Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi (1966–2006) was killed in a United States air strike in central Iraq on June 8, 2006. The chaos he had helped set in motion in that country, however, only deepened after his death.
Zarqawi had been cast by the administration of U.S. president George W. Bush as the Iraq-based leader of the international al-Qaida terrorist organization. But his ties with that group were uncertain, tense and volatile, as were many of the other alliances he formed over the course of his short life. Ultimately Zarqawi's allegiances lay only with his particular brand of extremist Sunni Islam, a belief system in which Muslims who subscribed to other ideas were hated as much as, or even more than, the Western presence in the Middle East. Of the various horrific terrorist acts Zarqawi and his henchmen planned and executed, perhaps the most destructive—the simultaneous suicide bombing of three hotels in Amman, Jordan, in November of 2005—was aimed at an Arab target, not a Western one.
Zarqawi was born Ahmed Fadeel al-Khalayleh on October 20, 1966, in Zarqa, Jordan, a large, economically depressed city north of the Jordanian capital of Amman. The name "al-Zarqawi" he adopted later simply indicated that he was from Zarqa. One of ten children, he was raised in a poor family with roots in one of the Bedouin Arab tribes of the region's deserts. Zarqawi was remembered as a disruptive and untalented student, and he had little to do outside of school. Sometimes he had to use a local cemetery as a playground, but his family life provided a bright spot. Zarqawi "was the apple of our father's eye," one of his sisters told Loretta Napoleoni of Foreign Policy . He briefly worked as a clerk in a video store.
Already in trouble with the law—at 15 he had been involved with a home invasion during which one of his relatives was killed—the teenaged Zarqawi was thrown into a downward spiral by the death of his father in 1984. He left school and began to abuse alcohol and drugs, joining a local street gang and gaining a reputation as a thug and a trafficker in illicit materials of various kinds. Jordanian police also accused him of sexual assault, and he may have been active as a pimp. In all, he was charged with 37 separate crimes. He served a brief prison term, and it was in prison that he first encountered strict forms of Islam. After his release he married (in 1988 or 1989), and began attending a mosque oriented toward radical Islamic ideas.
Recruiters for the Islamic jihad or holy war against the government of Afghanistan, which was allied with the officially atheist Soviet Union, found Zarqawi an easy mark. He left for Afghanistan to join the fighting in 1989 and saw action with Islamic mujahedeen fighters in several battles that eventually led to the takeover of Afghanistan by the repressive Taliban militia. "He was an ordinary guy, an ordinary fighter, and didn't really distinguish himself," one militiaman recalled to Mary Anne Weaver of the Atlantic Monthly . "He was a quiet guy who didn't talk much. But he was brave. Zarqawi doesn't know the meaning of fear." Wounded several times, Zarqawi seemed "to place himself in the middle of the most dangerous situations."
Zarqawi's commitment to Islamist thought also deepened as he came under the influence of Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, a radical Sunni cleric and fellow native of Zarqa whom Zarqawi met in Afghanistan. Soon he would come to share al-Maqdisi's hatred of Shiite Muslims. Back in Jordan in 1993, the two planned to blow up a movie theater that was showing X-rated films. The plot was botched, and another plan went awry when Zarqawi was caught by police carrying seven hand grenades. Sentenced to 15 years in prison, "he would flourish there," in the words of the Atlantic 's Weaver.
In prison, Zarqawi apparently became a combination of Islamic scholar and gang leader. He spent long hours memorizing the Koran, but he also wore the outfit of an Afghan militiaman and made an impression on his fellow prisoners. "He decided who would cook, who would do the laundry, who would lead the readings of the Koran," journalist Abdullah Abu Rumman, a journalist who served time with Zarqawi, told Weaver. "He was extremely protective of his followers, and extremely tough with prisoners outside his group." Released after a stretch in solitary confinement following a brawl, Abu Rumman recalled, he returned to the ward with a phalanx of bodyguards. "By that time Zarqawi was already called the 'emir,' or 'prince," Abu Rumman said. "He had an uncanny ability to control, almost to hypnotize; he could order his followers to do things just by moving his eyes." Like so many other prisoners, he acquired an intimidating group of tattoos.
While still in prison the barely literate Zarqawi, with help from Maqdisi, began to write militant Islamic tracts that were smuggled out by sympathizers and posted on the Internet. The legend of Zarqawi among disaffected Arab youth with few prospects in life began to spread, and one of his Internet postings found its way to al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. When Jordan's King Abdullah II declared an amnesty in 1999, Zarqawi was released, but the Jordanian government suspected him of involvement in plans for the bombing of a series of hotels and Christian sites, to be executed on New Year's Eve, 1999. The plan was foiled, and Zarqawi left the country, hoping to join separatist Islamic rebels in the Russian province of Chechnya. Instead he was arrested in Pakistan for having an expired visa. Forced to leave the country, he entered Afghanistan. Equipped with a letter of introduction from a Jordanian cleric, he was taken to the city of Kandahar to meet bin Laden.
