Jeffrey Gettleman / New York Times – 2006-06-09 00:04:42
(June 9, 2006) — Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the terrorist leader killed Wednesday in Iraq in an American airstrike, was always something of a phantom, to the American military, to the Iraqi people he was supposedly fighting for and even to the men and women who grew up with him in his native Jordan.
Mr. Zarqawi is killed in an air strike on an isolated house about 30 miles north of Baghdad. Iraqi officials announce the death the next morning, and Al Qaeda confirms that he has died.
His life story was riddled with contradictions: he was close to Saddam Hussein, he was fighting Mr. Hussein; he had two legs, he had one; he was Palestinian, he was Jordanian; he was right-handed, he was left-handed; he was a cunning leader, he was an illiterate brute.
As the Iraqi insurgency increased, American military officials increasingly blamed Mr. Zarqawi for the bloodshed. Military officials portrayed him as a global threat on the scale of Osama bin Laden and shared letters they say he wrote urging sectarian war in Iraq. However, several people who knew Mr. Zarqawi well, including former cellmates, voiced doubts about his ability to be an insurgent leader, or the leader of anything.
In a way, Mr. Zarqawi had always lived in the shadows. He was born in 1966 in Zarqa, an industrial city known as Jordan’s Detroit, which is essentially a sooty appendage to the affluent and glitzy capital, Amman.
He grew up in a concrete block house of seven girls and three boys. The family was not especially religious. His father was a healer. His mother struggled with leukemia. His birth name was Ahmed Fadeel al-Khalayleh.
Growing up, Mr. Zarqawi was average in every way. He played soccer in the streets. He did fine in school. He went to the mosque every once in a while. He was short and thick, with dark eyes and dark hair.
But one thing that did stand out was his temper, which led to many schoolyard fights.
“He was not so big, but he was bold,” said a cousin, Muhammad al-Zawahra, in an interview two years ago, when Mr. Zarqawi’s family still spoke with reporters.
At 17, family members said, Mr. Zarqawi cut his last class and hit the streets. He also hit the bottle and started getting tattoos. Those tattoos would be among the distinguishing marks that American soldiers initially used to identify Mr. Zarqawi after he was killed. He had so many tattoos that friends in the neighborhood called him “The Green Man.” Around that time, he was arrested and accused of raping a girl, Jordanian security officials have said.
By his mid-20’s, he was totally adrift and, like so many other young, uneducated men in the Arab world at the time, he found his cause in Afghanistan.
But he got there a little late. He arrived in Khost, in eastern Afghanistan, in 1989, after the Russians had pulled out. So Mr. Zarqawi became a journalist, traveling the Afghan countryside, interviewing guerrilla fighters and writing about all the glorious battles he had missed.
He returned to Jordan three years later a changed man and fell in with a militant Islamic group called Loyalty to the Imam. He was caught with assault rifles in his house and arrested.
His lawyer at the time said Mr. Zarqawi told authorities he had found the guns in the street.
“He never struck me as intelligent,” said the lawyer, Mohammed al-Dweik, in an interview in 2004.
Mr. Zarqawi thrived in prison. He strutted around in Afghan dress and a woolly Afghan hat and doled out chores. He became serious and religious and sat for hours on his bunk bed bent over a Koran, former inmates said, trying to memorize all the verses. He worked on his body, too, curling barbells made from olive oil tins filled with rocks.
In March 1999, he was released under a general amnesty for political prisoners. According to his brother-in-law Saleh al-Hami, for a moment Mr. Zarqawi flirted with thoughts of a normal life and even talked of buying a pickup truck and opening a vegetable stand.
But the next year he drifted back to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, this time with his ailing mother. Friends and relatives said Mr. Zarqawi was devoted to his mother, planting a kiss on her forehead whenever he walked in the door.
While he was in Pakistan, Jordanian authorities identified him as a suspect in a foiled terror plot against a Christian pilgrimage site, and Mr. Zarqawi decided to disappear into the wilds of Afghanistan. Some foreign intelligence officials said he set up his own terrorist training camp, with the tacit support of Mr. bin Laden. It was around this time he took up his nom de guerre, with Zarqawi a reference to his hometown of Zarqa.
United States officials said he was wounded in a missile strike when American forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001.
He then went to a loosely controlled part of northern Iraq, and before the Iraq war, American leaders, including then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, asserted that he was sheltered by Mr. Hussein and therefore was a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq. American officials later admitted this was wrong, along with other details of Mr. Zarqawi’s life, including the original claim that he was Palestinian (he was a member of an old Jordanian tribe) and that he had lost a leg.
In the summer of 2003, Mr. Zarqawi was alleged to have masterminded the first big suicide attacks in Iraq. By that winter, he was emerging as one of the most lethal threats the American military faced. He was accused of making targets of Iraqi civilians and beheading Nicholas Berg, the young American killed on videotape by masked insurgents in May 2004.
But in Amman there were questions. The killer on the Berg video cuts with his right hand. At least two of Mr. Zarqawi’s old cellmates insisted he was left-landed.
Mr. Zarqawi eventually swore allegiance to Mr. bin Laden, according to statements on the Internet, renaming his group Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. But it was never clear how close he was to Mr. bin Laden, who some intelligence sources said did not approve of his ruthless attacks on Shiite civilians and the efforts to fan a sectarian war. Mr. bin Laden and Mr. Zarqawi are Sunni Muslims.
Much of Mr. Zarqawi’s story remains mysterious, with records spotty and many relatives unavailable. His mother died in 2004 and her last wish, one of the few relatives willing to be interviewed said, was for him to be killed in battle, not captured.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.