Kidnappings? Zarqawi. Church bombings? Zarqawi. Beheadings? Zarqawi. Truck bombs that slaughter Iraqi civilians by the dozen? Zarqawi.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is behind a small percentage of the bombings and terrorist attacks in Iraq. But his have been the bloodiest. This week has seen some of the worst: On Sunday, an orchestrated series of bombings and shellings rocked the U.S. headquarters in Baghdad and killed 37 across the country. On Tuesday, a crowd at a police recruiting station was ripped apart by a suicide car bomb, killing 59.
All this has made Zarqawi the face of jihad in Iraq and the most-wanted terrorist after Osama bin Laden.
The comparison is quite an achievement for a man who was considered a peripheral figure a year ago, more thug than inspirational leader. A year after his reign of terror began with the bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, experts say his network is stronger than ever, strong enough to survive even his own death.
Zarqawi is “sort of the next generation of al-Qaeda,” says Jonathan Schanzer, terrorism expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Killing “Zarqawi would be like (killing) bin Laden. It would be a major psychological victory, but … it would not really make a dent in the insurgency.”
Some caution that Zarqawi’s importance should not be overstated. Jeffrey White, a Middle East analyst who spent 34 years at the Defense Intelligence Agency, said Zarqawi’s core organization probably numbers in the hundreds. That said, White added that Zarqawi had proved himself capable of mounting “spectacular attacks” that cause enormous damage and “reverberate through the entire system.”
Defying conventional wisdom that Iraqis won’t follow foreign leaders, Zarqawi, a Jordanian, has put together a loyal network, experts say. He has managed to elude capture or death despite a $25 million reward for him, dead or alive — the same that was offered for Saddam Hussein. Repeated U.S. air attacks on his strongholds in Fallujah, about 40 miles west of Baghdad, have failed to kill him. Undeterred, he has renewed his pledge to kill Iraq’s U.S.-appointed president. It’s a threat taken very seriously.
Drawn to the mujahedin
Unlike bin Laden, Zarqawi wasn’t born rich. He advanced through grit and toughness. He was born Ahmed Fadeel al-Khalayleh about 37 years ago in Zarq, an industrial city north of Amman, the Jordanian capital. His family, ethnic Palestinian, was poor. By nearly all accounts, he was a young man with no great potential — except for violence.
According to an Associated Press report that cites Jordanian intelligence, Zarqawi’s first taste of prison life came when he was a teenage dropout accused of sexual assault. He was a drinker, occasionally a heavy one, and not a religious zealot.
Sometime in the late 1980s, he became enamored of the mujahedin and went to help them fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. He returned to his Jordanian hometown in 1992 and linked up with other Islamic militants. The following year, he was jailed by Jordanian authorities for six years after rifles and bombs were found in his house.
By 1999, when he was freed as part of a broad amnesty, he had beefed up his small frame with weightlifting and was a leader of inmates. A prison doctor, Basil Abu Sabha, told The New York Times that Zarqawi “could order his followers to do things just by moving his eyes.”
Zarqawi moved to Peshawar, a city in western Pakistan known for radical Islam, and then the following year went to Afghanistan, then run by the Taliban. He helped train terrorists there and reportedly became close to bin Laden. He began to organize attacks, including what Jordanian authorities say was a failed plot to blow up an Amman hotel during millennium celebrations.
When the United States bombed Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks, Zarqawi reportedly was hurt. He fled to Iran, and then to Baghdad for medical care. There were reports he had to have a leg amputated, but most experts suspect they were inaccurate. Along the northeastern border with Iran, a place beyond the control of Saddam, he linked up with Ansar al-Islam, a radical group known to cooperate with al-Qaeda. At the same time, according to British intelligence, he set up “sleeper cells” elsewhere in Iraq.
To the United States, he remained a minor figure. His organization, Tawhid and Jihad, which means “Unity and Holy War,” was mostly a fringe group loosely affiliated with al-Qaeda. But he began to get more attention after the murder of Laurence Foley, a U.S. diplomat in Amman in October 2002. The gunmen arrested said Zarqawi had ordered the hit. Zarqawi was convicted of murder in absentia.
