The life and death of Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, resistance leader and sectarian extremist

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Nasr Salem

Jumada' al-Akhirah 05, 1427 2006-07-01

Occupied Arab World

by Nasr Salem (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 35, No. 5, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1427)

The death of Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi in an American air strike on June 7 has been greeted with joy by the beleaguered US regime. Among Muslims, his image was mixed: some saw him as a courageous resistance leader, fighting against a global superpower, others as a murderous sectarian extremist. NASR SALEM discusses the life and legacy of a symbol of modern Iraq.

Never since the capture of Iraq's former president, Saddam Hussein, in December 2003 has the US government had such good news from Iraq. Until he was killed in an American air-strike on June 7 on a "safe house" in the village of Hibhib, some 30 miles (50 kilometres) northeast of Baghdad, Jordanian-born Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi was the best-known, and most feared, symbol of Iraq's resistance to foreign occupation. But even amid their noisy celebrations American officials were quick to warn that the death of Zarqawi is unlikely to mark the beginning of the end of the Iraqi insurgency. In fact his vicious formula, combining a brutal mixture of actions against foreign troops and "Muslim-on-Muslim" violence, is very likely to outlive him.

Born Ahmad Fadheel Nazzal al-Khalayleh in al-Zarqa, a small town in Jordan, he belonged to a poor, but respected, family in the Banu Hassan tribal confederation, which is one of the main sources of manpower for the Jordanian military and security apparatus and helps to guard the Jordan-Iraq border. His father was the neighbourhood mukhtar, or local headman. As a restless young man, Zarqawi dropped out of school and turned into a knife-wielding tough and a fall-down drunk. Rediscovering religion in the late nineteen-eighties, Zarqawi travelled toAfghanistan, where the anti-Russia resistance was giving way to internecine civil strife with sectarian, ethnic and tribal overtones. Little is known about the circumstances of his sudden interest in religion at the time. What is clear, though, is that his newfound faith did not alter his tendency to violence, even killing.

After his return to Jordan in 1992 he set up with his salafi mentor Issam Barqawi, also known as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, a group called Bay'at al-Imam ("allegiance to the Imam"), a support-group for Jordanian veterans of the Afghan war. Al-Maqdisi, a Kuwaiti-born Jordanian salafi of Palestinian origin, used to deliver fiery speeches condemning the Jordanian government and the establishment ulama as taghut (oppressors). Maqdisi and Zarqawi were both convicted in 1994 of plotting to overthrow the regime of the late King Hussein. They were sentenced to time in the notorious Sawaqa prison in the Jordanian desert, where a group of like-minded salafi inmates clustered around them.

Some five years after he went to prison Zarqawi was released in a royal amnesty. Sometime in 1999 or early 2000 he went to Pakistan, where he was arrested briefly by the authorities for overstaying his visa. When he was ordered to leave the country upon his release, Zarqawi headed westward through the Khyber Pass and into Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

Unlike most Arab volunteers who flocked to Afghanistan during this period, Zarqawi did not join any of the many camps run by Usama bin Laden on the eastern Afghan frontiers withPakistan. He managed to set up his own camp in Herat, in the west of Afghanistan: an indication at the that he might already have had an agenda that was different than Bin Laden's.

After the US-led invasion of Afghanistan he left the country to link up with a militant Kurdish salafi group known as Ansar al-Islam, which was based in the rugged mountains of northernIraq, outside the control of Saddam's government. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the US tried to use Zarqawi's presence in northern Iraq to establish a link between Saddam's government and al-Qa‘ida. In a now widely discredited speech before the UN, then-US secretary of state Colin Powell alleged that Zarqawi was a bin Laden "associate and collaborator" and an element in a "sinister nexus between Iraq and the al-Qaeda terrorist network, a nexus that combines classic terrorist organizations and modern methods of murder."

