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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 three.

10/11/2005

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi: In the network of the phantom

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

What he had to say, he typed into the computer. He waited until the e-mail had disappeared into virtual space. Then Abu Osama al-Sudani set off. To the wardrobe, to the safe, across the hallway, past the nursery, through the front door and out into the night, where his trace vanished in the darkness. Abu Osama's wife knew nothing of all this. When she woke up the next morning, she desperately contacted relatives, friends and finally the police. But Abu Osama did not resurface.

Two months later, the phone rang. "Your husband has been killed in Iraq," said an unfamiliar voice.
"In Iraq? Killed?"

"Your husband was killed. He is a martyr."

Over the following days, the telephone kept on ringing. Many people were happy for Abu Osama's wife and offered their congratulations.

The wife started investigating. Her husband, a university student in the Saudi city of Jeddah, was a regular visitor to the Muntada al-Ansar forum on one of the websites most closely linked the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Every time Zarqawi's group posted news of an attack on the website, Abu Osama commented in the forum: "Congratulations." Again and again, he watched the same film online. Watched Abu Musab al-Zarqawi take out his knife. Watched him sawing it back and forth, for 30 seconds. Watched transfixed as Nicholas Berg's eyes rolled wildly, watched the murderer lift the American's head into the air. Last February, Abu Osama al-Sudani visited the forum for the last time: "I have seen enough," he wrote. "I am carrying my soul to you, my Sheik."

Between the computer in Jeddah and the bomb crater in Baquba near Baghdad, where Abu Osama blew himself up on March 16, 2005 in the middle of a group of Iraqi policemen, lay a distance of 1,000 kilometres. It is a journey of winding paths with many obstacles. Hundreds have made this journey in order to blow themselves up in Iraq, praised by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as a land of martyrs. Saudis, Kuwaitis, Jordanians, Sudanese.

"Sheik Abdulrahman, how do your brothers travel to Iraq?"

"There are many ways."

"Which is the best?"

"He who seeks shall find."

We are in Bakaa, a Palestinian refugee camp 20 kilometres north of the Jordanian capital Amman. Sheik Abdulrahman is an emir, the head of the local terrorist cell, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's representative in the camp.

"The question was, which is the best way to enter Iraq?"

"There is no need for anyone else to make this long journey, Zarqawi has enough people in Iraq."

"Sheik Abdulrahman, how does one become a member of your force?"

"For the courageous, Allah shows the way."

This is how conversations with Zarqawi's men always begin. Minutes of shadow boxing. Testing. Hinting. Sidestepping. We conducted around two dozen interviews with members of the Zarqawi network, most from the Prince of Terror's native Jordan where his following is the largest.

The recruiting procedure consists of several phases: after establishing contact through acquaintances or at the mosque, a would-be member is assigned to a study group where he is informed about the group's ideological, social and political position. He is then accepted into the organization on a provisional basis. The real test is considered to be a spell in prison. The Zarqawi network in Jordan is under constant surveillance, and its members are frequently arrested. There is usually no concrete charge, and the members are usually set free again after several weeks or months. Anyone capable of remaining true to the group's principles through interrogations, often accompanied by torture, has provided an important proof of loyalty.

Next, the new member is entrusted with his first tasks in a terrorist cell, in accordance with his particular physical and mental skills. This often involves work that strengthens the network or provides logistical support for the fighters on the front line in Iraq. Only those who prove their worth during this phase qualify for higher duties or to become an emir, the head of a terrorist cell.

Those wishing to go to the front themselves require a reference from at least two long-standing members of the Zarqawi group vouching for the candidate's seriousness, competence and reliability. It is not unheard-of for young men to set off for Iraq without such letters of recommendation, a venture that often ends in tragedy for the battle-hungry volunteers. Either they are arrested on their journey, or the terrorist group in Iraq considers them untrustworthy and immediately sends them, without their knowledge, on a suicide mission.

