Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was born Ahmed al-Khalayleh to an impoverished Palestinian-Jordanian family in 1966. He was raised in a mining town named Zarqa — hence his nom de guerre — located 17 miles north of Amman.
A high-school dropout, Zarqawi in the 1980s rallied to the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. Returning to Jordan after the 1989 withdrawal of Soviet troops, he may have joined the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. While in Jordan he also associated with Hizb ut Tahrir, an anti-Semitic conclave devoted to the restoration of Islamic Law, or Shariah. He was imprisoned in 1992 for plotting to replace the Jordanian monarchy with an Islamic fundamentalist government. When he was released five years later, he fled to Europe.
Zarqawi returned to Afghanistan in 2000 and built his own network of training camps near Herat, seizing control of the clandestine routes between Iran and Afghanistan. In his camps, Zarqawi dispensed his specialized knowledge of chemical weapons and poisons to loyal followers, who then fanned out across the Middle East and Europe.
In February 2002, a Jordanian court sentenced Zarqawi in absentia to 15 years’ hard labor for his involvement in a failed plot to kill American and Israeli tourists at the turn of the millennium, a scheme he had coordinated with Abu Zubaydah, a top lieutenant of Osama bin Laden. Another Jordanian court sentenced Zarqawi, again in absentia, to death for the October 2002 assassination of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley.
Zarqawi’s operatives were implicated also in a November 2002 attack on a Mombassa hotel frequented by Israeli tourists, and in an attempt, that same month, to shoot down an Israeli jetliner with shoulder-fired missiles.
Zarqawi was first thrust into the global media spotlight in February 2003, shortly before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when American Secretary of State Colin Powell at the United Nations called him an “associate and collaborator” of Osama bin Laden and part of a “sinister nexus between Iraq and the al Qaeda terrorist network.”
Zarqawi is believed to have played a role in the May 2003 Casablanca bombings of a Jewish community center and a Spanish social club, killing 41 people. He was the prime suspect in the August 2003 truck bombing of the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad, which killed 17 and injured at least 40. And he was believed to be the mastermind of the deadly Madrid railway bombings of March 11, 2004, which killed 190 people and wounded more than 1,800.
The week of April 19, 2004, Jordanian police broke up a Zarqawi-financed and -orchestrated plot which they estimated would have detonated 20 tons of chemicals and released a massive cloud of poisonous gas into central Amman, killing some 80,000 civilians and destroying the U.S. embassy and Jordanian intelligence headquarters. In a videotaped confession shown on Jordanian TV, the head of the terror cell responsible for this plot admitted, “I took explosives courses, poisons high level, then I pledged allegiance to Abu Musab al Zarqawi, to obey him without any questioning.”
In May 2004, a Jordanian military court sentenced to death nine men, including Zaqrawi, for plotting that chemical attack. Zarqawi and three others received the death penalty in absentia, while the plot’s alleged mastermind, Azmi al-Jayousi, and four co-defendants were in the courtroom when the judge handed down the sentence.
When German authorities had investigated, in the wake of 9/11, the Hamburg cell which consisted of several key operatives who had helped plan and carry out the 9/11 suicide hijackings, those authorities came across a terrorist group called al-Tawhid (unity), composed mainly of Palestinians who had been trained in Zarqawi’s Afghan camps to organize attacks against Jewish targets, including businesses and synagogues. Al-Tawhid operatives told investigators they had gotten their start in Europe by selling stolen and forged documents to militants traveling between the Middle East and Western Europe.
With the outbreak of war in Iraq in 2003, al-Tawhid converted its alien-smuggling and document-forgery ring into a two-way underground railroad between Western Europe and the Middle East — dispatching Middle Eastern jihadis into Europe via Spain, Turkey, Italy, and Greece. In November 2003, Italian wiretaps recorded two al-Tawhid operatives speaking of “the jihad part” and its “battalion of 25-26 units” of suicide bombers.
Though Zarqawi met with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan several times, the former never actually became a member of al Qaeda. Some militants have explained that al-Tawhid was “especially for Jordanians who did not want to join al Qaeda.” A confessed al-Tawhid member even told his interrogators that Zarqawi was “against al Qaeda.”
Zarqawi and bin Laden disagreed over strategy: The former had constructed his al-Tawhid network primarily to target Jews and Jordan. This choice reflected both Zarqawi’s Palestinian heritage and his dissent from bin Laden’s strategy of focusing on the “far enemy” — the United States.
In addition to al-Tawhid, Zarqawi was also associated with such terrorist entities as: Ansar al Islam, a largely Kurdish organization operating out of northern Iraq; Beyyiat el-Imam, an al Qaeda splinter group implicated in attacks in Israel as well as the November 2003 attack on a synagogue in Turkey; Jund al-Shams, a Syrian-Jordanian outgrowth of al Qaeda which was blamed by Jordanian authorities for the assassination of the aforementioned Laurence Foley; Chechen jihadis; and Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), a Pakistani Sunni group responsible for slaying hundreds of Shias in South Asia.
This slaughter of Shias touched on another Zarqawi disagreement with bin Laden. Whereas the latter made numerous tactical alliances with Shia groups, Zarqawi favored butchering Shias, calling them “the most evil of mankind … the lurking snake, the crafty and malicious scorpion, the spying enemy, and the penetrating venom.” American military officials believe Zarqawi was responsible not only for assassinating Shia religious leaders in Iraq, but also for the multiple truck bombings of a Shia religious festival in March 2004, which killed 143 worshippers in the city of Karbala.
While bin Laden and Zarqawi differed on strategy, they both cloaked their plans for mass murder in the language of religious zealotry. To Zarqawi, religion was “more precious than anything and has priority over lives, wealth, and children.” He considered Iraq an ideal battleground for jihad, especially because “it is a stone’s throw from the lands of the two Holy Precincts [Saudi Arabia] and the al Aqsa [mosque, in Jerusalem].” We know from God’s religion,” he said, “that the true, decisive battle between infidelity and Islam is in this land [Greater Syria and its surroundings]….”
In January 2004, Iraqi Kurds captured a message from Zarqawi in Iraq to Osama bin Laden. In this communique, Zarqawi offered bin Laden a chance to expand al Qaeda’s role in Iraq. Victory, Zarqawi instructed, meant fomenting sectarian war between Shiites and Sunnis. “We do not see ourselves as fit to challenge you [bin Laden],” wrote Zarqawi. “… If you agree with us … we will be your readied soldiers, working under your banner, complying with your orders, and indeed swearing fealty to you publicly and in the news media…. If things appear otherwise to you, we are brothers, and the disagreement will not spoil [our] friendship.”
In a May 2004 videotape which showed Zarqawi personally beheading the abducted American businessman Nick Berg in Iraq, Zarqawi raged: “Where is the compassion, where is the anger for God’s religion, and where is the protection for Muslims’ pride in the crusaders’ jails?… The pride of all Muslim men and women in Abu Ghraib and other jails is worth blood and souls.”
In an audiotape released in May 2005, a voice believed to be that of Zarqawi condemned Iraqi Shiites as U.S. collaborators and called for their murder: “God ordered us to attack the infidels by all means … even if armed infidels and unintended victims — women and children — are killed together. The priority is for jihad, so anything that slows down jihad should be overcome.”
On June 8, 2006, a U.S. military plane fired two 500-pound hellfire missiles into the house where Zarqawi was staying, destroying the structure and killing Zarqawi.
Most of this profile is adapted, with permission, from the article “Who Is Abu Zarqawi?,” written by Robert S. Leiken and Steven Brooke. It was published on May 24, 2004 by The Weekly Standard.