The small-time hood who became Iraq's Public Enemy No1

The US unwittingly helped al-Qa'ida turn a small-time jihadist into a nightmare, writes Loretta Napoleoni
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No one had heard of Zarqawi until Colin Powell, then US Secretary of State, named him in the February 2003 speech to the UN Security Council which prepared the world for war in Iraq. At that stage, the Jordanian was not recognised as a leader by al-Qa'ida. But, thanks to his relentless promotion as a bogeyman by the US - most recently by President George Bush last week - and his subsequent endorsement by Osama bin Laden, Zarqawi, 38, is now every bit as dangerous as he has always been portrayed.

Born Ahmed Fadel al-Khalayleh in Zarqa, a poor industrial Jordanian city encircled by Palestinian refugee camps, Zarqawi grew up in a miserable working-class neighbourhood where traditional and tribal values mixed badly with Western consumerism and rapid modernisation. Of Bedouin origin, he was stubborn, unruly and rebellious.

At 16, he dropped out of school and became a street tough. Arrested for sexual assault, he came into contact with religious radicals in jail and was recruited to the mujahedin in Afghanistan on his release. He arrived too late to fight the Soviets, but befriended Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi in Peshawar. According to Fouad Hussein, a Jordanian journalist who met them both, Zarqawi absorbed from Maqdisi the uncompromising, destructive nature of radical Salafism, which shuns both Western and Arab socio-economic and political realities. In 1993 the pair returned to Zarqa and set up a jihadist cell to overturn the Jordanian government, which soon saw them jailed for five years.

In captivity, Zarqawi's leadership qualities became apparent. Torture and solitary confinement did not break him; on the contrary. "He was a real leader, a prince, as the inmates called him," says Sami al-Majaali, former head of the prison authority in Jordan. "We were always careful in approaching him. He was our primary concern; if he co-operated, the others would follow suit."

On his release, Zarqawi ended up once again in Afghanistan. In 2000, in Kandahar, he finally met Bin Laden, who invited him and his followers to join al-Qa'ida. But the Jordanian declined the offer. His focus was on corrupt Arab regimes and, specifically, his native Jordan, not the faraway US enemy.

Those who know Zarqawi say this was perfectly in line with his personality. "He never followed others," admits a member of his group, "I never heard him praise anyone apart from the Prophet."

With the backing of the Taliban regime, Zarqawi set up a small camp in Herat, near the Iranian border, to train suicide bombers for attacks in their home countries. The relationships forged there enabled him and his followers to escape after the fall of the Taliban to Iraqi Kurdistan, where they came to the attention of the Kurdish secret services. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the Kurds alerted the US to Zarqawi's links with jihadist groups in their territory. US authorities did not recognise his name and got in touch with their Jordanian counterparts to find out more.

From then on, Zarqawi's list of crimes multiplied. He was accused of masterminding a foiled plot during the millennium celebrations in Jordan, and of the assassinations of Yitzhak Snir, an Israeli citizen, and Laurence Foley, a US diplomat. But Mr Powell's announcement of 5 February 2003 - "Iraq today harbours a deadly terrorist network, headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an associate of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qa'ida lieutenants" - lifted him to another plane. Having failed to prove Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, the US administration was constructing its case for war on Saddam Hussein's connection with terrorism, with Zarqawi the link to al-Qa'ida. Almost overnight, the Jordanian went from being an unknown in the world of international terrorism to being implicated in every major terror attack. But while politicians, intelligence and the media were busy weaving the myth, he was getting ready for battle in Iraq.

According to one of his fighters, he refrained from involvement in the official war, knowing he could not compete with the B-52s, missiles and other hi-tech US weapons. Instead he waited until August 2003, when the Shia insurgency was in full swing and Iraqis saw coalition forces as occupying powers.

His first move was the bomb that destroyed the UN headquarters in Baghdad and killed its leading representative in Iraq. Another bombing killed Grand Ayatollah Moham- mad Bakr al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of America's allies. Finally, Zarqawi himself beheaded a kidnapped US contractor, Nicholas Berg, on camera.

But, contrary to what Mr Powell had said, Zarqawi was unknown in Iraq: a foreigner leading a small group of Arab fighters. Lacking religious authority, he was unable to rally the Iraqi Sunni population. His leadership needed legitimacy - and that could be provided only by al-Qa'ida. From August 2003, Zarqawi repeatedly sought Bin Laden's approval and recognition.

Their correspondence explains why the Jordanian wanted to drive a wedge between the Sunni and Shia insurgencies. Zarqawi feared a united nationalist resistance, which would necessarily be secular and would shun the Arab jihadists. Keeping the Islamist warriors at the forefront of the anti-American battle was paramount to building a Sunni Islamist state in Iraq. Thus, from the beginning, Zarqawi fought on two fronts: against the Shias and against the Americans.

And the West helped him obtain the endorsement he craved, by blaming him for every attack inside and outside Iraq, especially suicide missions and the resistance in Fallujah. In December 2004 Bin Laden finally granted his support and named him "emir" of al-Qa'ida in Iraq. That in turn has enabled the Jordanian to attract enough followers and resources to engage US forces while keeping up the suicide bombings against Shias that have brought Iraq to the brink of civil war.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is now at the core of the Iraqi insurgency, but he would not be there without both the US administration and al-Qa'ida. It is a surreal coincidence.

Loretta Napoleoni is the author of 'Insurgent Iraq: al-Zarqawi and the New Generation', published on 13 October by Constable & Robinson, £7.99