Those who want to go to the front under their own steam in spite of this can find navigation aids on the Internet. Provided, for example, by the "Islamic doctor", the name used by the author of a four-page travel brochure that can be downloaded from a website with links to Al-Qaida. "Your path will not be strewn with roses," warns the "doctor". He recommends the services of the recruiters and human smugglers "to be found in many Arab countries". This refers to the imams at radical mosques. With a phone number provided by a recruiter, the jihadist novices are then advised to set off on their journey. The route usually passes via Syria, the most important hub for "terror tourism". From here, it is not far to the rebel Al-Anbar province in the northwest of Iraq.

"Wear jeans, take a Walkman with you," advises the "doctor". "Trim your beard and pack a fishing rod." Another online terrorist guidebook warns, "Never trust an imam, they are all government informers." For some time now, it claims, the Syrian security services have been subjecting travellers to stricter controls as a result of American pressure.

Zarqawi's international fighters are the elite of the insurgency in Iraq, although their numbers are relatively small. They are estimated at several thousand, around five to ten percent of all insurgents. Their trademark consists of spectacular suicide attacks that shock, cause major damage to life and limb, and have huge propaganda value.

The hotbed of the insurgency lies in the centre of Iraq, the home territory of the Sunnis (20 percent of the population), who belonged to the privileged elite under Saddam Hussein. Three main currents can be distinguished: former Baathists (supporters and former fellow travellers of Saddam Hussein), nationalists, and Islamists. In ideological terms, these groups have nothing in common. The former Baathists are fighting to re-establish the Arab-Socialist dictatorship; the nationalists want a strong Arab nation under Sunni leadership; and the Islamists' goal is to found a Caliphate. But for all these differences, all three are fighting the same fight. Its common theme: out with the Western troops and down with the government under the Shiite prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

Although Saddam Hussein had been preparing for guerrilla combat since the 1991 Gulf War by training special troops and massively stockpiling weapons, Zarqawi needed just a small force "to hijack the insurgency," as senior U.S. military intelligence officers in Iraq put it a few weeks ago. In their view, Zarqawi is no longer merely the sinister face of a brutal terrorist network, but has replaced Saddam loyalists as the driving force behind the insurgency.

Of the 70 or so attacks made every day, the bloodiest and most spectacular (car bombs and attacks on political and religious dignitaries) are credited to Zarqawi. The nightmare of Al-Qaida fighters in the middle of one of the world's largest petrol stations, the nightmare Washington was trying to prevent with the war, has become reality – as a result of the war.

Zarqawi laid the foundation stone for this "rise" in October 2004, when, for the first time, he subordinated himself to bin Laden and officially brought his movement under the Al-Qaida umbrella. In December, bin Laden let the world know: "Zarqawi is Al-Qaida's prince in Iraq." Observers interpreted this as a sign of Zarqawi's weakness. But they were mistaken. The main benefactor of this liaison dangereuse was the Jordanian. According to American intelligence services, Zarqawi has received large sums of money since this merger, above all from Saudi donors and charitable bodies.

He only surfaces when it gets dark; and before dawn he has disappeared again. He has two men with him – one driver, one bodyguard – no more. The time and place for meetings are communicated by messengers. Telephone contact is avoided. Patiently, the members of the "shura", the terrorist high council, wait. Sometimes it is hours before he finally appears. Then, the door suddenly opens, he walks through the room at a measured pace and gets straight to the point: Where are the supplies for Ramadi? When does Operation Black Lion begin? His voice is stern. Some receive praise, some are reprimanded. And he distributes money. The man from Mosul is given 2,000 dollars for a tanker truck, the brothers in al-Qaim a few thousand dollars to rent a basement which they plan to turn into a weapons factory.

This is how the U.S. intelligence services in Iraq imagine the appearances of the most wanted terrorist. They have dubbed him "The Phantom," because he always manages to vanish into thin air before they arrive. The U.S. government gave the task of searching for the Prince of Terror to an elite unit – Task Force 626. This is one of the most thankless missions imaginable. Finally, only a mistake can lead to the master's undoing. Or a traitor. For a while, it seemed as if the Americans had managed to infiltrate the inner circle around Zarqawi with an informer.

