly visited the mosque, he was easily recruited by a representative of the Arab-Afghan Bureau, the Islamic organization charged with supplying Arab fighters to participate in the anti-Soviet jihad. Although the mujahideen were often troublemakers at home, the status represented a step up on the social ladder for Zarqawi. In the Middle East, nobody likes a drunken bully, but everybody respects the mujahideen.

But Zarqawi’s hopes of joining the fellowship of the mujahideen proved to be another bitter disappointment. He arrived in Afghanistan in the spring of 1989, too late to fight the Soviets’ Red Army, which had begun withdrawing a year earlier. Without connections or anyone to vouch for him, he felt out of place among the Arab warriors who roamed the streets of Afghanistan. Indeed, among the hardened lot of fighters, Zarqawi seemed a sensitive soul. To manifest his uneasiness, he temporarily changed his name to al Gharib (Arabic for "the Stranger"). "[He] was a very simple person, normal, looking for truth in his own way," recalls Hamdi Murad, a former spiritual leader of the mujahideen and now professor of Islamic studies at the University of Al-Balqa in Jordan. "You would never have thought that he would perhaps turn out to be a military leader one day."

Slowly, Zarqawi began to make his own contacts. While working as a junior employee at the Arab-Afghan Bureau across the border in Peshawar, he met and befriended a distinguished radical Salafi thinker, known as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. A Palestinian, Maqdisi was raised in Kuwait, where he studied theology. He moved to Afghanistan in the 1980s and, as an insider, he understood the complex politics of the mujahideen. The pair soon began a close friendship that would last a decade. They were an odd duo, recalls one former mujahid. Maqdisi was tall, with light hair and blue eyes, a strikingly good-looking man. Zarqawi had all the physical characteristics of his Bedouin blood — he was short in stature, with black hair. Maqdisi taught Zarqawi the fundamentalist way of thinking. "The Salafist ideology is primarily a movement of violent rupture with the environment," explains Nadine Picaudou, a professor at the National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations in Paris. And Zarqawi — a working-class Bedouin, failed mujahid, and social misfit — was a man at odds with his environment.

Near the end of 1993, the pair returned to Zarqa and began preaching a revolutionary creed against the Jordanian regime. A few months later, in March 1994, Zarqawi and Maqdisi were arrested and subsequently sentenced to 15 years in prison for creating a clandestine jihadist group called Bayaat al Imam ("Pledge of Alliance").


This second captivity unleashed Zarqawi’s inner potential in a way his time in Afghanistan had not. "I think that seven years in jail are more than enough to reshape the personality of anybody," says one former al-Suwaqah prison inmate. In prison, Zarqawi endured both physical and mental torture. He spent more than eight months in solitary confinement, in the baking heat of the Jordanian desert, inside a cell that resembled a dog kennel.

Zarqawi’s metamorphosis was both physical and mental. Fellow inmates remember him exercising constantly, lifting whatever he could use as weights, including buckets of rocks. He lost his slender figure and became massive. That physique accompanied a mental toughness. "[He wanted] to learn the holy Koran by heart," recalls Faiq al Shawish, Zarqawi’s cell mate. "I helped him. He used to recite at least 10 verses a day to me. Zarqawi was relentless when it came to jihad and learning…. He had the patience to stay up all night, studying a single issue."

Unlike Maqdisi, a sophisticated intellectual, Zarqawi acted on instinct. While in prison, and perhaps because of it, his transition from an ordinary criminal to something more sinister began. His fellow prisoners may have respected him because he came from the same unprivileged roots. Or, it may have been the strength he showed to his captors. Like the leader of a pack of wolves, he was aggressive, constantly bordering on physical confrontation. "He was tough, difficult to deal with," admits Sami al Majaali, former head of the prison authority in Jordan. "We were always careful in approaching him, especially because he was a real leader, a prince, as the inmates called him. All the dealings with any of those convicts had to go through him. If he cooperated, the others would follow suit."

In the spring of 1999, a national amnesty ended Zarqawi’s and Maqdisi’s imprisonment. According to Zarqawi’s brother-in-law, Saleh al Hami, he "was not very happy when he left jail. Somehow, the conditions in prison were better than those of the easy, nothing-to-do, routine life. I felt that he was bored. He was dying to get out of this country." Months later, he left Jordan for Pakistan, intending to link up with jihadists in Chechnya.


Zarqawi never made it to Chechnya. Arrested for having an expired visa in Pakistan, he reluctantly crossed over to Afghanistan, where the Taliban was in the sixth year of its fight to take full control of the country from the Northern Alliance.