That fall, Zarqawi got more attention when President Bush told the American public about U.S. plans to invade Iraq. Bush cited Zarqawi’s post-9/11 stay in Baghdad as evidence of Saddam’s cooperation with al-Qaeda. But even those who highlighted those contacts did not imagine Zarqawi would be the pre-eminent leader of Iraq’s resistance today.
“Zarqawi’s ambition is to be seen as even more successful than bin Laden himself,” says Kenneth Katzman, senior Iraqi analyst at the Congressional Research Service.
When Baghdad fell to U.S.-led forces in April 2003, Zarqawi was off the radar. The hunt was on for Saddam, his sons and regime officials pictured on a deck of playing cards.
Zarqawi was lumped in with other foreign Arab terrorists. Even after he began launching attacks, including bombings of the U.N. headquarters and the Jordanian Embassy, he was ranked more as a nuisance than a major impediment to plans for reconstruction and democratization.
It was after Saddam’s capture in December that the Jordanian began to emerge as a leader, by tapping into the anger and frustration of the now-leaderless members of Saddam’s Baath Party.
Katzman says Zarqawi’s appeal is broad because he fights to reverse the pan-Arab sense of humiliation caused by the Western control of Arab lands. He appeals to Saddam’s Sunni Muslims by advocating the subjugation of the rival Shiites, the majority in Iraq.
The alliance of Zarqawi’s Islamic terrorists with the seasoned, military-trained men who once backed Saddam has proved cunning and deadly. Although hopelessly outgunned in any head-on battle with U.S. troops, they hold sway in several cities, including Fallujah, Ramadi, Baqouba and Samarra. The important northern city of Mosul is increasingly under his influence, along with parts of Baghdad.
Fallujah is the center of the operation, but Zarqawi moves around — perhaps as far as Iran on occasion — and some say he wears disguises when he travels. He has repeatedly narrowly avoided death from the missiles fired his way when his presence is detected by informants or radio traffic, according to the U.S.-led military coalition.
“He has a deep network of supporters, people who are helping to hide him,” says Schanzer, who estimates Zarqawi’s hard-core following in Iraq at 1,400.
Though Zarqawi is deferential to the older bin Laden, he works independently. He has received backing from allies in Syria, Iran and elsewhere, says Schanzer, who detailed a recent interrogation of a Zarqawi associate in an article in The Weekly Standard.
After so many years on the run, Zarqawi knows how to hide, Schanzer says. In a radio interview this summer, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage admitted, “We’ve tried a couple of times to, in a precision way, to take him out. I don’t know where he is today.”
Zarqawi’s inner circle is tight and loyal. With each failed attempt to kill him, the legend grows.
“I don’t necessarily believe that this is a man who has a great depth of knowledge when it comes to Islam,” Schanzer says, but he has a “great capacity for brutality.”
Unlike bin Laden, Zarqawi is a hands-on terrorist and has made sure the world knows it. He is said to have personally carried out the beheading of American Nicholas Berg in May, an event that was put on the Internet with the help of Zarqawi’s media team, Schanzer says.
Zarqawi’s goal for Iraq is similar to bin-Laden’s: driving the Westerners out and imposing a Taliban-style rule. Unlike Muqtada al-Sadr, the renegade cleric who inspired Shiite militia into battle, Zarqawi’s is an underground movement. Though his supporters are intense and loyal, they are a tiny proportion of Iraq’s 25 million people.
In Baghdad, Hussein Khadem, 26, a cooking gas dealer, laughed when asked about Zarqawi’s movement. It’s not philosophy but greed that drives Zarqawi, Khadem said.
“As long as we have oil,” he said, tapping a gas cylinder on his wagon, “we have plenty of these guys like Zarqawi.”
Engineer Mohamed Sadeq, 36, said he was tired of all the hype. “I feel that Zarqawi is in one of my pockets because he is so close … his name is on all papers and media,” he said. “I look forward to the moment when the media forget his (name), so I can put my hands again into my pockets.”
Getting Zarqawi would be a psychological victory for a new Iraqi government that is trying to establish its authority. Lt. Gen. Mudher al-Mawla, commander of Iraqi national guards at the Ministry of Defense, says, “With the more raids and arrests we are currently launching, we are hopeful to make his days numbered in Iraq.”
Contributing: Sabah Anbaki in Baghdad, Barbara Slavin in Washington and wire reports