On February 20, 2005, they received a tip-off: the sheik was on his way to Ramadi. Task Force 626 set up roadblocks and had drones circling over the city. Then they struck, pouncing on a suspicious vehicle at the roadblock. But there was no trace of Zarqawi. Meanwhile, 800 metres from the roadblock, a pick-up did a u-turn and sped off, with the terrorist sheik sitting inside. He had sent the first vehicle ahead as a decoy, and the Americans let themselves be fooled. Task Force 626 gave chase, capturing the pick-up soon after. But Zarqawi had vanished again. "Rolled out of the moving vehicle under a bridge," Zarqawi's driver explained during his interrogation. "And took shelter in a nearby house."

During his escape, Zarqawi left his laptop in the jeep. The information it contained facilitated the arrests of around a dozen of his accomplices. Interrogations of those arrested gave the first insights into the outlines of the network. The main field of action, the Sunni Triangle (between the cities of Baghdad, Ramadi and Samarra), is divided into nine zones of command. Each zone is controlled by a regional emir with a large degree of operational autonomy. If an emir is arrested, Zarqawi replaces him immediately. This way, the organization stays constantly in motion.

A striking number of the new leaders bear the name al-Iraqi: an indication that Zarqawi is replenishing his ranks with local forces. And an indication that the organization is becoming increasingly established in Iraq. However, the identities of the individuals behind these code names is anyone's guess. Almost no one has an overview of the organization, let alone any idea of what goes on inside it. Anyone trying to advance into the closed Zarqawi circle soon comes up against barriers. Most leads go nowhere. But sometimes chance can help.

Early this year, in a hospital north of Baghdad: in a camp bed, his head resting on two pillows, lies Mohaned, 28, a computer dealer from Baghdad. He has been here for three months, today is his last day. Soon his wife will be here to take him home. A bandaged stump pokes out from beneath the blanket. "It was on the 4th of October 2004, a Monday afternoon," says Mohaned. "I had three Americans in my shop, they wanted to buy a monitor." While the three men were paying, Mohaned saw an Iraqi enter out of the corner of his eye. He saw the man reach into his jacket – and then Mohaned went into a coma for a month. The attack caused a major sensation. It was the first suicide attack inside the Green Zone, the high security area in the centre of Baghdad where the Americans set up their headquarters and where the Iraqi government resides.

In mid-September, in an apartment south of Amman, we picked up the story again. In the course of our investigations, we met Abu Rudeineh, who veils his face with a red and white keffiyeh. He wants to remain unidentified. Abu Rudeineh lives in two worlds. One here, in the calm of Jordan, the other over there, in neighbouring Iraq, where a guerrilla war is raging.

His wife is from Iraq, which means he can pass the border easily. Abu Rudeineh takes advantage of this privilege. He is a messenger in the service of Zarqawi, smuggling all manner of material for weapons to the places where they are to be used. In the course of our conversation, Abu Rudeineh reveals to us his main field of activity: the Green Zone in Baghdad. He has already passed the rigorous controls there six times. Each time with wires, plugs or glue in his luggage.

"Did you say Green Zone?"

"That's right, the Green Zone, the heart of the occupying power, and that's where we wanted to hit them."

"Were you there last October, too?"

"In October and in November and since then, too, six times in all."

"On October 4, 2004?"

"I can't remember the dates exactly. It's not unlikely, we had a major mission there around that time."

No, he says, he has never been in the shop where the first suicide bomber blew himself up. He claims not to have known the bomber either. "My job was the wires, the rest was done by others." And the fact that an Iraqi was nearly killed? Abu Rudeineh says he knew nothing of this either. "Three Americans died. That is all that counts."

When Abu Rudeineh notices that I am informed of his October coup, he begins to talk openly about his mission. His account, which matches those given in interviews by other Zarqawi fighters, give a deeper insight into the working methods of the Zarqawi network. Volunteers spend the time after their arrival studying various weapon techniques. This training last several weeks, except for suicide bombers, who learn their trade within just a few days. Training in the open is avoided on account of the dense American military presence. The future mujahideen make "dry runs", practicing in safe apartments, cellars or stables. Their most important experience is gathered during their first active deployments. The fighting is done in units of five to ten men. The foreign mujahideen spend most of their time in houses. The Iraqi fighters, on the other hand, whose numbers have increased steeply over the last year, usually go about their normal occupations during the daytime.

