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The life and times of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Iraq’s prince of terror

12 June 2006 at 10:02 | 748 views

Born: Oct. 20, 1966 in the industrial city of Zarqa, Jordan
Died: June 7, 2006 in a U.S. air strike on an isolated safe house north of Baghdad

In the pantheon of modern-day terrorists, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a hard-drinking thug in his early days who rose to become the key commander of the jihadist insurgency in Iraq, is in the very top rank, right up there with Osama bin Laden and Carlos the Jackal.

Radicalized in the early 1990s after a brief stint in war-torn Afghanistan and a longer one in a Jordanian jail, al-Zarqawi became one of the most wanted men in the U.S. war on terror. That was for the particularly brutal campaigns he orchestrated in Iraq, including kidnappings, beheadings and scores of suicide bomb attacks. To those who followed the militant movement closely, al-Zarqawi has long been an important if shadowy figure.

But he certainly came to the world’s attention in May 2004 when his Islamist group known then as Al-Tawhid wal-Jihad posted a live video clip on the internet showing the shocking beheading of kidnapped American businessman Nicholas Berg. The al-Zarqawi faction was quick to claim responsibility for the deed - and others to follow. And there were many who said his was the hand that took the long knife from the cloak and carried it out.

As a result of this incident, and the many others that had been attributed to the al-Zarqawi network, Washington raised its bounty on the Jordanian’s head to $25 million US, the same as for bin Laden himself. At that juncture it was unclear whether al-Zarqawi was a lone wolf in the insurgency in Iraq - using his group of mostly Sunni Arabs to attack Americans and outsiders and to foment civil war with the Shia majority - or a full-fledged member of the international al-Qaeda network. (Intercepted messages between the two suggested he was operating mostly on his own and with his own agenda.)

That little mystery was cleared up just a few months later, in October, 2004, when both bin Laden and al-Zarqawi’s group issued statements saying al-Zarqawi had pledged his formal loyalty to the al-Qaeda leader and was to be considered the chief lieutenant in charge of the insurgency in Iraq. It was a role he maintained right to the end when, following weeks of intelligence gathering, he was killed in a U.S. bombing raid on a safe house in a rural area about 50 kilometres northeast of Baghdad along with seven others, two of them reportedly women. He was 39.

The early years

The man who became known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was born Ahmad Fadeel al-Khalayley in the industrial city of Zarqa, just north of the Jordanian capital Amman. Zarqa is right beside a large camp of Palestinian refugees and al-Zarqawi is a nom de guerre he adopted in the late-1990s to reflect the place of his birth.

By most accounts, al-Zarqawi’s was a tough upbringing. His family lived on the poor side of town, across from the cemetery and an abandoned quarry. He was one of ten children and his father, a local healer, died when al-Zarqawi was a boy, not unlike the situation with Osama bin Laden for those looking for psychological meaning in his character. But where bin Laden took solace in books and religious studies, al-Zarqawi was something of a street tough. He played soccer; he got into fights; he drank, took drugs and wore tattoos, not exactly the stuff of Islamic fundamentalism. In his late teens or early 20s (the record is not exact), he was jailed for sexual assault.

In his early 20s, al-Zarqawi did what many young, aimless Muslim men of his generation did: He went to Afghanistan in 1989 to help the mujahedeen drive out occupying troops from the Soviet Union. But al-Zarqawi arrived too late for any real fighting. At that point the Soviet Union was crumbling and pulling out of Aghanistan (paving the way for the Taliban to take over). So al-Zarqawi spent most of his time there interviewing older Arab warriors and writing about them for a small jihadist magazine.

At this point, according to The New York Times, he apparently told some acquaintances that he’d had a mystical dream about a sword and holy war and this is where he felt his life was taking him. But like so many of the stories about this clearly troubled and possibly psychopathic young man, it is hard to know exactly what is true.

Time in prison

What is known is that he returned to Jordan in the early 1990s and was arrested in 1994 for being part of an alleged plot to overthrow the King and his family. Rifles and bombs were said to have been found in his house. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison but served only about six: He was released in 1999 as part of a general amnesty.