Sometime in 2000, in the southern city of Kandahar, Zarqawi finally met Osama bin Laden. The two men came from opposite corners of Arab society; one was rich and powerful, the other was a poor social misfit. Yet both men shared a common aim: the deliverance of Muslims. The problem was agreeing on a strategy for achieving it. Bin Laden, from a wealthy Saudi family, in contact all of his life with Arabia’s political elite, had a global, anti-imperialist vision of jihad. He was focused on the "faraway enemy," the United States, who backed Muslim regimes he considered corrupt and illegitimate. Zarqawi, a working-class jihadist who cut his teeth inside Jordan’s prisons, was a revolutionary outlaw. His notion of waging jihad was much closer to the terrorism of the 1970s and 1980s, embodied in localized groups such as the Irish Republican Army or Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers.

That’s one reason why, contrary to popular belief, Zarqawi did not pledge allegiance to bin Laden at that meeting, despite being invited to join al Qaeda’s international terrorist network. Zarqawi’s horizon was limited to what he saw as corrupt Arab regimes, especially his native home of Jordan. Some experts have found it implausible that someone as junior as Zarqawi, who was without financial backing, would refuse bin Laden’s offer to join al Qaeda. But those who know the Jordanian radical say this kind of behavior is perfectly in line with his personality. "He never followed the orders of others," says a former member of his camp in Herat. "I never heard him praise anyone apart from the Prophet [Muhammad], this was Abu Musab’s character. He never followed anyone."

Nor was Zarqawi alone in disagreeing with bin Laden’s anti-American vision of jihad. High-ranking leaders inside al Qaeda shared his concerns, including Saif al-Adel, the man in charge of al Qaeda’s military operations. Al-Adel encouraged Zarqawi to set up an independent terrorist training camp. Following this advice, Zarqawi moved to northwestern Afghanistan, to the city of Herat, near the Iranian border. In the hills there, Zarqawi set up his own training facility with funding from the Taliban.

Zarqawi wanted the Herat camp to prepare people to go back to Jordan to carry out suicide missions. The camp was advertised by word of mouth. Many simply heard of it back in Jordan, met people who had known Zarqawi, and decided to join. In early 2002, after the fall of the Taliban regime at the hands of U.S. forces, Zarqawi fled to Iraqi Kurdistan, where he established additional camps. He was anticipating a U.S. invasion of Iraq. After putting a childhood friend in charge of his camps, he secretly went to Baghdad in the summer of 2002 and began preparing for battle.


In the fall of 2001, the Kurdish secret services were the first to draw American attention to Zarqawi. U.S. authorities didn’t recognize his name, but they immediately got in touch with Jordanian authorities to find out more.

Zarqawi’s list of crimes soon multiplied. In November 2001, joint U.S.-Jordan investigations accused Zarqawi of being part of the foiled al Qaeda plot in Jordan during the millennium celebrations in 2000. In February 2002, he was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison for his involvement in the thwarted attack. They also charged him with responsibility for the assassination of Yitzhak Snir, an Israeli citizen, in 2001 and of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley, who was gunned down in Amman in 2002. When no hard evidence was produced to back up these charges, many Middle Eastern journalists and observers believed that Zarqawi was being framed as a new international terror leader. After all, all sides had much to gain from the myth of Zarqawi. The Kurds could use him to convince the United States to bomb jihadist camps in northern Iraq. The Jordanians could use him to solve the mystery of a series of terror attacks carried out by local militants. And the Americans, intent on building their case for attacking Iraq, could use the shadowy figure of Zarqawi to link Saddam’s regime to the threat posed by al Qaeda.

Powell’s February 2003 presentation before the U.N. Security Council put Zarqawi’s name under the spotlight for the first time. Almost overnight, the Jordanian militant went from being an unknown in the world of international terrorism to having his fingerprints on scores of bombing attempts around the world. He was linked to nearly all major terrorist attacks that took place in the aftermath of 9/11, including masterminding the creation of al Qaeda cells in Spain, Germany, and Turkey. He was accused of participating in terrorist attacks in Casablanca, Madrid, and elsewhere.

Whether Zarqawi had a hand in any of these plots, one thing is certain: He was preparing himself for battle. "It’s naïve to think that while the U.S. was preparing for its war against Iraq, someone like [Zarqawi] was not getting ready to fight them there," says the member of his camp in Herat. "He had been planning for this for a long time." Planning seems to be one of Zarqawi’s strongest skills. He purposely refrained from carrying out attacks in Iraq until the late summer of 2003, months after the Shiite insurgency had started. According to people close to him, Zarqawi did not want to get involved in, nor did he want to kill Americans during, the war. Zarqawi could not compete with America’s fighter planes, missiles, and high-tech weapons. So he waited until the occupation and his support network among the Sunni resistance was fully in place.

