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Al-Qaida top terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed on June 7, 2006, when the US army bombed the house he was visiting. This article about al-Zarqawi's rise was published in a three-part series. Click here for Part two.

09/11/2005

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi: From green man to guru

A portrait of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, once Iraq's most-wanted terrorist. Part one. By Urs Gehriger

This is the story of a man who set out to liberate his people from servitude and sin. It is the story of a hoodlum and drunkard who found strength in religious faith and then used that faith to cudgel unbelievers. It is a story with no foreseeable end – even if the man were to die today, the world would be struggling with his legacy for a long time to come. It is the story of Ahmad Fadeel al-Nazal al-Khalayleh, better known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the most dangerous man in the world. Today, no one is quite sure how this story began.

But if it began at any specific point, then on the afternoon of August 19, 2003 on Canal Street, in the north of Baghdad, when a gardener with dusty hair and blood-streaked overalls stumbled onto the street. As he died, he was holding a hoe in his hand. He had probably been weeding the lawn in front of U.N. headquarters when a van packed with 1000 kilograms of explosives blew up below the office window of Sergio de Mello, the U.N. special representative in Iraq. De Mello himself lay trapped in the rubble. Rescue workers kept giving him water. When his strength began to wane, he sent a final message to his family. Just over an hour later, he bled to death.

Eight months after the attack, a recording turned up on the Internet. It featured a voice crowing like a parrot. "God has rewarded is," said the voice: "We harvested their heads and slit open their bodies: at the U.N. in Baghdad, in Karbala, in Nasiriyah, in..." There followed a long list of towns and villages. It was a list of terror, at the end of which the voice revealed its name: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The attack on the U.N. was the start of an unprecedented terrorist offensive with which Zarqawi is driving the American military in Iraq to the verge of despair.

Who is this man, beside whom even Osama bin Laden suddenly appears harmless? Who personally decapitates bound hostages with long knives? And how did he shoot to the top of every wanted list, seemingly overnight?

In the shadow of the Jordanian capital Amman lies an impoverished expanse of bricks, TV aerials and asphalt covering around ten square kilometres – the town of Zarqa, home to 800,000 people, society's have-nots, Palestinians, refugees from the wars against Israel. Once before, all eyes were on Zarqa, when Palestinians kidnapped a Swissair and a TWA passenger plane and had them flown there.

That was long ago, and it was quickly over. But now, the city regularly features in the headlines. A steady stream of visitors want to see the notorious house where Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was born on October 30, 1966 and where he grew up with his seven sisters and two brothers. It stands in the centre of town, in the Maqsum district, a normal house, two storeys, bare walls, a small garden.

Opposite the house, a cemetery, unkempt, full of garbage. Neighbours interviewed by the media have said that this lunar landscape full of graves triggered a fascination with death in the young Zarqawi. But no one talks anymore. The Khalayleh clan sent a message to the King of Jordan condemning the machinations of their estranged son, and the King vowed them to silence.

High up in the mountains of Afghanistan, the first sign Abu Quteiba has of his enemy is the sound of his steps. Abu Quteiba does not have to look up to know the enemy will reach him shortly. He looks at the trigger on his rifle and holds his breath. He hears the steps, bare feet on loose stones. They are getting faster. Only seconds away.

"He was wearing dark glasses," recalls Abu Quteiba, as if it were yesterday. "He had taken off his shoes, must have thought that would stop us from hearing him." Abu Quteiba was quicker, the Russian lay somewhere in the Hindu Kush, one of 15,000 dead left behind by the Soviets when they withdrew defeated from Afghanistan in 1989.

"The Russians were braver than the Americans," says Abu Quteiba. "The Americans screamed like pigs when we fired at them. The Russians died without squealing." In Abu Quteiba's living room, half a dozen veterans sit in a circle and wallow in memories of the front. Everyone here knows Zarqawi personally. "One day, this young man came to us," says Abu Quteiba, who in the 1980s organized the passage of young mujahideen to Afghanistan. Hundreds came to his office, he says, but he will never forget this man's face. "He was hungry, and he was wild."

