Abu Musab al-Zarqawi: A Biographical Sketch

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 24

In the span of just eighteen months, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has emerged from obscurity to eclipse Osama bin Laden as public enemy number one in the Bush administration’s war on terror. Less gifted than bin Laden in nearly every way, Zarqawi rose to become the “emir” of radical Islamist terror groups in Iraq largely on the strength of his networking skills. While probably not the terrorist mastermind he is often made out to be, Zarqawi is responsible for forging the broad outlines of a seemingly effective terrorist strategy for derailing Iraq’s postwar political transition.

Zarqawi was born Ahmad Fadil Nazal al-Khalaylah in October 1966 to a family of modest means in the working class Jordanian town of Zarqa, 16 miles northeast of Amman. Contrary to many Western media reports, he is not of Palestinian descent – the Khalaylah clan is a branch of the Bani Hassan, a large East Bank bedouin tribe loyal to Jordan’s Hashemite royal family. Zarqawi’s father, a local tribal leader and retired army officer, died in 1984, leaving his mother a small pension to raise six daughters and four sons.

Devastated by the death of his father, the seventeen-year-old adolescent dropped out of school and descended into a life of drinking, drug abuse, and violence on the streets of Zarqa. He soon ran afoul of the authorities and was jailed for drug possession and sexual assault. Ironically, it was probably his criminal activities that first drew him into the city’s abject and lawless Palestinian refugee camp, where he was exposed to radical Salafist preachers. He quickly fell under their influence and gave up drugs and alcohol. After acquiring a clerical job in the local municipality, he married one of his maternal cousins.

In 1989, however, Zarqawi abruptly left his family to go to Afghanistan. By this time, Soviet troops had already pulled out of the country – evidently he was expecting to join a triumphant march on Kabul and witness the establishment of the world’s first Sunni Islamist state. Instead, he saw the Mujahideen front fragment along tribal and ethnic lines, unable to deliver the coup de grace to the “godless” Soviet-installed regime in Kabul for three years. Zarqawi is believed to have taken part in some fighting, but he mainly worked as a correspondent for a radical Islamist magazine during this period. By 1991, he was spending most of his time in Peshawar, Pakistan – once a way station for Arab volunteers going to Afghanistan, now teeming with disillusioned Arab fighters debating what to do next.

It is here that Zarqawi came under the influence of Muhammad al-Maqdisi (aka Issam al-Barqawi), a well-known radical Salafist thinker and fellow Jordanian. Together they established a network called Bayat al-Imam to organize Jordanian Afghan veterans. After the fall of Kabul in 1992, as rival Mujahideen commanders finally “liberated” the Afghan capital only to turn their guns on each other and tear the city to shreds, Zarqawi and Maqdisi returned to Jordan to prepare for a jihad closer to home.

One thing that Zarqawi had not learned from Afghanistan’s swaggering militia environment was how to operate discretely. Upon his return, he began publicly condemning the government and denouncing mainstream clerics who supported it – a bad idea made worse by the fact that he had been naively stockpiling weapons and explosives in his own home. In March 1994, security forces raided his house, discovered the arms cache and arrested him. Zarqawi was brought before the state security court on charges of membership in an illegal organization and weapons possession – a predicament that might not have been so dire had he treated the court respectfully. He did not. “[Zarqawi] handed me a written indictment. The first defendant in this bill was the late His Majesty King Hussein and the second was me…I was expected to inform the first defendant of the charges,” recalls the judge who presided over the trial. [1] Zarqawi was sentenced to 15 years in jail with hard labor and sent to Suwaqa prison, where he was soon joined by Maqdisi.

Maqdisi quickly established a loyal following among the prisoners, with Zarqawi (who worked out incessantly with buckets of rocks) acting as his enforcer. Over time, however, the focus of the prisoners’ loyalty shifted decidedly to Zarqawi and a power struggle erupted between the two. While Maqdisi was far more respected as a spiritual leader than his disciple (whose single greatest learned achievement was memorizing the Qur’an) and his background earned him considerable sympathy from the predominantly Palestinian prisoners, Zarqawi’s military experience and courage in confronting guards and rival prisoner factions were much more important assets in a prison environment and he eventually became the group’s undisputed leader.

