Zarqawi: A Bogeyman Made by the US

So Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the man, is dead. Maybe now we can finally kill off the myth too. The myth is that Zarqawi, a Jordanian jihadist who had moved his operations to Iraq in recent years, was one of the greatest threats to Western civilization, who had single-handedly been hampering progress in Iraq and spreading terror around the globe. In fact, Zarqawi was an isolated and fairly insignificant insurgent – or at least he had been, until American and British officials decided to transform him into an all-purpose bogeyman and brand him the most evil man in the world. In the process, they handed him fame and notoriety on a platter, and turned this nobody into a headline-grabbing terrorist. Make no mistake: Zarqawi was a creation of Western propagandists.

Zarqawi came a long way over the past three years. Until January 2003 he was a mysterious figure, described by the CIA as a "lone wolf." He was known as an Islamic fundamentalist from Jordan who had travelled to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviet-backed regime at the tail-end of the Eighties. During the Nineties he was apparently fixated on toppling the "infidel" Jordanian monarchy, and was imprisoned in Jordan for seven years. He was reportedly injured in America’s war in Afghanistan in 2002, and later fled to northern Iraq to seek shelter with the radical Islamist outfit Ansar al-Islam. He is believed to have moved down to Iraq proper some time after the Coalition’s major combat operations came to an end – in mid-2003 perhaps – with an eye for taking on Coalition forces and stirring up some trouble. In short, he wasn’t that different from many other jihadists who travel around looking for opportunities to fight the infidels.

Yet now, a mere three years after moving into Coalition-occupied Iraq, Zarqawi has become the most infamous insurgent of all, with his death hailed as a great victory not only for Iraqis but for the entire world. Washington had described him as "the most wanted man in Iraq" and there was a $25 million bounty on his head – the same as that offered for info that leads to the capture of Osama bin Laden. Indeed, Zarqawi seemed to elbow bin Laden aside in recent years, to become, in the words of Newsweek in 2004, "the world’s most dangerous terrorist." Many governments around the world were "scared to death of him," reported Newsweek. He was even accused of wanting to "foment civil war in Iraq," as if one man could push an entire nation into sectarian strife and bloodshed. The photos of his corpse are beamed around the world, to prove that this great evil has finally been vanquished and that we can all sleep peacefully in our beds once again.

How do we explain Zarqawi’s meteoric rise between 2003 and 2006? How did he go from being a "lone wolf" hitching a ride from one war-torn hotspot to another to become an international household name? It was not any strength of numbers or vision on Zarqawi’s part that elevated him to this position – yes, he had proved himself willing to organize gruesome beheadings and bloody car bombings, but he remained a fairly minor figure in the Iraqi insurgency and he had little support on the ground. Rather, it was American and British officials who transformed him into evil incarnate, because they desperately needed a bogeyman to rail against as their venture in Iraq started to go horribly wrong. In short, Zarqawi played a role written for him by Western propagandists.

According to a report in the Washington Post on 3 October 2004, Zarqawi was "barely known outside Jordan until a year and a half ago" – or, to be more precise, until February 2003. It was then US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech to the United Nations on 5 February 2003, six weeks before the start of the Iraq war, which first brought Zarqawi to the world’s attention. In a speech which, as we now know, contained a lot of see-through nonsense about Iraq’s WMD, Powell cited Zarqawi’s presence in northern Iraq, where he was said to be training and advising Ansar al-Islam, and his alleged trip to Baghdad in May 2002 for medical treatment on his injured leg, as evidence of "a sinister nexus between Iraq and the al-Qaeda network." This followed a televised address by President Bush four months earlier, on 7 October 2002, in which Bush referred to a "very senior al-Qaeda leader who received medical treatment in Baghdad this year."

Powell’s speech catapulted Zarqawi, that mysterious lone wolf, on to the international stage. He was indeed "barely known" before it. He rarely, if ever, featured in news reports in late 2001 or in 2002, a time when al-Qaeda was being written about on a daily basis. Take the Guardian newspaper: he was not mentioned in the Guardian at all in 2001 and only twice in 2002 – both times after Bush’s 7 October address. There is no mention of Zarqawi in the online archives of BBC News for 2001 or 2002. Yet after Powell’s speech Zarqawi started to become a talking point. He was mentioned in 23 articles in the Guardian in 2003, and in 50 articles published by BBC News in 2003. The turning point from being a "barely known" to becoming a notorious figure came courtesy of Bush and Powell.

From the very outset, Zarqawi’s power and influence were exaggerated by US officials. You would think, listening to Bush and Powell’s statements in 2002 and 2003, that Zarqawi was influential inside both al-Qaeda and Saddam’s Iraq, so much so that he personified the "sinister nexus" between them. We now know that was nonsense. There was no nexus, sinister or otherwise, between al-Qaeda and the Ba’athists. At that time, Zarqawi’s links with al-Qaeda were tenuous at best, and there is no evidence that he had any links whatsoever with Saddam’s regime. According to Jason Burke, author of the 2003 book Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror, Zarqawi may have had "some contact with bin Laden but [he] never took the bayat [oath of allegiance] and never made any formal alliance with the Saudi or his close associates. He was just one of thousands of activists committed to jihad living and working in Afghanistan in the 1990s." Burke says Zarqawi had "no real relationship with al-Qaeda."

