"Ruthless operational commander"

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the man responsible for the beheadings in Iraq, will apparently stop at nothing to create a pure Islamic zone in the Middle East.

Published September 23, 2004 2:46PM (EDT)

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of the organization responsible for the beheadings in Iraq, is regularly portrayed by the U.S. government as a terrorist mastermind, responsible for activity in places as widespread as Hamburg, Chechnya, Madrid and Mombasa. But while there is no doubt that Zarqawi has committed awful crimes, experts say that accusing him has become an easy fallback for the authorities as they struggle to contain the insurgency. There is no unanimity on whether Zarqawi is a henchman of Osama bin Laden or a rival.

"There is a lot of speculative stuff which, as far as one can tell, is based on rumor," said Paul Wilkinson, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrews University. "On the face of it, it does not look likely that, however fanatical and assiduous, a terrorist would be active in so many theaters."

There is no need to exaggerate his activities. The attacks he has claimed in Iraq are enough to justify the $25 million the U.S. has offered for his capture, the same as bin Laden and al-Qaida's main strategist, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

In an interview with the Guardian in June, Lieutenant General Thomas Metz, the deputy U.S. commander in Iraq, offered a more realistic appraisal of Zarqawi than the one emanating from Washington. He said Zarqawi's group was small but focused on "catastrophic kinds of events," huge car bombings or important political assassinations.

Zarqawi's basic education and the writings attributed to him suggest he is not a strategist comparable to Zawahiri, the Egyptian urban terrorist who masterminds al-Qaida campaigns. Zarqawi is more a ruthless operational commander, putting strategy into action: a thug rather than a thinker.

His aim, like bin Laden's, is to re-create a pan-Islamist caliphate across the Middle East and beyond, headed by himself or a like-minded individual committed to a return to what he regards as a purer form of Islam.

Gen. Metz said: "I think he wants to remain independent of bin Laden and al-Qaida, but he is doing their business because his goals, I believe, are closely linked."

Zarqawi, 37, was born in Zarqa, an industrial town north of Amman, Jordan, into relative poverty. Though the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, described him last year as a Palestinian, he is Bedouin. His name at birth was Ahmad Fadil Nazal al-Khalayleh, and he took his nom de guerre from his hometown when he became a full-time terrorist in 2000.

The transformation began when he went to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, though the war was almost over by the time he arrived. He returned to Zarqa in 1992 and was arrested a year later by the Jordanian authorities after guns and explosives were found in his home.

Jeffrey Gettleman, a New York Times reporter, recently interviewed some of those who had been in prison with him, and a picture emerged of a man who went into prison with little authority but gradually established control over his inmates. In prison he worked out obsessively, building up his chest and arms to acquire a more physical presence. One inmate said he was intolerant of anyone who read anything other than the Koran. Released in 1998, he returned to Afghanistan two years later, setting up a training camp, and was possibly in contact with bin Laden.

When the U.S. attacked in 2001, it claimed to have hit him in an airstrike and that he had to have a leg amputated. That assessment had to be revised when he turned up on a video in Iraq with both legs intact. Some intelligence analysts have him fleeing from Afghanistan to various destinations, but the most credible location was a small pocket held by al-Qaida sympathizers in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. He returned illegally to Jordan in September 2002 and a month later a U.S. diplomat, Laurence Foley, was assassinated in the capital, Amman.

The next stop was Iraq. He was based, and may still be, in Fallujah, which has put up the stiffest resistance to the U.S. The London-based daily, al-Hayat, carried an interview with an Arab who claimed to have recently met Zarqawi in Fallujah. The source rejected as U.S. propaganda a strategy document purportedly written by Zarqawi in which he urged fomenting division in Iraq by attacking not only the U.S. and Iraqi authorities but Shiite Muslims. He saw the Shiites as having an "infidel ideology" but denied wanting to kill them.

He said Zarqawi had no such compunction when it came to hostages, and that he claimed the killing of hostages was permitted by sharia [Islamic law] because they were not hostages but spies.

Attacks for which Zarqawi is probably responsible:

  • October 2002 -- Laurence Foley, a U.S. diplomat, assassinated in Amman

  • August 2003 -- accused by U.S. of being behind the bombing of U.N. headquarters in Baghdad and a Shiite mosque in Najaf

  • May 11, 2004 -- Zarqawi makes Web site claim of personal responsibility for beheading Nick Berg, U.S. businessman

  • May 17 -- bomb kills the head of Iraq's interim governing council

  • Sept. 20 -- beheading of U.S. hostage and a day later of a colleague

    Activities for which Zarqawi is blamed but probably not responsible:

  • Establishing a chemical training facility in the Pankski Valley, Chechnya, according to the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies

  • Running a European network through a group in Hamburg, Germany

  • November 2002 -- attack on hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, and attempt to shoot down Israeli jet, according to the Weekly Standard

  • November 2003 -- in same report linked to an attack on a synagogue in Turkey

  • March 2004 -- Madrid train bombing

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