A characteristic feature of Zarqawi's network is that the cells act largely autonomously. This makes it fundamentally different from traditional resistance organizations whose structure is strongly centralist with a clear hierarchy – from a strong leader at the top through various levels down to the foot soldiers. Such pyramidal organizations are easy to disrupt. If one of the leading figures is taken out of action, whole sections of the network are paralyzed.

Zarqawi tries to avoid dangers of this kind by giving his organization a strictly horizontal structure. Every cell is directly subordinated to a brigade commander, there are no intermediate levels (here an organigram of Al-Qaida's structure in Iraq). This keeps the chain of communications short and makes the network agile. The brigade commanders obtain weapons, food and accommodation for their cells when necessary. In most cases, however, the cells look after their own supplies and enjoy extensive freedom in their actions. This has the advantage that cell leaders spur on their fighters to excel.

"There is a genuine sense of competition between the cells," says one Zarqawi man who has fought in Fallujah and Baghdad. Some cells even work entirely independently, on a freelance basis, so to speak. This applies especially to IED cells. IED stands for improvised explosive device, placed by the fighters at the side of roads and footpaths. Particularly successful IED cells vaunt their lethal skills online and seek to be hired by larger groups.

The secret of Zarqawi's "invulnerability" lies in his tightly woven leadership circle. Zarqawi has taken the prophet as his model. Mohammed married the daughters of his companions Abu Bakr and Omar, Aisha and Hafsa. Zarqawi married the daughter of one of his Palestinian associates who followed him from Jordan. And Zarqawi's companions also began marrying each other's daughters. "In every respect – ideologically, socially and economically – Abu Musab and his brothers succeeded in becoming a single, interlinked and interrelated family," wrote Saif al-Adel in his report on Zarqawi (see Part one of this series).

The core of the organization consists of family members, friends, Afghanistan veterans and former fellow inmates from his time in prison. These are bonds which have so far proved unbreakable. Especially since they are based on a strict ideology: the establishment of a Caliphate, a community of all Muslims under Sharia law.

Driven by Zarqawi's enthusiasm, even close associates are prepared to die for him. The attack with the highest death toll to date, for example, was carried out by a family member, Zarqawi's father-in-law Yassin Jarad. In August 2003, disguised as a doctor, he drove an ambulance packed to the roof with explosives to the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, the most holy place of the Shiites, and blew up the Shiite leader Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim along with 100 believers.

Who are the fighters in Zarqawi's terrorist cells? Abu Jewad, for example, a corpulent man in his mid-forties with a vice-like handshake and a beard up over his cheekbones. He asks me what my name means. "Bear," I tell him. Abu Jewad holds his stomach and laughs so that his two gold teeth show. "Nice to meet you, Mister Bear. Let me introduce myself: my name is Horse's Father."

As we are leaving our meeting place, Abu Jewad gives a sample of his fighting skills. Without a sound, the Afghanistan veteran creeps down the stairs and then suddenly lets off a salvo of shots from his outstretched arm with a loud "ratatatatataa". "The two of us should travel to America together sometime," he laughs, "we'd both get sent to Guantanamo for a thousand years."

Or Abu Mohammed, a man of slight build with sparkling eyes. He is an emir, the boss of a Zarqawi cell. Before he speaks, he says a quick prayer. He was the teacher of Zarqawi's children during their father's five years in prison. Zarqawi is neither the demon the American's portray him as, nor a saint, he says, but just "a simple soldier of God". For the Europeans, he has nothing but contempt. For him, they are the lackeys of the Jews, who in turn are the primary source of all evil.