Back then, Zarqawi still called himself Ahmad. He was 23 years old, 5'9" tall, slim. He had few friends, little education, no job. He was fed by his father, looked after by his mother. Ahmad's face was pale. He walked the streets. Searching and not finding. But he had one thing that made up for a great deal, something stronger than education, money or a job: Ahmad Fadeel had a deep-seated anger.

At times, this anger would surface in uncontrolled outbreaks, getting him involved in fights, drinking and stealing. Again and again, his father had to fetch him from the police station. In his neighbourhood, he was known as the "green man" on account of the tattoos on his shoulders and forearms. There was an anchor on his left hand, and three blue spots on his thumb, the mark of his gang.

But sometime in the late 1980s, a turning point came in his life. During his wanderings through the neighbourhood, he entered the al-Falah mosque in a Palestinian refugee camp. In the mosque, this man, whose wild life made him a notorious violator of the rules set down in the Koran, found friends who advocated a radical form of Islam. With the same fervour he had put into his fighting and drinking just months before, he now adopted their values as his own. There was much talk of Afghanistan, of the heroic struggle against the Soviet Union and the liberation of Muslims from colonial bondage. For the first time in his life, Ahmad had a goal. He wanted to fight. He went to war.

When he walks, it goes almost unnoticed. But when he sits down, it is immediately obvious. At his right ankle, the sock droops over the edge of the shoe, revealing a piece of coffee-coloured plastic. "Anti-personnel mine, 15 years ago in Khost," says the man with the plastic leg. His name is Saleh al-Hami, he is Zarqawi's brother-in-law and a close friend. "Ahmad was with me when it happened," he says. Ahmad admired the wounded man for his bravery, visited him every day in hospital in Pakistan and offered him one of his sisters as a wife. Was Zarqawi a good warrior? "By God," says Saleh al-Hami, "his will could move mountains."

In the spring of 1989, Ahmad went to Afghanistan. First, he was transported to Khost. But when he arrived there after a journey of several days, he was just in time to see the fall of the city. He had spent years wandering the alleyways as a petty criminal, and now that he wanted to become a warrior, the war was over.

From this point on, Ahmad fought not with a rifle but with his pen. Acquaintances helped him get a job on the Al-Qaida propaganda publication Al-Bunyan al-Marsus (The Solid Edifice). Ahmad travelled throughout Afghanistan, gathering testimonies of Arab fighters, the heroes of a war he had not seen with his own eyes. In the company of these experienced mujahideen, he fashioned his own identity.

When he set off home in 1993, his bags were full of books and tape recordings of the sermons of the ideologist of jihad, Abdullah Azzam, the mentor of Osama bin Laden. Ahmad made Azzam's slogans his own: rejection of modernity, return to the roots of Islam, proclamation of a Caliphate. Ahmad now had a clear goal. He was determined to carry on the struggle in his own country.

When Ahmad arrived in Zarqa, his old friends barely recognized him. He now called himself Abu Musab. The name is taken from one of the prophet Mohammed's warriors, Musab bin Umayer, who lost both hands in the Battle of Medina and who is honoured as the patron saint of suicide bombers. He also adopted the epithet al-Zarqawi (the man from Zarqa), thus underlining his status as a man of the world who represents his home town abroad.
Zarqawi wandered the streets to proclaim the true word, reprimanding women whose clothing was too loose. "It was not easy with him," says his brother-in-law Saleh al-Hami. "When you spend so much time with jihad, it's like oxygen. It gets hard to do without it."

Before long, Zarqawi established contacts with Afghanistan veterans. Together they founded the terrorist group Beit al-Imam (Loyalty to the Preachers) that was co-financed by Al-Qaida. Its aim was to bring down the Jordanian government. But the authorities were on their guard, keeping a close watch on the Afghanistan veterans. Just over a year after his return, Zarqawi was arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison for possession of weapons.

