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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 one and here for Part two.


Abu Musab al-Zarqawi: "It's simple, very simple."

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

"The answer is no." No one knows where this stuff comes from. Transfixed, Evan Kohlmann stares at the tiny screen of his mobile phone. It is showing a film. A man lying in the grass, on his head a shoe. A knife comes into the frame. Gurgling. For 20 seconds. Kohlmann knows the film. It shows the decapitation of a CIA agent in Iraq, recorded in the middle of last year. "With this kind of video messages sent directly to people's mobile phones, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has broken through the final frontier in the propaganda war," he says. "They allow him to reach anyone, anytime, anywhere in the world."

Evan Kohlmann, 26, sits in an apartment full of computers in the middle of Manhattan, "on the frontline", as he says. His battlefield is the World Wide Web. He visits dozens of sites, round the clock, seven days a week. Now and again a little sleep.

Kohlmann is a kind of private detective, scouring the Internet for traces of bin Laden, Zarqawi and Co. His official title is simply "terror expert". He has his own information bureau, Globalterroralert, with two other staff. "Independent," he emphasizes. "Sometimes I get a call from the CIA or the Pentagon asking for my opinion." Among his colleagues, he is known as a whiz kid. At 16 he learned Arabic, at 18 he studied Osama bin Laden's network, and at 23 he wrote the book "Al-Qaida's Jihad in Europe" – praised as "a standard work" by Richard Clarke, America's former anti-terror czar.

"Here it is," Kohlmann turns up the volume. "All religion will be for Allah" is the name of the film, a 46-minute piece of war propaganda, professionally produced, backed with complex graphics and warlike singing. Kohlmann fast forwards the tape. "Here, that's them." A group of young men. Sitting in a room, relaxed, making jokes and laughing. They are the only fighters in the video without masks: "They are suicide bombers during training," says Kohlmann. They laugh although they know they are going to their deaths. "They love death the same way their opponents love life. That's the secret of Zarqawi's strength." He has hundreds of volunteers in his ranks. And their numbers are growing every day. "The reason is right here," says Kohlmann, tapping the screen, "on the web".

Al-Qaida is the first terrorist organization to spread the struggle from the ground into cyberspace. And Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is leading the way. The soldiers he sends into the digital battlefield are young, not much over 20. Whereas in the 1980s their fathers travelled to fight the holy war in Afghanistan, they sit comfortably in Internet cafés. Instead of Kalashnikovs, they carry laptops, handycams and DVDs.

Few attacks of any scale in Iraq are not recorded on film. Soon after, the "reportage" is already available online. The fighter hurries with the film to a computer and uploads it to one of the dozens of jihad websites. "For a 15-second clip, the whole upload process takes half an hour," says Kohlmann, "no more than that."

Kohlmann compares the Zarqawi clips with U.S. Army promotional films used by recruiting officers on their tours of American high schools. In both cases, war is sold as an adventure and a service to society. The Americans use aircraft carriers sailing into the sunset, daring commando operations and proud officers in stiff uniforms and polished boots. Zarqawi uses martyrs blowing themselves sky high, to a soundtrack of warlike chanting and verses from the Koran recited in a deep vibrato. Some of the propaganda material is produced in Saudi Arabia. But the producers and webmasters are not limited by geographical borders. They could be anywhere, in the Middle East, in Europe, Asia. "But the grotesque thing," says Kohlmann, "is that the servers for these terror websites are here in America, in North Carolina for example."

Kohlmann is sure that Western society is a long way from comprehending this new phenomenon. In his view, there are three huge obstacles to be overcome. Firstly, the propaganda material is all in Arabic, "a language that almost no one here speaks." Secondly, the West has hardly any understanding of the mentality and culture of the Islamists. Thirdly, "and this is a real tragedy," there are few experts who are familiar with the techniques of cyber-war. "Of course, there's no shortage of clever young technology freaks, but in the U.S. government, of all places, such people are absent."

As so often in his career to date, Zarqawi learned fast. Within a few months he made the transition from unknown guerrilla fighter to agile online holy warrior. It all started on April 11, 2004. This was the day when a video clip bearing Zarqawi's hallmark was seen on the Internet for the first time. The document is entitled "The Heroes of Fallujah" and it shows several men in black masks placing bombs at the side of a road. Soon after, an American jeep drives over the bomb and explodes. On April 25, this was followed by the first online communiqué in which Zarqawi claimed responsibility for an attack in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. "We have decided to hoist the banner of Jihad," it states. "Fight them [the crusaders], by Allah, we will torture them before your very eyes."