Zarqawi’s waiting game ended with two attacks in August 2003: a truck bomb explosion at U.N. headquarters in Baghdad and, days later, a carful of explosives driven into the Imam Ali mosque by the father of Zarqawi’s second wife. The connection between the two attacks eluded Western analysts at first. It was a common belief that the conflict in Iraq was a fight between U.S. forces and their supporters on one side, and cleric Moqtada al Sadr’s Shiite militia and Saddam’s loyalists on the other. But the symbolism of the attacks was well understood by jihadists. For Zarqawi, the Iraq conflict had two fronts: one was against coalition forces; the other was against the Shiites. He had finally managed to grasp bin Laden’s definition of the faraway enemy, the United States. Its presence in Iraq as an occupying power made it clear to him that the United States was as important a target as any of the Arab regimes he had grown to hate.


Between August 2003 and December 2004, bin Laden and Zarqawi corresponded frequently. The core of their exchange focused on the fundamentals of jihad, according to letters that have surfaced in recent months. Zarqawi was trying to secure bin Laden’s blessing for his actions in Iraq. Why was Zarqawi, who had earlier spurned the al Qaeda network, so keen to get Osama bin Laden’s approval? Contrary to how Powell had portrayed Zarqawi at the Security Council, he was a small player in the wider jihadi movement. As a poor Bedouin from Zarqa, he lacked the religious authority to rally Iraq’s Sunni population around him. He desperately needed legitimacy. And bin Laden was the only person who could help him obtain it.

Zarqawi was eager to drive a wedge between the Sunnis and the Shiites. Otherwise, he feared that the Iraqi insurgency might develop into a national resistance, with both sects finding common cause. These fears were confirmed in the spring of 2004, when al Sadr’s revolt attracted admiration among Sunni insurgents. Pictures of the preacher were plastered on the walls of neighborhoods where Sunnis lived. In his correspondence with bin Laden, Zarqawi relentlessly stressed the need to prevent Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis from uniting around a genuine nationalism. If this were to happen, he concluded, the jihadists would be cut out because they were foreigners and the insurgency would become a national undertaking.

It may be hard to believe that a simple man from Zarqa could produce such a sophisticated political analysis of the new Iraq. Many experts believe that better-educated jihadists have joined his following since the birth of his myth. Or perhaps, he is still led by his instinct. Either way, the myth constructed around him is at the root of his transformation into a political leader. With bin Laden trapped on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Zarqawi fast became the new symbolic leader of the fight against America and a magnet for whoever was looking to be part of that struggle.

On April 5, 2004, Zarqawi wrote to bin Laden that he had two options: stay in Iraq and confront the opposition of some Iraqis to his methods, or leave and search for another country in which to wage the jihad. Four days later, he kidnapped and beheaded American citizen Nicholas Berg. This was the first of several brutal executions broadcast on the Internet that took place from April to November 2004. These terrorist acts were part of Zarqawi’s response to the American military push inside the Sunni Triangle and, in particular, against Falluja. They were a clear signal for bin Laden that he had decided to stay, with or without his approval.

In a communiqué broadcast by Al Jazeera Satellite Channel on Dec. 27, 2004, a month after the fall of Falluja, bin Laden finally embraced Zarqawi and agreed to support his fight in Iraq. "The emir mujahid, the noble brother Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the groups which have united with him are the best [of the community of believers]…. We in al Qaeda welcome your union with us…and so that it be known, the brother mujahid Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is the emir of the al Qaeda organization in the land of the Tigris and the Euphrates and the brothers of the group in the country should swear to him an oath of obedience."

The anti-American crusade of the Saudi millionaire and the revolutionary jihad of the Jordanian working-class Bedouin had finally merged. From the slums of Zarqa to the battle of Falluja, the life of Zarqawi culminated in his greatest achievement — not his entry into al Qaeda, but giving the Iraqi jihad a new, revolutionary, anti-imperialist meaning.

In a sense, it is the very things that make Zarqawi seem most ordinary — his humble upbringing, misspent youth, and early failures — that make him most frightening. Because, although he may have some gifts as a leader of men, it is also likely that there are many more "Zarqawis" capable of filling his place. His rise is a sign that the jihadist movement is widening and democratizing in the blood and violence of Iraq. Al Qaeda’s old leadership, now trapped inside the tribal belt between Pakistan and Afghanistan, has apparently accepted and embraced this change — the transformation from a small, elitist vanguard to a mass movement. Most likely, this shift for bin Laden and al Qaeda is one borne of necessity, not a desired change in tactics. Either way, it surely means that the battlefield will grow wider still.

Loretta Napoleoni is a terrorism expert, author, and novelist. Her books include Insurgent Iraq: Al-Zarqawi and the New Generation (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005), from which this article is drawn, and Terror Incorporated: Tracing the Dollars Behind the Terror Networks (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005).

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