The Myth of Zarqawi

The Middle East’s newest tragedy was marked by three almost-simultaneous suicide missions against popular American hotels in Amman. The event, which took place on the 9th day of the 11th month, carries the signature of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the top representative of al-Qaeda in Iraq. In the warm night of early November, while the body count soared and the Middle East was confronted with its own 9/11, the world came again face to face with the myth of the new global terror leader: Zarqawi.

Of Bedouin origins, Zarqawi was born and raised in a working class section of Zarqa, Jordan’s second-largest city. After a brief spell as a petty criminal, he went to Afghanistan but arrived too late to fight the Soviets. In Afghanistan, he embraced radical Salafism, a creed that calls for a total rejection of Western values and influence. Arrested in Jordan for his subversive ideas, he spent five years in prison. This experience transformed him into one of many jihadists, with a handful of followers. In 2000, in Kandahar, he met Osama bin Laden for the first time, but rejected the Saudi’s offer to become part of al-Qaeda. Zarqawi was not prepared to fight against the U.S.; instead, he wanted to wage his struggle against the Jordanian government. This became the purpose of the modest training camp that he ran in Herat, near the Iranian border, where he mainly trained recruits for suicide missions.

But it was on Feb. 5, 2003, when Colin Powell described him to the UN Security Council as the fictitious link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, that Zarqawi achieved global stardom. Since then, his myth has grown exponentially in both the West and the East.

Facts and Fiction About Zarqawi

The first time the American authorities had heard about Zarqawi was toward the end of 2001, from the Kurdish secret services. The Kurds claimed that al-Qaeda had funded a new base in Bajara, in Iraqi Kurdistan, which was run by a new jihadist organization, Ansar al-Islam. In 2001, Jund al-Islam, a group of Jordanians from the City of Salt who had met Zarqawi while imprisoned in Jordan and had remained in touch, merged into Ansar al-Islam. Without hard evidence, the Kurdish secret service used their presence in this organization to link it to al-Qaeda. Zarqawi was singled out as the go-between for both groups because of his personal contacts with the Jordanians and his camp in Herat, located on a popular jihadist route from northern Iraq to Afghanistan.

The Americans knew nothing about Zarqawi, so they immediately got in touch with Jordanian authorities to find out more about him. It is at this point that the myth of Zarqawi began taking shape.

Joint U.S. and Jordanian investigations accused Zarqawi of having masterminded a foiled al-Qaeda plot in Jordan during the millennium celebrations, as well as the assassinations, in 2001, of an Israeli citizen, Yitzhak Snir, and, in 2002, of American diplomat Lawrence Foley, for which an unknown armed organization, the Honorables of Jordan, had claimed responsibility. No hard evidence was produced to back such charges. At the end of April 2004, after Zarqawi was sentenced to death in absentia for both assassinations, the Honorables of Jordan released a statement denying any involvement by Zarqawi. The message was accompanied by the shells of the bullets that had been fired at Foley and Snir.

Was Zarqawi framed to fit his new status as an international terror leader? Many people believe that this is what occurred. Or were the Americans fed the wrong information by the Kurdish secret services and the Jordanian authorities? Both had much to gain from the myth of Zarqawi. The Kurds used him to convince the Americans to bomb the jihadist camps in northern Iraq, and the Jordanians to solve the mystery of a series of terror attacks carried out by local jihadist groups.

The Americans also had much to gain from the creation of his myth. From Sept. 11, 2001, to March 20, 2003, the United States built its case for attacking Iraq. Saddam’s regime was accused of possessing weapons of mass destruction and supporting terrorism. Without any proof of the existence of the former, Saddam’s support for terrorism was the only trump card the U.S. administration held to convince the world that the Iraqi dictator had to be removed. To play it, the administration had to demonstrate that Saddam and al-Qaeda were connected. Their link was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

On Feb. 5, 2003, Colin Powell told the Security Council, “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.” Most terrorist experts had never heard of him and did not know who he was. “There are hundreds of men like al-Zarqawi among the jihadists, committed fighters with leadership qualities,” explained a former mujahedin who resides in London. “Abu Musab became famous because Colin Powell went to the United Nations and presented him as the new global terror leader.”