Or the slim man with sad eyes who we meet shortly before midnight in Amman's old town. He is dressed in black, from head to toe. He calls himself al-Gharib, the stranger, like his role model Zarqawi in his prison letters. In his bag he has a few small bottles of fruit juice: a symbol of hospitality. Unfortunately, he tells us uncomfortably, he cannot receive us in his home. He still lives with his parents, and they know nothing of his plans. Al-Gharib has made up his mind. He wants to go to Iraq, as a "shahid" – as a human bomb. He has already made one attempt, he tells us, but he was caught by Jordanian border guards. His time will come soon, Al-Gharib is sure of that, but before then, he wants to get married. And build an apartment, on the roof of his parents' house.

For all their differences in character, Zarqawi's followers all have one thing in common: a profound conviction that the existence of the Arab world is threatened by an alliance of crusaders and Jews. They refer to the "oppression of the Palestinians" by Israel and the "predatory politics" of the Americans who are "getting rich off Arab oil" and keeping the "corrupt Arab rulers" as servants. All of them are deeply aggrieved at "Arab lethargy", and they all dream of an Islamic empire, the Caliphate – where God's law will reign as in the time of the prophet Mohammed 1300 years ago.

No one knows the size of Zarqawi's following in his native Jordan. And if someone did know, then the King would certainly declare it a state secret. What is certain is that Zarqawi's popularity extends through all social strata. Judging by sales of the black woollen cap that Zarqawi is wearing on one of his wanted pictures, the man is a superstar. In his home town of Zarqa, every second teenager wears one of these tight-fitting caps, making them look almost like a rapper, like Eminem or 50 Cent.

The brutal image of the Jordanian Prince of Terror certainly doesn't damage his standing. On the contrary, supporters of all ages seem to interpret the beheadings and the daily bloodbath in Iraq as signs of Islam defending itself. In any case, most would agree with the young fighter who said in an interview: "The world has more urgent problems than getting all excited about a few dead Americans and Iraqi collaborators."

At Al-Qaida headquarters, there are clearly concerns about Zarqawi's brutal methods. In a 13-page letter, the organization's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, told the head terrorist in Iraq to show restraint. He should not throw away the support of the civilian population and of Muslims throughout the world, it says in the letter, allegedly seized by the Americans during an anti-terrorist operation. Zawahiri's letter was doubtless prompted by Zarqawi's massive attacks against Shiite believers and mosques and the murder of innocent civilians.

A bitter enmity towards the Shiites is one of Zarqawi's trademarks. Because they "worship not the Prophet Mohammed, but the fourth Caliph Ali," he considers them a "treacherous sect". The Iraqi Shiites, large numbers of whom have participated in the political process to date, are defamed by Zarqawi as "the scum of humanity, lurking poisonous snakes and devious scorpions".

It is harldy conceivable that Zarqawi will be impressed by Zawahiri's communiqué. The Jordanian, who has stormed the heights of international terrorism, has never let anyone else tell him how to conduct his business. As paradoxical as the comparison may seem, Zarqawi's whole life resembles Frank Sinatra's My Way. Anger and power are the forces that drive him forward. If he feels hemmed in, he unleashes a new barrage of violence.

This is the case again now, as the world looks towards Iraq. On October 15, 2005, the country voted on a new constitution, the foundation stone for a democratic Iraq. At precisely this moment, Zarqawi threw open the floodgates of hate and declared total war on the Shiites. This is his way of provoking the civil war out of which he hopes to emerge as the saviour of the "true Islam".

To be continued ...


Part one of the series.

Click here for the Interview with the Saudi Ahmad Al-Shaye' in the hospital (Al-Shaye' was sent on a suicide mission without his knowledge - Source: Memritv.org).

Click here for an organigram of the Al-Qaida organisation in Iraq (PDF).

Zarqawi declares total war on Shiites (14 September 2005, source: Memritv.org) here.


*

Part two of the article originally appeared in German in Die Weltwoche, on October 13, 2005.

Urs Gehriger is a correspondent for Die Weltwoche.

Marwan Shehadeh is a journalist and terrorism expert in Amman/Jordan.


Translation: Nicholas Grindell
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