Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

Al-Qa'ida leader in Iraq who propagated his message by beheading hostages on video


Ahmed Fadil Nazzal al-Khalayleh (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi), guerrilla leader: born Zarqa, Jordan 20 October 1966; twice married (four children); died Baquba, Iraq 7 June 2006.

Only three years ago, hardly anyone outside the circles of Middle East specialists and spooks had heard of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Then, America's mishandling of the aftermath of "victory" over Saddam Hussein in Iraq catapulted Zarqawi to the top of the league-table of the world's most wanted villains and terror masters.

Zarqawi, the new face of al-Qa'ida, made his way on to the front pages through the brutal beheading of hostages, Muslims as well as Westerners, and by making sure the images reached wider viewing via the Arabic television station al-Jazeera or on CDs sold in street markets. In an echo of the early days of Islamisation by sword, he preferred this method of killing to bullets or hanging. Jihadists' websites advising on making bombs instructed those interested in swords to refer to "the world's leading expert on such matters, brother Abu Musab al-Zarqawi".

His aliases have included Abu Ahmad, Abu Muhammad, Abu Muhannad, Al-Muhajer, Muhannad, Sakr Abu Suwayed and Garib. He adopted the name of Abu Musab, a seventh-century Islamic warrior who became the patron saint for suicide bombers and who is alleged to have kept the banner of the Prophet Mohamed flying in the battle of Yathrib, supporting it with his bleeding stumps after losing both arms.

Unlike the al-Qa'ida leader Osama bin Laden, Zarqawi did not appear in person in the videos in which he addressed his followers - there is only a hooded figure beheading victims - thus adding to the mystery surrounding him. However, his rivalry with the al-Qa'ida strategist led him to release his own video in April this year, which gave intelligence agencies good clues about his location and what he looked like.

He was born Ahmed Fadil Nazzal al-Khalayleh in Zarqa in Jordan in 1966. His father, Fadil Nazzal Mohammed al-Khalayleh, was the area's mukhtar (conciliator/arbiter) - he had earlier served in the Arab Legion (later the Jordanian army), having signed up to fight against the Israelis in 1948. The two-storey family house, in the poor quarter of Masoum, overlooked the dilapidated town cemetery, which deepened Zarqawi's fascination with death, according to his childhood companions. It was in the cemetery that he dealt in drugs and hid the spoils of his crime during his troublesome teenage years, and later his explosives and weapons as a terrorist.

With few intellectual inclinations, according to his schoolteacher Zarqawi daydreamed in class, gazing out of the window over the Palestinian refugee camp which has been maintained by the UN Relief and Works Agency (Unrwa) since 1948. In 1970, PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) fighters from this camp hijacked three airliners (Swiss, American and British) landing them at the disused military airstrip in Zarqa and then blowing them up. The incident triggered "Black September" as King Hussein of Jordan acted against Palestinian groups after consulting with President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt.

Not happy with his school redirecting him in 1982 into vocational education due to his poor academic results (a mediocre 51.6 per cent), Zarqawi spent most of his time in the cemetery. His mother, Um Sayel (real name Dallah Ibrahim Mohammed al-Khalayleh), was deeply religious and until her death in 2004 she maintained that a lack of education was behind her son's troubles. He was a violent teenager, rebellious and undisciplined, always picking a fight. His father arranged jobs for him, but he never held on to them for long.

He was conscripted into the army in 1984 but once back in Zarqa in 1986 reverted to his old ways, drinking heavily and covering his body with tattoos (earning him the nickname the green man) - both are condemned in orthodox Islam. He was arrested for shoplifting, mugging, drug-dealing, sexual assaults and drunken fights with knives, leading to several short jail sentences.

His mother, who arranged his marriage to his first wife, Intsar Baqr Al-Umari, enrolled Zarqawi for religious instruction in al-Hussein bin Ali mosque in central Amman in 1988. But the mosque, with its Salafist (orthodox fundamentalist) leaning, was considered an essential stage in preparing young men for the "holy war" in Afghanistan against the ungodly Soviets. It was the attraction of this fight that turned Zarqawi to the path of Allah, as he came to associate faith with fighting and death. He immediately gave up alcohol (and later damaged his skin with acid to remove his tattoos). He liked the inflammatory sermons directing hatred at non-Muslims.