Then, on May 11, came the film that took the world's breath away: the beheading of the American Nicholas Berg. The response to Zarqawi's Internet appearances is overwhelming. Overnight, his documents are copied and spread via hundreds of websites. After the second filmed decapitation – the victim was another American, the engineer Eugene Armstrong – Al-Qaida headquarters dubbed Zarqawi the "Prince of Butchers" in its online magazine in Saudi Arabia.

Zarqawi's Internet presence fulfils one primary purpose: communication. On his websites, one of the world's most wanted men, who has never given an interview to a journalist in his life, stands alone in the spotlight. He alone sets the tone. By comparison, the democracies of Western Europe had it easy in their fight against earlier terrorist groups. They disarmed them by sabotaging their messages. In British news broadcasts, the voice of the IRA politician Gerry Adams was always removed from footage to prevent him from spreading his ideology. In Italy, the Red Brigades were put out of action for whole periods when their statements were withheld from the public.

Zarqawi, on the other hand, has his own stage that he can design as he pleases and on which he presents performances any way and with anyone he likes. Hostages, the President of the United States, Europe's heads of state and 155,000 international troops in Iraq – Zarqawi relegates them all to the status of bit-part actors in a carefully staged drama. His audience – the public of the Western world plus 1.3 billion Muslims – is either shocked or filled with enthusiasm, as he wishes. Zarqawi plays his role very cleverly. He mimes the avenger of the oppressed who takes on the omnipotent Americans and protects the Muslims. "As for you, Bush, you Roman dog, you'd better be ready for something that's going to hurt you bad. Get ready for hard times," he warned Washington before he severed Nicholas Berg's head. And he presented the execution of Ken Bigley, an ageing British engineer, as a heroic response to the alleged arrest and abuse of Muslim women by non-Muslim men in Iraq and elsewhere in the world. A butcher posing as Zorro.

And his followers cannot get enough. In the online forums, visitors demand more and more bloody video clips. "You cut that one too fast," they write. And: "Sheik Abu Musab, when is the next one coming?"

"We are being overrun by this development," says Kohlmann. "There is little we can do. Block a website? The next day, two new ones appear, at a new address." Among Zarqawi's people, there are those who take care of the websites. When one of their sites is blocked, they send a message with an alternative where one can find the same content, accessed using the same username and the same password. And if there is a problem with downloading a video film, one asks a specialist calling himself "Terrorist 007". He provides a link to another website. Nothing is known about the identity of "Terrorist 007" – apart from the fact that he speaks perfect English. And that he wanders through the web as if it were his garden. He once hacked into a file directory on the website of the State of Arkansas, which he then promptly misused for his own purposes, depositing a series of decapitation videos – freely accessible and ready for downloading.

The Internet is not a one-way street. Forums featuring discussions on ideology, strategy and the latest attacks are heavily frequented. In chatrooms, entire groups communicate with one another. The most popular is Paltalk, a free service linking dozens of chatrooms around the entire world. Here, old Afghanistan veterans compare their experiences at the front with recent events in Iraq. Relatives of Arab volunteers in Iraq report on the "martyrdoms" of their sons and nephews. And British Islamists praise the "cleverness" of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It is not the first time that Zarqawi has made his mark in Europe.

December 28, 2001: In Shadi Abdullah's apartment, the telephone rings. "May Allah protect you," says a voice. "Any news?" Abdullah squeals with joy when he hears the voice.

"As Allah wishes, we have purchased a bride from Morocco. She's a very good bride, I've seen her myself."

"But you're not allowed to see her yet," jokes the voice.

"What do you mean?" Abdullah is confused.

"It's not permitted for you to see her! What did you do that for – looking at my wife?"

Shadi Abdullah is a Jordanian, a former bodyguard of Osama bin Laden and an asylum seeker in Germany. The voice on the telephone that sends Abdullah into such rapture belongs to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The Taliban regime has fallen. Zarqawi is on the run somewhere in Iran. He calls Germany almost every day. He talks in code. The "bride" that has been procured in Morocco is a passport. Zarqawi needs many more "brides" for his fighters. The Islamists in Germany deliver, ordering 300 "brides" in the space of three months from a counterfeiting workshop in the Danish town of Horsholm.

But this is clearly about more than just travel assistance for the nomads of terror. In his telephone calls, Zarqawi speaks of "black pills," "Russian apples," "honey" and "little girls." The Federal Criminal Investigation Bureau (BKA) is nervous. For months, it has been recording conversations between Zarqawi and his associates in Germany. They belong to the so-called Tawhid group. The codes have not been cracked. When Abdullah sets off for Berlin after a call, the tension mounts. By tracking the cell ID of Abdullah's mobile phone, the BKA pinpoints his location: Fasanenstrasse. The address of the Jewish community centre. Maximum alert.