These allegations were baseless in the sense that no evidence was produced to support them. Although the details are still not clear, it is apparent that Zarqawi had not until then forged any relations with either Saddam's government or al-Qa‘ida. In fact, upon arriving in Iraq, he began to develop his own network to bring in volunteers from around the world to fight the Americans during the impending invasion of Iraq and afterwards. Once the invasion began, this network was refined and began to use sophisticated operational practices and lines of funding and communication, which turned his group, Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn ("the group of monotheism and jihad in Mesopotamia") into one of the deadliest insurgent groups in Iraq. Zarqawi swore fealty to bin Laden in 2004 and changed the name of the organisation to Qa'idat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn ("the base of jihad in Mesopotamia").

Despite his image as a poster-boy for the Iraqi resistance, which was largely painted by American and Iraqi officials, who talked him up as the main instigator of every brutal act in Iraq, Zarqawi commanded only a small group of active fighters. But his preference for the gruesome and spectacular, as well as attacks on high-profile targets, made up for what he lacked in numbers. His infamy grew mainly out of a modus operandi of conscious efforts to employ excessive, even atavistic, forms of violence. The barrage of suicide bombings, using car-bombs, truck-bombs and people wearing explosive-filled belts, has claimed the lives of dozens of prominent Iraqi leaders, including Ayatullah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, former chairman of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, ‘Izz al-Din Salim, former leader of the Islamic Da'awah movement and head of the now-defunct Iraqi Governing Council, and thousands of Iraqi civilians. Videotaped beheadings of foreign hostages became his trademark. He himself appeared in grotesque videos, slaughtering petrified hostages and callously holding up their heads for the cameras, after reading fiery statements threatening more killings. Because of his mastery of the internet, these videotapes became essential tools in Zarqawi's public-relations machine.

Nothing can match the bizarre and warped logic of Zarqawi, who saw a purgative utility in civil strife. According to Zarqawi's narrow salafist straightjacket, which hardly allows for the survival of anyone but the like-minded who subscribe to the same doctrine, Shi'ah Muslims, who comprise some 65 percent of the Iraqi population, are "infidels" and therefore legitimate targets. In a letter he wrote in early 2004, Zarqawi revealed much of his thinking about fomenting a Muslim-on-Muslim civil war. He described Shi'ahs as "the insurmountable obstacle, the lurking snake, the crafty and malicious scorpion and the penetrating venom … they are the enemy … the bone in the throat … The only solution is for us to drag the Shi'ites into battle … to strike the religious, military, and other cadres among the Shi'ites with blow after blow until they bend to the Sunnis." To this end he perpetrated suicide bombings against Shi'ah civilians, shrines, institutions and leaders. Zarqawi's campaign of sectarian violence has succeeded in drawing segments of various communities into his trap: they have set about forming death-squads and militias to ‘protect' their communities, but at the same time they employ unbridled forms of violence against members of other communities. This indicates that Zarqawi's diabolical campaign for civil war in Iraq has become a self-perpetuating sectarian firestorm. In other words, it has acquired a momentum of its own.

This proclivity for violence was too extreme even for al-Qa‘ida. Bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, at one point wrote to Zarqawi to rebuke him for his brazenly violent tactics against civilians. Zawahiri warned that the campaign was losing the resistance support among ordinary people. He also urged him to stop the practice of beheading hostages and posting the grisly footage on the web.