Zarqawi's new battlefield measured just a few dozen square metres: Cell 6 in the high security wing of Swaqa Prison, in the middle of the desert, 70 kilometres south of Amman. Here, he met an old fellow traveller from Afghanistan, the scholar Mohammed al-Maqdisi, who instructed him in the rules of the sect-like Salafi movement. "For Salafis, the predominant idea is one of extreme separatism," says Nadine Picadou, a lecturer at the University of Paris. "The surrounding context of unbelief as a whole is placed under a kind of spell, excommunicated so to speak."

One day, Zarqawi caught a fellow prisoner reading Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment". "Why are you reading the writings of an infidel?", he barked. Not long after, the man received a threatening letter. In poor Arabic, written in a childish hand, Zarqawi ordered him never to read this "Dozeefski" again.

Zarqawi rose to the position of emir, the leader of his forty or so fellow inmates. He commanded them like a military unit. When prison guards approached, he gave orders by winking. All contacts to prison staff went through him. He protected his charges. When a prisoner returned from being tortured, Zarqawi would bathe and care for him.

Those imprisoned with Zarqawi also saw his hidden sides. Sometimes he would retreat to his bed, which he had turned into a tent by draping it with blankets. Sometimes crying was heard, other times he spent hours bent over a sheet of paper, drawing patterns, roses and hearts with childlike diligence. Most of the results were destined not for his wife – who he married during his street fighting days – but for his mother Umm Sayel. In one letter he told her the children's fairytale of the broken heart. It is the story of a boy who is forced to sell his mother's heart. On his way to the buyer, the boy stumbles and the heart is broken. The heart asks: "Did you hurt yourself, my boy?" When the boy realizes that his mother still cares about him, although he has killed her, he decides to pass judgement on himself. But when he draws his knife, the mother calls: "Lay down your hand. You broke my heart once, don't kill it a second time."

His letters were usually signed "al-Gharib" – the stranger. "His personality changed completely," says one fellow inmate. "He did a lot of thinking and came to the conclusion that Islam needs strong leaders." After several years in prison, Zarqawi declared his belief in the Manichean notion of the existence of two worlds: that of the devout Salafi Muslims and that of the "kufar", the unbelievers, among whom he also counted those Muslims who collaborate with the Israeli and American enemies. "No kufar", Zarqawi told one fellow prisoner, "deserves to live."

In 1999, King Hussein died. As a gesture of reconciliation and of new beginnings, his son Abdullah decreed a general amnesty for Jordanian prisoners. Zarqawi was surprised. Together with his cellmates, he voluntarily spent a last night in prison. Unable to stay in Jordan, where his every move was being closely watched, he set off for Afghanistan, where the Taliban were in power and where God's law prevailed. This was the beginning of an astonishing rise that remains one of the greatest puzzles in Zarqawi's career. According to a secret report by the Spanish UCIE anti-terror unit, Zarqawi joined the commanding elite of Al-Qaida just a few months after his arrival in Afghanistan. Exactly one year after his release from prison, Zarqawi took charge of a military camp and had at his disposal a fast-growing network reaching as far as Europe. How does a man who spent the last five years in prison suddenly acquire so much power?

During a year of research on Zarqawi, the Jordanian journalist Fuad Hussein interviewed a number of senior Al-Qaida members. They included Saif al-Adel, a former colonel in the Egyptian Special Forces and bin Laden's military commander. Saif al-Adel, supposedly under "house arrest" in Iran, sent his report on Zarqawi via a system of messengers. The document consists of 42 densely handwritten pages of yellow greaseproof paper. Each page has dozens of fold-marks. According to individuals present when the documents were handed over, they were folded to the size of cigarettes and smuggled into Jordan.

What Saif al-Adel had to tell was informative and explosive. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, he claimed, was not unknown within Al-Qaida's highest circle. Osama bin Laden had allegedly been thinking how the tens of thousands of Afghanistan veterans who travelled home after the defeat of the Soviet troops could be mobilized for a continuation of the jihad. "Some of them were just wandering about out there", wrote Saif al-Adel, something he considered a "waste".