Over the following weeks, Zarqawi turns up periodically in North Iraq, but he maintains contact with his German cell. On April 2, 2002, he calls Abdullah again. "As Allah wishes, everything is fine," he says. But the caller soon notices that something is wrong. "It's not going as some would like," says Abdullah. "We order things, fruit or the same, but they demand high prices or keep me waiting."

"Listen, listen," Zarqawi barks at him, "it's not for you to worry whether or not something is expensive."

"We have achieved a few things, but not the silent one. We don't have that yet, we need the silent one, you understand. They brought me one. But it's causing problems, I need the other one."

"Why don't you stick to the plan and take the black pill?" Zarqawi asks.

"We thought of that, but the medicine that is used with it, I mean the honey, we don't have it."

"It's very simple, very simple, very simple." Zarqawi loses his patience. "Listen, listen, you need to pull yourselves together, honestly. In these times, by Allah."

"We are trying hard, by Allah, we are trying hard," Abdullah assures him.

Finally, Zarqawi asks if Abdullah wants to go it alone. "As Allah wishes, now I understand."

"This is a big opportunity," says Zarqawi, "a big opportunity."

Confusion and concern at the BKA. The vehemence of Zarqawi's demands for the imminent execution of some action is unnerving. On the basis of tapped telephone calls, the officers believe there is an attack planned for April 23, 2002. On this day, seven individuals are arrested in a nationwide operation, first and foremost Shadi Abdullah.

Abdullah talks. Bin Laden's former bodyguard is the kind of source investigators dream of. He becomes a key witness. The interrogations point to the conclusion that the German Tawhid cell, originally intended for logistic support, has gradually transformed itself into an operative terrorist group. Abdullah's statements give the investigators an idea of Zarqawi's network in Europe. In Germany, it stretches from Wiesbaden to Berlin, Hamburg and Munich. Help is also available in Britain and the Czech Republic in the form of terrorists who are ready to act. The German group smuggles money to Afghanistan via trading companies and NGOs, which then finds its way to Zarqawi in Iran.

The threads of the network stretch over the whole of Europe. Cells with links to Zarqawi have been smashed in Italy, Spain, France and Great Britain. In London, a key figure was arrested – Abu Katada, the spiritual leader of al-Tawhid, often referred to by investigators as "bin Laden's governor in Europe".

Long before he made headlines in Iraq, Zarqawi was being watched by European agencies. But he was puzzling, "a dark horse" as one investigator puts it. There were rumours that Zarqawi experimented with chemical weapons at his Herat training camp. Within the European intelligence community, there were fears that Zarqawi could succeed in pulling off the big bang, an attack with chemical weapons. In January 2003, dozens of North Africans were arrested in Spain, France and Britain. They were supposed to have prepared ricin and other chemical weapons.

The then U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was categorical: "The ricin discovered in Europe comes from Iraq," he claimed during his notorious appearance before the U.N. Security Council on February 5, 2003, during which he set the scene for the invasion of Iraq. "When our coalition ousted the Taliban, the Zarqawi network helped establish another poison and explosive training centre. And this camp is located in north-eastern Iraq." As "proof" of this claim, Powell showed aerial photographs of the alleged laboratory.

After Powell's U.N. presentation, Zarqawi was known worldwide. According to the U.S. Secretary of State, he was the link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Many within the European intelligence community who had long been on Zarqawi's trail were sceptical. "No such connections have been observed," noted one BKA official in his file. But this was not yet the official line. Suddenly, the world saw Zarqawi as the master terrorist. Wherever a terrorist cell was uncovered, his name turned up, even if the alleged links remained a mystery. When commuter trains were blown up in Madrid on March 11, 2004, the examining magistrate advanced the theory that Zarqawi was the behind the attacks. There was no proof, and the leads were flimsy.

Fact and fiction got mixed up, with Zarqawi growing into a mythical figure. He is sighted in the Pankisi Valley in Georgia, then in Europe, in Syria, Iran and Jordan. He is supposed to have been active in Iraq under the protection of Saddam Hussein, although no one is really sure of his mission. According to Colin Powell, Zarqawi even lost a leg and received treatment at a clinic of Saddam Hussein's in Baghdad. The world racked its brains. How many legs does he have then? "No more than three," joked one journalist, "and no less than none – perhaps." Anyone without access to secret service files soon loses sight of the big picture. And, as one investigator complains, even the attempts by the European intelligence community to track down Zarqawi's network and his plans for chemical attacks seem like "poking around in the fog."

One thing is certain – without the invasion of Iraq, Zarqawi would never have become one of the world's most wanted terrorists. This was made possible by Colin Powell when he painted the Jordanian as the brightest star in the terrorist firmament. And the war and the American mismanagement in the liberated Iraq gave Zarqawi the stage on which he now struts.