The killing of Zarqawi was the result of a painstaking pursuit combining the intelligence efforts of the US forces, Iraq and Jordan. Available information suggests that a special elite unit of the Jordanian Special Forces was the first to penetrate Zarqawi's network. The Jordanians had been hunting for Zarqawi since he sent suicide-bombers to attack three hotels in Amman last November, killing 60 people. In December the Jordanian Special Forces formed an elite unit, Fursan al-Haqq, to hunt him down. In May the unit captured Ziyad Khalaf Raja al-Karaboulli, an Iraqi al-Qa‘ida operative who worked as a customs agent at the Rutaba border-crossing on the Iraq-Jordan border. Karaboulli's disclosures, as well as other information pieced together from statements by other operatives captured in Jordan and Iraq in recent months, helped the Americans to learn the identity of Zarqawi's spiritual adviser, one Shaykh Abd al-Rahman. By following the Shaykh's movements, the Americans were able to pinpoint Zarqawi's safe house in a palm grove on the outskirts of Hibhib. Commanders gave the coordinates of the house to two F-16 warplanes on routine patrol and ordered them to drop two 500-pound bombs on it. Oddly enough, Zarqawi did not die immediately when the bombs were dropped on his hideout; he reportedly died some 10 to 50 minutes later.

The operation that targeted Zarqawi was part of a larger effort against al-Qa‘ida in Iraq. Immediately after the raid on the safe house in Hibhib, US Special Operations troops conducted a series of raids against suspected al-Qa‘ida safe houses in Baghdad and the surrounding area. Scores of suspected al-Qa‘ida operatives were rounded up in dozens of raids.

It is not clear whether anyone else in his organization will be able to fill his shoes. Al-Qa‘ida has chosen an Egyptian veteran of the Afghan war against the Russians to succeed Zarqawi as head of the group in Iraq. In a statement posted on the internet Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, the new leader, has warned the Americans and their Iraqi allies that "the day of vengeance is near and your strong towers in the Green Zone will not protect you." Little is known about the new leader other than that he joined the Afghan jihad in 1982 and that he came to Iraq on his own shortly before Zarqawi arrived there. He is surely untried and untested, and his relative obscurity will present him with challenges as he tries to gain control over the highly decentralized organization and the loyalty of his many local lieutenants in various regions throughout Iraq

It is clear, however, that the demise of Zarqawi is not likely to weaken the resistance to occupation. The classical pattern of counter-insurgency and pacification in Iraq has yet to dent the insurgents' resolve. This can be seen clearly in the unabated string of attacks on US and Iraqi troops as well as civilian targets in Iraq since Zarqawi's death. Conceivably, though, it will tip the balance in favour of local resistance groups, who are composed mainly of Sunni Arabs. These are a potpourri of ideological inclinations: Ba'athist, non-Ba'athist nationalist, salafist, non-salafist Islamist, the ‘syncretic', which combine a fundamentally national liberationist agenda with Islamic or tribal overtones (or both), the freelance criminal gangs willing to provide their services to anyone in return for the right fee, and so on. Many of these groups do not share the late Zarqawi's obsession with "total war" and "permanent war", tending to think of the use of violence in more Clausewitzian terms – that is, as an instrument of politics.

For Zarqawi violence was the best or only means of resolving differences. In the last two months of his life, his group was blamed for the murders of eleven Sunni Arab tribal chiefs in al-Anbar province who had held talks with Iraqi officials. His singularly savage ways had lately made home-grown Iraqi groups uncomfortable with him; they had evinced signs of a desire to limit his influence, or possibly even get rid of him. Shortly before the American attack on Fallujah in April 2004, there were reports of tension between Zarqawi's salafist foreign fighters, on the one hand, and other local insurgent groups, some of them Sufi-inspired, on the other. Last year, local tribal leaders in al-Anbar province made war on Zarqawi's non-Iraqi fighters. In April local Iraqi insurgents demoted Zarqawi to a subordinate position within an umbrella group, headed by Iraqis, called Majlis Shura al-Mujahidin (the Consultative Council of the Mujahidin).

With Zarqawi's intimidating presence gone, control of the agenda of the resistance is moving steadily into the hands of Iraqi groups. Sunni Arab tribal chiefs and other leaders of home-grown insurgent groups may now be more willing to talk to the Americans and the Iraqi government. The principle of "fight and talk" articulated by Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh, the two main modern exponents of guerrilla warfare, might become an essential part of the insurgents' strategy as they try to translate their achievements on the battlefield into political influence.

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