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.
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
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
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
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.