In Europe today, people are rubbing their eyes. Two years after the invasion in Iraq, the poison scare has proved to be a false alarm. In Spain, all the suspects have now been released. The alleged toxic substances were bleaches and detergents. In France, the case was dropped when the ricin samples turned out to be wheat germ. And in London, the court handling the case established that the suspect substances had been manipulated. The government apologized and blamed the slip-up on an error made by an employee.

Yet Zarqawi is still far from harmless, and the Iraq war has fanned the flames of this danger. In summer 2003, Jordanian and Western secret services watched as Zarqawi's followers travelled – mostly from and through Europe – via Teheran to Iraq to fight in the holy war there. This was not a one-way street, as it turned out, with fighters from Iraq also withdrawing to Europe.

"The insurgency in Iraq is creating a new type of Islamist militant," concludes a confidential CIA report leaked to the public last June. Their capabilities are said to be more dangerous than those of the Afghanistan veterans of the 1980s. "Those Jihadists who survive will leave Iraq experienced and focussed on acts of urban terrorism," said CIA director Porter Goss. "The danger will grow as soon as these fighters leave Iraq and return either to their Arab home countries or to Europe, where many of them were living in exile or where they grew up as the children of refugees."

Once again, Zarqawi is making European security services nervous. Painstakingly, they are trying to find out how many Muslims were infected by the propaganda, which of them fell in Iraq, and who is on their way back to Europe. In France, around 20 individuals are known to be in Iraq, half of whom have probably died in combat. Europe-wide, around 200 young Muslims have supposedly set off for Iraq. According to the latest information from terror experts, Zarqawi has set up a recruiting network in Great Britain. The new group – Ansar al-Fath (Partisans of Victory) – is said to offer foreign volunteers logistical support, as well as recruiting new members over the Internet. Seventy men from Britain have allegedly set off to fight in the Holy War over the past two years, some of them returning "fully trained." This is not a huge number. But it would suffice if one of them were to establish a local cell and use the skills learnt in Iraq on European soil.

And what about Zarqawi's own plans? Will he carry his terror beyond Iraq's borders, to Jordan, Syria, Israel? He rarely gives anything away. His plans must be deduced from his actions. On February 29, 2004, his mother Umm Sayel died. "Be patient, dear mother," he wrote to her from prison years before. "If we don't see each other again in this world, then in heaven."

Weeks passed after her funeral. A dark figure walked through the alleyways. To a madrassa. Stayed one night. Two. Three. But Abu Musab al-Zarqawi did not go to the cemetery. He did not visit his wife and children in Zarqa. He was alone. Home again, in his own town. Then he returned to the front. One month later, his family disappeared. To Iraq, or so it is said.

In a letter to bin Laden he has written: "If the Jihad fails in Iraq, the Caliphate will never be established. Then the Nation will be strangled, our people degraded, and sanctions will be imposed for all time."

Everything suggests that he is seeking a decisive moment in Iraq. According to his numerous statements, he will try his utmost to force the Shiites into a civil war. And he would do his utmost to sabotage any Shiite-dominated state. But even if he were to achieve his aim and plunge Iraq into chaos, he is unlikely to achieve his long-term goal, the establishment of a Caliphate. This is something invented by Sunnis for Sunnis. In Iraq, where Shiites make up 60 percent of the population, there is not even a sufficient potential demographic mass to support Zarqawi's objective. This means there is little left over to support his dream. An emirate in sections of the Sunni belt, perhaps, but no more than that.

Zarqawi's key objective has already been achieved: the Zarqawi effect. This effect is seen in the armed struggle and in religious terms. Many radical Islamists orient themselves toward his actions in Iraq. For fighters, he is a model leader. Decapitations in Afghanistan and Thailand can be clearly traced back to this "model". For radical religious leaders, he is the one who carries forward the spirit of Jihad previously embodied by bin Laden.

Zarqawi is the opposite of bin Laden. Not from a privileged background. Uneducated. Crude. Impulsive. In spite of this, it may not be long before he outstrips the Saudi Prince of Terror. With violence, but also with his sharp instinct for propaganda.

Will he be bin Laden's successor? At present, the two appear to complement each other. Bin Laden is the spiritual leader and provides the global strategy, Zarqawi is the general at the front. But the uncompromising Zarqawi could risk a power struggle. The Jordanian knows that history is on his side. The dynamic of revolution always favours the most radical fractions – the Jacobins over the Girondists; the Bolsheviks over the Mensheviks. In this light, Zarqawi could be the man of the future.


This article about the rise of Iraq's most-wanted terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was published in a three-part series. Click here for Part one and here for Part two.


Part three of the article originally appeared in German in Die Weltwoche on October 20, 2005.

Translation: Nicholas Grindell - let's talk european