In prison, al-Zarqawi was a gruff, solitary inmate who spent hours lifting homemade weights and trying to memorize the Koran. He also came under the influence of a fellow inmate, a fundamentalist Salafi teacher and radical visionary named Abu Muhammad al-Maqdissy, whom he had known from his stint in Afghanistan. After interviewing some of his fellow prisoners from that period, The New York Times described al-Zarqawi as "the tough-guy captain of his cellblock" who was listened to mostly out of fear.

Though released in 1999, the Jordanians didn’t want him in the country, so he was harassed into leaving and took his ailing mother to Pakistan to try to make a life there. His visa expired and the Jordanians wanted him for questioning on a new matter so he found himself moving on alone to Kabul in 2000, which is where he first met bin Laden.

The story is bin Laden tried to recruit him to al-Qaeda but al-Zarqawi demurred. He wanted to be his own boss, so in the end he was persuaded to go off - with bin Laden’s blessing and perhaps his financial help - and form his own training camp in Afghanistan with about 80 to 100 like-minded Jordanians and other Arabs. That story has been widely reported but it appears to spring mainly from intelligence briefings, which may not be fully accurate.

He was also said to have been injured in a U.S. air strike in 2001, in retaliation for the Sept. 11 attacks. As a result, al-Zarqawi and his campmates dispersed, though it is believed this group remained the basis of the network he would later reassemble in Iraq.

It is believed al-Zarqawi went to northern Iran after the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan but this where is story gets murky. According to the U.S., he set up a network in several countries at that point, including in Europe, where some say he shared responsibility for the train bombing in Madrid a few years later. He was sentenced to death in absentia by Jordan for masterminding the October 2002 slaying of Laurence Foley, a diplomat and administrator of U.S. aid programs in Jordan. But where he received the money and technical resources for all these incidents is not clear. This is a period, remember, when he was supposed to be on the outs with al-Qaeda.

According to most sources, al-Zarqawi was expelled from Iran not long after he arrived there. Recognizing his talents, though, Iran sent him into northern Iraq, apparently to destabilize the Kurds there. In any event, he found himself perfectly placed following the U.S. invasion in 2003 to move into southern Iraq, take over the Sunni-based insurgency in the Baghdad area and become the key funnel through which al-Qaeda and other militant jihadists would have to pass.

al-Zarqawi’s war in Iraq

A natural and brutal tactician, with a street cunning that kept him one step ahead of the authorities, al-Zarqawi’s anti-American insurgency began in earnest in the summer of 2003 with dramatic suicide bomb attacks against the UN headquarters in Baghdad and a Shiite shrine in Najaf, one of many anti-Shia attacks that would kill hundreds if not thousands over the next three years.

Attacking Shia, his fellow Muslims, was a trademark al-Zarqawi technique and something that differentiated him, at least at first, from bin Laden and may have been the basis for the unease between the two. In February 2004, a long letter purporting to be from al-Zarqawi to bin Laden called Shia "the crafty and malicious scorpions," among other choice epithets, and advocated the creation of a civil war in Iraq. It is an objective he never wavered from, whether simply as part of a plan to make Iraq ungovernable and another "failed state" like Afghanistan; or out of some religious fervour that sees only his brand of radical Wahhabism as the legitimate one.

In any event, al-Zarqawi’s attacks continued. His group assassinated the president of the original Iraqi Governing Council as well as numerous high-ranking police and other officials, seemingly with impunity. They kidnapped foreigners and aid workers for money, or for ritualistic beheadings that staggered the world with their brutality. And they pretty much took over the lawless city of Fallujah for most of a year, turning it into an Iraq-style Dodge City. For good measure, his group was said to be behind a suicide bombing at three luxury hotels in Amman, Jordan, in February 2005 that left 60 dead, including members of a wedding party.

The death toll from al-Zarqawi-inspired campaigns could be devastating. Often, hundreds of people would be killed or maimed during individual suicide attacks. In January, simultaneous attacks against Shia in the city of Karbala and police recruits near Baghdad killed at least 130.

Throughout all this, al-Zarqawi was like a phantom who seemed never to be pinned down. Authorities almost captured him once in February 2005, but he escaped, leaving behind only his laptop and his driver. And the air strike that finally killed him was not the first of its kind. In fact the U.S. has been calling in air strikes on suspected al-Zarqawi havens since not long after that initial beheading incident in 2004. This time they got him, though. Even al-Qaeda has acknowledged he is no longer on this earth.