Al-Qaida began to collect information on all of the pioneers of jihad: "The Jordanian and Palestinian brothers were at the top of this list," since the network's own intelligence "suggested that there were not many supporters of Al-Qaida or its ideas in Palestine and Jordan". Zarqawi's "historic pleas" in court, in which he insulted the King of Jordan, had been noted with pride. "We were therefore very pleased early in 1999 when we heard that he had been released."

Shortly after Zarqawi's arrival in Kandahar at the end of 1999, Saif al-Adel visited him at a guest house. He was immediately struck by Zarqawi's weaknesses. He found a man "with poor rhetorical skills, who expressed what was on his mind bluntly." Saif al-Adel also noted that Zarqawi's practical experience (of jihad) was "not extensive." "But his ambition was great, his objectives clear."

He was more seriously worried about Zarqawi's "rigorist views" on some issues. This applied in particular to the "bayat", the vow of allegiance to al Qaida formulated by Osama bin Laden. Zarqawi wanted no compromises – as demonstrated by his position on the Saudi regime. He refused to support bin Laden until he declared war on the House of Saud. Moreover, he considered al Qaida's methods too moderate.

The morning after this meeting, during a discussion with Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, Saif al-Adel raised the question of Zarqawi. The two leaders did not seem enthusiastic. There was a fundamental problem: while bin Laden and Zawahiri were mainly interested in fighting "crusaders and Jews" (primarily the USA), Zarqawi's focus was on Arab regimes and Israel.

After two hours of heated debate, the two leaders granted Saif al-Adel permission to take care of Zarqawi. He suggested to the Jordanian that he found his own group, offering the use of a military training camp near the Afghan city of Herat, on the Iranian border. He was assured funding and weapons. For Zarqawi, this offer was a triumph. He was not even required to swear a vow of allegiance, merely to provide "coordination and cooperation in the service of our common goals". In concrete terms this meant the establishment of Al-Qaida cells in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq.

The leadership of Al-Qaida was not entirely comfortable with this situation. The self-willed Jordanian with his claims to autonomy caused unease within the hierarchy. Some dignitaries suspected him of having been co-opted by the Jordanian secret service during his five years in prison. As al-Adel emphasized several times, this was an important reason why Zarqawi's camp was to be far from Al-Qaida headquarters in Kandahar.

Early in 2000, Zarqawi moved into the Herat base. "It was a simple camp," says Iyad al-Toubasi, a young man from Zarqawi's home town who answered the call of the new terrorist leader to come to Afghanistan. "Abu Musab made sure only the bare essentials were provided." Iron discipline prevailed. Zarqawi demanded from his subordinates what he refused Bin Laden: unconditional obedience and eternal loyalty. A flag in the camp bore the words "Al-Tawhid wal-Jihad" (Unity and Holy War), the name of Zarqawi's subsequent organization in Iraq.

Saif al-Adel rejoiced over the "great progress". And noted a remarkable transformation in Zarqawi himself: "By the start of 2001, Abu Musab had become a different person." Talkative, interested in high-level politics, he had even developed an understanding for public relations. He now made a "much more convincing" overall impression. He had begun to think about the future and to plan it strategically – "all of which are indicators for the emergence of an outstanding leadership figure". At this point, only a small circle knew about the skills of the emerging Prince of Terror. But that was about to change.

On February 5, 2003, the world held its breath. At the U.N. in New York, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell made the case for war against Saddam Hussein. Maps showing mobile poison labs, weapon dumps and rockets were shown. After an hour of "hard facts", the world was introduced to a name that was to remain in the headlines. "Iraq today harbours a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden." The message was clear: bin Laden and Saddam are in cahoots, and their go-between is a man called Zarqawi.