Zarqawi’s leadership style blended authoritarian and compassionate tendencies. He imposed strict rules on his disciples – they had to dress identically (Afghan-style robes, beards, short hair, black head cloths), could watch only news broadcasts on television, could read only books that he pre-approved, and were not allowed to socialize with non-Islamist prisoners or even speak to each other in his presence without permission. However, stories also abound of Zarqawi’s devotion to his followers. On one occasion, he flew into a rage and attacked a guard who was beating one of his disciples. He was “well-known for loving his brothers in God more than his relatives,” recalls one Jordanian Islamist who knew him well. [2] When an Islamist whose legs had been blown off in a terror attack was brought to the prison, Zarqawi personally bathed and took care of the new arrival. Former friends and associates also remember him as very emotional and easily moved to tears.

In May 1999, following the ascension of King Abdullah II, Zarqawi was released as part of a sweeping amnesty. However, in a replay of Saudi and Egyptian efforts to “export” their violent Islamist opposition, Jordanian intelligence incessantly harassed Zarqawi and other newly released Islamist detainees, preventing them from getting jobs or starting businesses. Several months after his release, Zarqawi left the country and returned to Peshawar. Interestingly, he brought his ailing mother with him in hopes that the climate there would help her battle with leukemia. When his visa expired six months later, however, he was arrested and ordered to leave the country. While his mother flew back to Jordan, Zarqawi crossed the border into Afghanistan for the first time in eight years.

Shortly after entering the country, Zarqawi met with bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders in Kandahar and asked them for support in establishing a terror network aimed at overthrowing the Jordanian monarchy. It appears that they assisted him substantially – by late 2000 he had established his own training camp near Herat in Western Afghanistan, catering mainly to exiled Jordanian, Palestinian, and Syrian Islamists in Europe. As his network developed, Zarqawi abandoned his exclusive focus on overthrowing the Jordanian monarchy – in part because some operatives refused to go back to Jordan, preferring instead to plot attacks against Israel or Jewish targets in Europe.

While Zarqawi’s network – by this time known as al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (Monotheism and Holy War) – was not completely independent of al-Qaeda, it was clearly autonomous. Zarqawi’s men “refused to march under the banner of another individual or group,” recalls Nu’man bin-Uthman, a Libyan Islamist leader now living in London who was in contact with Zarqawi at the time. [3] Zarqawi’s choice of Herat as a base of operations was significant – it allowed him to bypass Pakistani way stations into Afghanistan used by al-Qaeda and instead create his own highly sophisticated “underground railroad” to ferry operatives between Europe and Afghanistan through the eastern Iranian city of Mashhad. According to the interrogations of captured Tawhid operatives in Germany, the two networks’ fundraising branches competed with each other in Europe.

Zarqawi’s Iranian connections paid off – in the aftermath of 9/11, he and most of his operatives in Afghanistan were able to cross overland into Iran. However, his efforts to resume operations there backfired. In February 2002, three Tawhid operatives on a mission to carry out bomb attacks against Israel were arrested crossing into Turkey from Iran; their interrogation alerted Western intelligence agencies to Zarqawi’s presence in the Islamic Republic. Pressure on Iran to expel Zarqawi intensified in April after eight Tawhid members were arrested in Germany for plotting terrorist attacks against Jewish targets.

Weeks later, Zarqawi was obliged to relocate to a remote area of northern Iraq controlled by the Kurdish Islamist group Ansar al-Islam. A number of Arab Islamists had already set up camp in the mountainous enclave and Zarqawi quickly joined forces with them. Believing that an American invasion to oust Saddam Hussein was inevitable, Zarqawi began preparing the groundwork for the battle ahead. He spent a considerable part of the summer in Baghdad and the so-called Sunni triangle of Iraq, apparently to establish local support networks. Since Iran was no longer a reliable conduit for the travel of Tawhid operatives, Zarqawi spent time in Syria setting up an alternate route.

During or shortly before the American-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Zarqawi returned to Iran, where he met with bin Laden’s military chief, Muhammad Ibrahim Makawi (Saif al-Adel), who asked him to coordinate the entry of al-Qaeda operatives into Iraq through Syria. Zarqawi readily agreed and by the fall of 2003 a steady flow of Arab Islamists were infiltrating Iraq via Syria. Although many of these foreign fighters were not members of Tawhid, they became more or less dependent on Zarqawi’s local contacts once they entered the unfamiliar country. Moreover, given Tawhid’s superior intelligence gathering capability, it made little sense for non-Tawhid operatives to plan and carry out attacks without coordinating with Zarqawi’s lieutenants. Consequentially, Zarqawi came to be recognized as the regional “emir” of Islamist terrorists in Iraq – without (until last month) having sworn fealty to bin Laden.