Powell’s evidence that Zarqawi was associated with the Ba’athists was based on the fact that he had been present in northern Iraq since 2002 and had popped down to Baghdad for some kind of medical treatment. Yet northern Iraq is territory that had been wrested from Saddam’s control by the United Nations following the first Gulf War in 1991 and turned into a "safe haven" for Iraqi Kurds. And Ansar al-Islam, the group that Zarqawi joined, was vehemently opposed to Ba’athist socialism. If anything, Zarqawi, like bin Laden, would have been decidedly anti-Saddam rather than being in any way associated with him.

Western officials also claimed that Zarqawi was developing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Powell said in February 2003 that "one of the specialities of [Zarqawi’s camp in northern Iraq] is poisons…. He is teaching operatives how to produce ricin and other poisons." When Coalition forces destroyed the Ansar al-Islam camps in northern Iraq on 30 March 2003, the front page of the British tabloid newspaper The Sun said "PROOF: an Iraqi terror camp making ricin poison has been smashed by a huge Allied blitz." Again the claims were unfounded. Reporters visiting the camps in the days after the attacks said there was "no evidence of chemical weapons having been used or stored here." One US official later admitted that he was "unaware that any WMD have been found."

What we can see is that Coalition officials desperate to find some justification for their war constantly turned to Zarqawi. First, they labelled him "the link" between al-Qaeda and Saddam, in a bid to depict their war in Iraq as some kind of payback for the events of 9/11. In fact, Zarqawi had nothing to do with Saddam and was only vaguely linked to al-Qaeda at that time. Second, they spread rumors that Zarqawi was making chemical weapons in northern Iraq in an attempt to justify their decision to invade on the basis of the threat posed by WMD. In truth, there is no evidence that Zarqawi was developing chemicals or any other substances of mass destruction during his time in northern Iraq. By constantly talking up the role of Zarqawi, US officials elevated this loner hiding out in northern Iraq into something he wasn’t: an international player, a terrorist with unprecedented reach, the embodiment of evil. It is perhaps not surprising that Zarqawi decided to venture into central Iraq in 2003 to exercise these new powers granted to him by the Coalition.

Even when Zarqawi did start fighting in Iraq from 2003 onwards, during which time he did some very grisly things indeed, the Coalition exaggerated his role. Where US and UK officials described him as the main "barrier to peace" in Iraq, one study by Sami Ramadani, a refugee from Saddam’s Iraq and a senior lecturer at London Metropolitan University, found that out of thousands of attacks launched by Iraqi insurgents only a small minority were carried out in the name of Zarqawi. Ramadani also found that "the vast majority of Iraqis reject Zarqawi and his ilk."

Now both Bush and Blair make grand statements to the world’s press about finally ridding the world of the wicked Zarqawi, yet a year and a half ago, at the end of 2004, US agents in Iraq admitted that they may have helped to promote Zarqawi by blowing his campaign out of proportion and falsely claiming that he was the top dog of the insurgency. One told the Australian newspaper The Age: "We were basically paying up to $10,000 a time to opportunists, criminals and chances who passed off fiction and supposition about Zarqawi as cast-iron fact, making him out as the linchpin of just about every attack in Iraq." The agent went on to say: "We have to conclude that Zarqawi is more myth than man."

It was the Coalition that created this myth. In talking up Zarqawi’s threat they not only distorted the facts but also inflamed and encouraged his violent campaign. They created a role for Zarqawi as Evil Terrorist Mastermind and he was more than happy to play along. As Loretta Napoleoni, author of Insurgent Iraq: al-Zarqawi and the New Generation, has argued, Zarqawi turned America’s myth into a reality: "From a small-town bully, to a small-fry jihadist, to the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, he fully exploited the legend woven around his person. While back in February 2003 he was an insignificant jihadist, [by 2005 he had become] the undisputed most-wanted terror leader."

Zarqawi’s terror campaign was a self-fulfilling prophecy. In 2003, US politicians handpicked this insignificant jihadist and labelled him a terror leader – and sure enough, he later became a terror leader. Also in 2003 they said he was a leading figure in al-Qaeda – no he wasn’t, though he later became one when bin Laden appointed him leader of "Al-Qaeda in Iraq" in 2004. Throughout 2004 and 2005, Western officials and journalists exaggerated his role in the Iraqi insurgency and hinted that he was behind every attack – that no doubt flattered Zarqawi’s sense of power and encouraged him to continue his campaign. Coalition leaders described Zarqawi as evil – and he played up to that by releasing videos of himself beheading American hostage Nick Berg. At every stage, Zarqawi was acting out the perverse propaganda fantasies of the Coalition itself. As Napoleoni put it: "Abu Musab al-Zarqawi fulfilled the prophecy expressed years earlier by the Jordanian authorities, the Kurdish secret service, and the US government: he turned the myth into a chilling reality."

The final stage in the Zarqawi drama is his death. It has been hailed by Coalition officials as a great day for democracy and a great step forward for Iraq. Not many people will shed a tear for the bloody murderer Zarqawi – but just as we should put his jihadist antics while he was alive in to perspective, so we should view his death in perspective too. He was not the cause of instability and anti-democracy in Iraq, and his death will not make a great deal of difference. Zarqawi was a bogeyman of the Coalition’s making. Now that he’s gone, can we please have a proper debate about the impact of the war and occupation on Iraqi society?

Author: Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill is editor of Spiked in London.