Colin Powell later referred to this performance as "a blot" in his record. He had "never seen evidence" to suggest a link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, he said remorsefully. The fact is that Zarqawi entered Iraq nearly a year before Powell's speech, on April 4, 2002. Who sent him? After the U.S. attack on Afghanistan, many Islamists left for Iran, including Zarqawi's group. Saif al-Adel claims he personally took charge of finding safe quarters for the Al-Qaida refugees. Together, he says, they looked at the situation of the groups and individuals "to find new places to deploy them". Zarqawi, who was not informed of the preparations for the terrorist attacks of 11 September, took the initiative. "Brother Abu Musab and his Jordanian and Palestinian associates decided to go to Iraq."

What was Zarqawi's business in Iraq, where Saddam's secret services were completely ruthless in their handling of Islamists? "The choice (of Iraq) was not arbitrary, but well considered," explained Saif al-Adel. Zarqawi's analysis led him to conclude "that sooner or later, the Americans were sure to make the mistake of invading Iraq." For the Al-Qaida leadership, al-Adel continued, it was clear that the network would have an important role to play in the resistance: "This was our historic opportunity to create the Islamic state."

Iraq was the final destination, and the way there led through Iran. The Islamic Republic clearly acted as both a retreat and a jumping-off point for the next phase of the Holy War. Germany's Federal Criminal Investigation Bureau (BKA) claims that Iran offered Zarqawi "logistical support from the state". What turned out to be a false assessment in Iraq seems to have been true for Iran: the government cooperated with Al-Qaida.

In a 125-page report dated 6 September 2004, the BKA describes how in early 2002, Zarqawi set up new camps and safe houses in Zahedan, Isfahan and Teheran with the knowledge of the Iranian authorities. Iran thus became a hub in Zarqawi's fast growing network stretching from the northern Caucasus to Syria, Turkey and into Europe, with forged passports, money and fresh instructions channelled from here in all directions. Information flows via messengers and telephones, for example a Swiss satellite phone with the Swisscom number 0041793686306.

Saif al-Adel confirmed Iran's accommodating stance: "The Americans noticed that the Iranians were turning a blind eye to our activities there. They launched a large-scale propaganda campaign against Iran." In al-Adel's view, this forced Teheran to arrest and deport members of Al-Qaida. By the time the first cruise missiles targeted Baghdad in March 2003, Zarqawi was already well organized in Iraq. But since his flight from Afghanistan, his efforts had not been focussed exclusively on preparing for the American invasion: in the summer of 2002, Zarqawi personally handed one of his officers a 7mm pistol, a silencer and seven rounds of ammunition. Soon after, this weapon was used to murder the American Laurence Foley in Amman.

This attack was a milestone in Zarqawi's career. It proved he was able to accurately coordinate an operation from abroad. On April 6, 2004, Zarqawi was sentenced in Jordan to "death by hanging" for this crime. He responded to the verdict with a blood-curdling gesture: in a live film recording, he decapitated a bound American, Nicholas Berg, lifted up the head and praised God in heaven.

This ushered in the most horrific phase in the Iraq War so far. Washington put a price of 25 million dollars on the head of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. This brought him well and truly out of bin Laden's shadow. And he even threatened to eclipse him. In the Arab world, the video of Berg's decapitation was copied and forwarded by e-mail thousands of times. While bin Laden was sitting somewhere in the remote Hindu Kush, Zarqawi was establishing his reputation as a man of action. At this point, in May 2004, he controlled the terrorist network in Iraq. And he was soon to give the Americans cause to fear him as the most dangerous man in the world.

To be continued...

Part two of the series.


The "Report from Saif al-Adel", the long-serving military commander of Al-Qaida, was first published in Fuad Hussein's book ("Zarqawi – The second generation of Al-Qaida", only available in Arabic). Here you can download an excerpt from the original document (pdf 161 KB)

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Part one of the article originally appeared in German in Die Weltwoche on October 6, 2005.

Urs Gehriger is a correspondent for Die Weltwoche.


Translation: Nicholas Grindell
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