“When Colin Powell spoke about a link between al-Zarqawi and terrorism, we started to wonder why the Foley murder [had been] pinned on Abu Musab. There was a need to create a connection between the Saddam regime and terrorism,” said Fouad Hussein, a Jordanian journalist who had met Zarqawi in prison. Suddenly, every bombing attempt anywhere in the world was attributed to him. He was linked to all major operations that took place in the aftermath of 9/11, including masterminding the creation of cells in Spain, Germany, and Turkey. He was charged with the Casablanca attack and accused of having participated in the Madrid bombing.

To date, no hard evidence has been produced to back any of these claims, apart from former terrorists’ confessions, often obtained under torture, to being part of Zarqawi’s network. Yet the trail of these individuals does not lead to him or to the Herat camp. By contrast, investigators have retraced the links between Zarqawi and those arrested in all the attacks for which he did claim responsibility, including the 2004 foiled bombing of the intelligence building and U.S. embassy in Amman; most of those perpetrators had been trained in the Herat camp.

From Myth to Reality

Ironically, on the eve of the Iraqi war, far from being an international terror leader or a go-between for Saddam and bin Laden, Zarqawi was a very small fish in the jihadist pond. Skillfully he used his myth and suicide missions to climb the slippery pole of the jihadist hierarchy. His entry into the Iraqi arena was marked by the first suicide attacks in the country. In August 2003, a truck bomb exploded at the UN headquarters in Baghdad, killing the head of the UN delegation and several of its members. A few days later, Yassin Jarrad, the father of Zarqawi’s second wife, crashed a car laden with explosives into the Imam Ali mosque. The explosion killed 125 Shi’ites, among them Ayatollah Muhammad Baqer al-Hakim, the spiritual leader of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a Shi’ite political party.

The connection between the two attacks escaped Western analysts. In August 2003, it was a common belief that the conflict in Iraq was a bilateral fight between Coalition forces and their supporters on one side and Moqtada al-Sadr’s Shi’ite militia and Saddam’s loyalists on the other. However, the message was well understood by the jihadist movement. For Zarqawi, the Iraqi conflict had two fronts, one against Coalition forces and the other against the Shi’ites, and one main terror tactic: suicide missions.

From the end of August 2003 until December 2004, when Osama bin Laden officially recognized Zarqawi as the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Zarqawi corresponded with him, seeking backing and recognition for his violent anti-Shi’ite campaign. “Their ultimate goal is to create a Shi’ite state in Iraq and subjugate the Sunni population,” Zarqawi wrote. Why was the man who in early 2000 was rejected by al-Qaeda so keen to get Osama bin Laden’s approval? The answer rests in the fact that contrary to what Powell had told the Security Council, Zarqawi was virtually unknown before the war. A working-class Bedouin from Zarqa leading a group of foreign fighters, he lacked the religious authority to rally the Iraqi Sunni population around him. He desperately needed legitimacy, and Osama bin Laden was the only one who could help him obtain it.

Their correspondence centered upon the need to drive a wedge between the Sunni and Shia insurgencies. Zarqawi feared a united nationalist resistance, which would necessarily be secular and which would shun the Arab jihadists. These fears were confirmed in spring 2004, when Moqtada al-Sadr’s revolt attracted admiration among Sunni insurgents. Pictures of the preacher were plastered on the walls of Sunni neighborhoods. Keeping the Islamist warriors at the forefront of the anti-American battle was, therefore, paramount to building a Sunni Islamist state in Iraq.

America’s obsession with his myth 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-Qaeda in Iraq. That in turn has enabled the Jordanian to attract enough followers and resources to engage U.S. forces while keeping up the relentless succession of suicide bombings against Shi’ites that has brought Iraq to the brink of civil war.

On Nov. 9, 2005, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi fulfilled the prophecy expressed years earlier by the Jordanian authorities, the Kurdish secret service, and the U.S. government: he turned the myth into a chilling 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, today he is the undisputed most-wanted terror leader. Tragically, what we have created seems to be well beyond our ability to subdue.