From thug to feared terrorist

Jordanian emerges as leader of his own jihad against Americans in Iraq

October 10, 2004|By Liz Sly | Liz Sly,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

ZARQA, Jordan - Growing up poor and ordinary in this nondescript truck-stop town, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi betrayed few clues to the bloody career that lay ahead of him as the most feared and hunted terrorist in Iraq.

Al-Zarqawi is his nom de guerre, signifying he is from Zarqa, a cheerless sprawl of cinder-block homes, strip malls and snack shops strung along the desert highway leading west from the capital, Amman.

Former neighbors remember him by his real name, Ahmad Fadeel Nazzar al Khalayleh, and say they haven't seen him since 1989, when he stunned his family and enraged his father by announcing that he was heading to Afghanistan to participate in the jihad against the occupying forces of the Soviet Union.

It was the beginning of a journey that would take al-Zarqawi from small-town obscurity to the leadership of his own jihad, against the Americans in Iraq, and to worldwide infamy. Al-Zarqawi's Tawhid and Jihad movement has claimed responsibility for some of the bloodiest attacks of the past year. In Tuesday's debate, Vice President Dick Cheney called him "the one you will see on the evening news beheading hostages."

The $25 million price on his head is on a par with the reward offered for Osama bin Laden and his chief lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Al-Zarqawi does not control or even dominate the Iraqi resistance movement, which consists overwhelmingly of former Baath Party loyalists and disgruntled Iraqis, according to U.S. officials in Baghdad. The size of his following has been put at a few hundred to 1,500. He may not be behind all of the violence attributed to him, and at least some of the statements issued in his name appear to have been written and delivered by other members of his group.

But his radical Salafist views have spread with alarming speed through Iraq's Sunni heartland, transforming what began as a backlash against U.S. forces by stalwarts of the former regime into an Islamic uprising.

In a little more than a year, al-Zarqawi has emerged as the single biggest challenge to U.S. plans to pacify Iraq, and he is in charge of a network that, like bin Laden's, probably will survive his capture or death, said Daniel Benjamin of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"It is worrisome and fascinating that in such a short period of time, the jihad movement has produced such a formidable leader, and the world should take note of that threat," he said.

The story of al-Zarqawi's rise to the top of the U.S. most wanted list offers chilling insights into the complexity of the terrorist challenge confronting the United States.

Although al-Zarqawi clearly is a product of the al-Qaida structures established by bin Laden in Afghanistan, far from acting as bin Laden's representative in Iraq, he appears to have set himself up as a competitor to bin Laden - or at least an equal, a leader in his own right of a second-generation radical jihadist movement.

That's no small achievement for a high school dropout who is described by those who knew him as not very bright.

Born in 1966 to a lowly but respected local leader of Jordan's Bani Hassan tribe, al-Zarqawi had a reputation as a local thug who joined a gang, got into brawls and covered himself un-Islamically with tattoos.

"He was nothing special," said Moqed Sawalha, who runs a grocery store near the modest two-story home where al-Zarqawi was raised, and where his family still lives. "He was a member of a gang and a tough guy. But maybe something changed him. It happens that some people are extreme in one way and then they go extreme in the opposite direction."

Everyone was surprised when he decided to go to Afghanistan, which had been attracting idealistic Muslim youths for several years, according to Abu Mahmoud, a tribesman who said he was a good friend of al-Zarqawi's late father. "He was a person who didn't care a lot about anything," he said. "He always argued with his father. And then he said he was going to Afghanistan. His father was against it. ... There was a big fight."

Al-Zarqawi set out in 1989 and arrived too late; the Soviet Union had withdrawn its troops. But he stayed, mixing in mujahedeen circles in the Pakistani border town of Peshawar.

When he returned to Jordan in 1992, he was arrested and jailed for plotting against the monarchy, along with a radical Jordanian-Palestinian preacher known as Abu Mohammed Maqdisi and several members of Maqdisi's group, Bayat al Imam.

"Maqdisi is the most dangerous man in the Middle East," said lawyer Mohammed Dweik, who defended al-Zarqawi at his 1995 trial. "Everyone who meets him returns home with religion in their heart."

Under Maqdisi's influence, al-Zarqawi memorized the Quran, recruited about 20 followers in prison and imposed a strict Islamic discipline on them. He also protected them, threatening and sometimes beating up prison guards who attempted to interfere with the group, said Yusuf Rababa, a former cellmate of al-Zarqawi's.

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