Profile of a Killer

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    Profile of a Killer

    By Loretta Napoleoni Page 1 of 5

    November/December 2005

    Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is the most wanted man in Iraq. How did this high school dropout tie the United States down in its deadliest conflict since the Vietnam War? From the slums of Jordan to the battle of Falluja, this is how it happened

    New face of terror: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is al Qaeda's top man in Iraq.

    Iraqi Government

    The world first heard of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi on Feb. 5, 2003. That was the day that then U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell went to the United Nations to make the case for the invasion of Iraq. “Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network, headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda lieutenants,” Powell told the U.N. Security Council. That information, we now know, was false. But it laid ground to one of the most powerful and enduring myths of the war on terror—the myth of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

    That Zarqawi and bin Laden would be mentioned in the same breath—and from an official as senior as Powell—probably shocked no one more than Zarqawi. There are, after all, hundreds of men just like him throughout the Arab world, committed jihadists with some penchant for leading others. Although Zarqawi had demonstrated a zeal for his cause, there was little about him to suggest that he would catapult to the top ranks of the world’s deadliest terrorists. Uneducated and from a poor, working-class family, Zarqawi lacked the pedigree, connections, and financing that marked bin Laden and other senior leaders of al Qaeda.

    But, of course, Zarqawi is no longer a mere foot soldier. From New York to London, from Paris to Tokyo, Zarqawi has become the new face of Islamic terror. He has replaced Saddam Hussein as the poster boy of evil in the Arab world. He commands a cadre of Iraqi insurgents that have purportedly carried out many of the barbarous terrorist attacks in that country since the ousting of Saddam. Now with a $25 million bounty on his head, this high school dropout from the slums of Jordan has tied the United States down in its deadliest conflict since the Vietnam War.

    But how did myth become reality? Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. government had never heard the name Zarqawi. The first time U.S. officials learned of his existence was near the end of 2001, from the Kurdish secret service. The U.S. government knew little about the 35-year-old Jordanian, but they had much to gain from the creation of his myth. At the time, Saddam’s regime stood accused of possessing weapons of mass destruction and supporting terrorist outfits. Without hard proof of the former, Saddam’s support of terror was the only trump card the Bush administration had to convince the world that the Iraqi dictator had to go. To play it, the administration needed to demonstrate a link between Saddam and al Qaeda. Their link was Zarqawi.

    Powell’s words before the U.N. Security Council now appear to have been a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whereas Zarqawi was once just a young, frustrated Islamic radical, the insurgency he now commands threatens to lead Iraq into civil war. Indeed, his success on Iraq’s frontlines eventually did lead to a link between Iraq and al Qaeda—just not the one the Bush administration had imagined. Almost two years after Powell’s speech, on Dec. 27, 2004, bin Laden named Zarqawi the emir of al Qaeda in Iraq. Zarqawi’s route to this elevated position in the loose hierarchy of terrorists not only reveals radical Islam’s appeal among the Arab world’s poor, but it suggests that the way terrorists wage war may never be the same again.


    Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was born Ahmad Fadil al-Khalayleh in Zarqa, a Jordanian city north of Amman, in October 1966. Zarqa’s residents have dubbed the city “the Chicago of the Middle East” for its poverty and crime. Zarqawi’s family belonged to a branch of the Bani Hassan, a large East Bank Bedouin tribe loyal to Jordan’s Hashemite royal family. Zarqawi grew up in a miserable, working-class neighborhood where traditional and tribal values mixed badly with the Western consumerism and rapid modernization of the late 1960s. He attended a local school and used his neighborhood cemetery as a playground. He was hardly a star pupil. His teachers remember him as rebellious and unruly.

    At home, Zarqawi was respectful and deeply loved. “He was the apple of our father’s eye,” recalls one of his sisters. Zarqawi’s father died in 1984 and, as the family sank deeper into poverty, an 18-year-old Zarqawi began acting out his frustrations. He dropped out of secondary school, joined a local gang, began drinking, and turned into a bully. Not long after, he was arrested for drug possession and sexual assault. He was convicted and sent to prison.

    In Zarqa, as is the case across the Middle East, the worlds of petty crime and revolutionary Islam constantly crisscrossed on the margins of society—especially in prison. And it was in captivity that Zarqawi received his first jihadist indoctrination. After his release, he married and began frequenting the al Hussein Ben Ali mosque, a radical hotbed on the outskirts of Zarqa. Fascinated by the stories of mujahideen fighters who regularly visited the mosque, he was easily recruited by a representative of the Arab-Afghan Bureau, the Islamic organization charged with supplying Arab fighters to participate in the anti-Soviet jihad. Although the mujahideen were often troublemakers at home, the status represented a step up on the social ladder for Zarqawi. In the Middle East, nobody likes a drunken bully, but everybody respects the mujahideen.





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