In essence, Zarqawi has pursued a four-pronged terror strategy in Iraq. The first track of this strategy is intended to pressure international actors into rescinding their support for Iraq’s American-led transition. The truck bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003 effectively ended the UN involvement on the ground in Iraq; other targets have included the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad (August 2003) and the headquarters of Italy’s paramilitary police headquarters in Nasiriyah.

The second is designed to deter Iraqis from supporting the US-led transition. Zarqawi operatives have carried out numerous car bomb attacks on police stations and recruitment centers, killing hundreds, and have assassinated several leading Iraqi politicians.

The third is designed to obstruct Iraq’s reconstruction by abducting and beheading civilian contractors, humanitarian aid workers, and other foreigners in Iraq and distributing the gruesome videos of their executions over the Internet. Zarqawi’s network pioneered this practice with the execution in May of Nicholas Berg (who Zarqawi himself beheaded) and carried out at least ten subsequent killings, while other al-Qaeda-linked groups are believed responsible for another two dozen murders.

The fourth track of Zarqawi’s strategy is the string of deadly car bomb attacks outside Shiite mosques (most recently, Hamid al-Najar mosque in Baghdad on December 3) that have killed hundreds of worshippers. These attacks are not intended to punish or deter collaboration with the coalition – they are deliberately indiscriminate. In his January 2004 letter to bin Laden, Zarqawi explains their purpose: “Targeting and striking their religious, political, and military symbols, will make them show their rage against the Sunnis and bear their inner vengeance. If we succeed in dragging them into a sectarian war, this will awaken the sleepy Sunnis who are fearful of destruction and death.” [4]

While Zarqawi’s brutal methods appeal to many radical Sunni Islamists, they have begun to spark considerable controversy in the Arab world. Iraqi insurgent leaders in Iraq frequently complain that Zarqawi’s brutality has detracted from international sympathy for their cause. The Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq has repeatedly condemned the beheading of foreign hostages as a violation of Islamic law. [5] Zarqawi’s defense –that the Prophet Muhammad ordered the killing of prisoners after the Battle of Badr – is not seen as very persuasive by most Islamic scholars. [6] Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a well-known Egyptian cleric living in Qatar, has compared Zarqawi to the ancient Kharijites, “who used to pray and fast all the time . . . but read the Qur’an without understanding it.” [7]

Zarqawi’s mass murder of Shiites has puzzled many informed observers, since he was suspected of having loose ties with Iranian intelligence until recently and al-Qaeda has scrupulously avoided targeting Shi’as. Some speculate that the poorly educated Zarqawi has been heavily influenced by one of his close associates in Iraq, Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (aka Abu Musab al-Suri), a prominent Syrian-born radical Islamist ideologue known for his rabid hatred of heterodox Islamic sects. Whether Zarqawi’s wanton killing of Shiites precludes cooperation with maverick Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr is not entirely clear. Sadr, whose militia has battled coalition forces off and on over the past year, appears reluctant to unequivocally rule this out – his spokesman in Baghdad recently claimed that atrocities attributed to Zarqawi are actually the work of Israeli intelligence. [8]

Gary C. Gambill, a political analyst for Freedom House and adjunct professor at College of Mount Saint Vincent, has published widely on Lebanese and Syrian affairs. He is the former editor of Middle East Intelligence Bulletin.


1. Documentary interview, LBCI Satellite TV (Beirut), 27 November 2004.

2. Documentary interview, Al-Jazeera TV (Doha), 1 July 2004.

3. Al-Hayat (London), 8 November 2004.

4. Agence France Presse, 12 February 2004.

5. Interview with Muthanna Harith al-Dari, Al-Dustour (Amman), 2 November 2004.

6. Al-Quds al-Arabi (London), 12 May 2004.

7. Al-Jazeera TV (Doha), 3 October 2004.

8. Interview with Abd al-Hadi al-Darraji, Al-Manar TV (Beirut), 2 December 2004.