In 1989, he went to Afghanistan with recruits from the same mosque. He settled in Hayatabad at the foot of the Khyber Pass, which was the rear base for Afghan and Arab mujahedin, and in the 1990s became an al-Qa'ida hideout. But he missed the fight, as the Russian army had already left.

It was in the early 1990, in the mosques of Afghanistan and Peshawar, that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi completed his spiritual transformation and developed a pathological hatred for "unbelievers". Unlike bin Laden, who associated the term with non-Muslims, Zarqawi included Muslims who did not share his Salafi ideology, which would later lead to his campaign of bombing of Iraqi Shia shrines.

Zarqawi returned to Zarqa in the summer of 1993, to manage a video rental shop, at a time when highly motivated Arab fighters from Afghanistan were heading for Bosnia. He thus missed a second chance to fight against non-Muslims.

From 1991 onwards, returnees from Afghanistan had come under surveillance from Jordanian intelligence. Several terror groups made of the highly organised Afghan Arabs were set up under different names. The Jordanian security agencies foiled many attacks, including one organised by Zarqawi and Sheikh Abu-Mohammed al-Maqdisi in 1994 when explosives were found in their homes, and in the Zarqa cemetery, marked with their fingerprints.

In 1996 Zarqawi was sentenced to 15 years in prison, where other inmates treated him with a mixture of fear and respect. But, in May 1999, the young King Abdullah of Jordan acted on misleading advice and pardoned prisoners including Zarqawi as a gesture towards the Muslim Brotherhood, intended to ease their opposition to reforms in the Jordanian parliament.

Zarqawi set off to Afghanistan in August 1999, heading for Hayatabad as a "honey merchant", and wasted little time in setting up a network of terror. There he married his second wife, Asra Yasin Mohammed Jarad, the daughter of a Palestinian instructor at a terrorist training camp in Herat. He was briefly arrested that October, when the government of Benazir Bhutto began to purge Arab fighters from Pakistan. After his release, he headed for Kabul, from where he sent Jordanian recruits, some of them returning from fighting in Chechnya, to carry out attacks in Jordan.

By February the following year, he had taken over the training camp in Herat on behalf of al-Qa'ida, after spending several months convincing bin Laden of his trustworthiness. He got finance and began to set up his network, including a cell in Germany. Later in 2000, he was convicted in absentia in Jordan for his role in another plot to blow up buildings in Amman. After taking an oath of allegiance to bin Laden in Kandahar, Zarqawi got more finance in 2001 to organise attacks in Jordan and Israel, but his cell was arrested in Turkey in February 2002.

He had been wounded in the leg and stomach during an American air-raid on Herat in December 2001, and fled across the border to Iran for treatment. Intercepted mobile telephone calls and sightings revealed his organisation's skills in transferring money from Iran to buy false passports. He was also spotted in Baghdad and in northern Iraq with Ansar el-Islam, a terror group active on the Kurdish-Iranian borders, also communicating with and financing cells in Italy and plotting chemical attacks in Europe. In three months in 2002, he was seen in Damascus, then Jordan, then Baghdad. Intercepted phone calls in March 2003 indicated that his organisation was moving Sunni fighters to Syria when the Americans began the invasion of Iraq.

Several attacks in Iraq in 2003, on the Jordanian Embassy and on Shia places, are attributed to Zarqawi. In May 2004 he formed the group Tawheed wal Jihad ("Unification and Jihad"), which executed the American hostage Nicholas Berg and later assassinated the Shia leader Izzedin Salim, president of the council of government of Iraq. During that summer Zarqawi executed several hostages. In October 2004 he repeated his oath of allegiance to bin Laden following reports of a rift, and changed the name of his group to the al-Qa'ida Committee for Jihad in Mesopotamia.

Many nationalities were subject to Zarqawi's attacks and kidnappings, but by far the largest number of his victims were his fellow Muslims. It was Zarqawi's own vanity and desire to control all jihadist groups in the region that led to his downfall. His order to bomb hotels in Amman last November, killing fellow Muslims, led many members of his tribe to break the taboo of not informing on fellow tribesmen. Jordanian intelligence infiltration of his tribal connections led to his location being discovered and to his death.

Adel Darwish

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