By some accounts, the meeting between the two men was tense, with bin Laden, whose mother was a Shiite Muslim, finding himself disturbed by the young Zarqawi's violent sectarianism. Zarqawi, for his part, refused to swear bayat , or allegiance, to al-Qaida. Finally he was given seed money by bin Laden allies in Afghanistan's radical Islamic government to set up a militia training camp in the desert near Herat, in western Afghanistan. Once again Zarqawi emerged as a natural leader; his band of followers grew from a few dozen to some 3,000 men between early 2000 and the American invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001.
As Zarqawi's influence grew, money and guns flowed his way. He was summoned to bin Laden's headquarters in Kandahar five times to swear allegiance to al-Qaida, but refused each time. "He never followed the orders of others," a former fighter in the Herat camp told Napoleoni. "I never heard him praise anyone apart from the Prophet [Muhammad], this was Abu Mussab's character. He never followed anyone."
After the Americans attacked Afghanistan in the wake of bin Laden's terrorist bombings of September 11, 2001, Zarqawi and his men joined with the Afghan government to fight the invasion. Zarqawi was wounded in the chest when a building that was bombed by American planes collapsed on top of him. In December of 2001 he and a group of about 300 followers slipped out of Afghanistan and crossed into Iran.
Over the next months, Zarqawi shuttled among Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the autonomous northern Iraq region of Kurdistan, and southern Iraq's "Sunni triangle" region, collecting fighters and money. His motivations were diverse. For some time, his primary aim was to form an Islamic force that would eventually overthrow Jordan's moderate government. In October of 2002 American diplomat Laurence Foley was killed in Amman, Jordan, reportedly on Zarqawi's orders. But he also anticipated the disorder that would follow a threatened American invasion of Iraq. Working with a separatist northern Iraqi militia, Ansar-al-Islam, he worked to expand his power in that country, and he found new followers among Iraq's Sunni minority.
In a speech at the United Nations in February of 2003, laying out the case for invading Iraq, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell named Zarqawi as a key al-Qaida operative in Iraq, an assertion that probably surprised Zarqawi greatly, inasmuch as his ties with that organization were tenuous at best. Powell also said that Zarqawi was Palestinian, and that he had lost a leg in the Afghanistan bombing, both false statements. After the American-led invasion deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, insurgent Sunni Muslims flocked to Zarqawi's side as he came to southern Iraq and likely lived in the violence-riddled city of Fallujah.
Zarqawi's attention was still concentrated on his homeland of Jordan. He organized a massive plot in 2004 to blow up the buildings that housed Jordan's intelligence service. This included a convoy of truck bombs containing lethal chemicals that could have killed 80,000 people. The plan was disrupted, and in May of 2004 Zarqawi became known to the American public at large when his group released a video showing the beheading of American contractor Nicholas Berg. Zarqawi himself may have been the hooded figure wielding the knife in the video. Numerous less-publicized attacks by Zarqawi's bands of Sunni insurgents increased in intensity, eventually killing an estimated 6,000 Iraqis. Late in 2004, Zarqawi finally pledged allegiance to al-Qaida; by the middle of 2005, the $25 million bounty placed on his head by the American government equaled that offered for the capture of bin Laden himself.
Even at that point, Zarqawi still hoped to create chaos in Jordan, and on November 9, 2005, he succeeded, when suicide bombers hit the Radisson SAS, Grand Hyatt, and Days Inn Hotels in Amman. Zarqawi claimed credit for the attacks, which killed over 55 people, including a group of Palestinians attending a wedding. Even al-Qaida's leadership had reportedly reprimanded Zarqawi for the bad publicity generated by his grisly tactics, and now street opinion in the region began to turn against him. Large demonstrations in Amman demanded his death, and tips on his whereabouts began to cross the paths of Jordanian and American spies. Several times he eluded capture as American troops closed in on his hideout.
In April of 2006, Sunni insurgent fighter Huthaifa Azzam told Weaver Zarqawi had been placed in a purely military role within the organization—perhaps a demotion, perhaps a recognition of the fact that his talents lay in the area of recruitment. Seemingly in response, Zarqawi posted a 35-minute video on the Internet, showing him firing an automatic weapon and discussing strategy in a desert training camp. The tape attacked Iraq's elected government for its alliance with the United States and promised mayhem to come. The American intelligence net was closing around him, however, and on June 8, 2006, an American F-16 fighter jet dropped a 500-pound bomb on a safe house in Hibhib, Iraq, north of Baghdad, where Zarqawi was talking with an Islamic advisor; he was carried out the building alive, "muttering prayers," according to Newsweek , but he died soon afterward. Newsweek speculated that "Zarqawi's demise may turn out to be a turning point in the long, frustrating war on terror," but instead, violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq continued to intensify in the coming months.
Atlantic Monthly , July-August 2006.
Foreign Policy , November-December 2005.
New Yorker , June 19, 2006.
Newsweek , June 19, 2006.
Time , December 19, 2005; June 19, 2006.
"Abu Musab al-Zarqawi," Biography Resource Center Online, Gale, 2004, reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Thomson Gale, 2006, http://www.galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (December 6, 2006).