The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Reputed Terrorist Al-Zarqawi Still Shrouded in U.S.-Fed Myth, Mystery

by Chris Shumway

However impossible it is to discern truths from fictions about the Jordanian boogeyman blamed for most of Iraq’s current chaos, Washington piles on the accusations, painting the perfect picture of a legendary master terrorist.

Mar. 16, 2005 – The Bush administration’s nearly constant focus on suspected Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi as the source of its problems in Iraq has helped turn the Islamic fundamentalist into a figure of mythic proportions, but despite the hype and hyperbole surrounding the mysterious Al-Zarqawi, little is actually known about the man or his alleged misdeeds.

Email to a Friend
Print-friendly Version
Add to My Morning Paper

In fact, so many of the US’s claims about Al-Zarqawi’s whereabouts and affiliations have proved suspect or false that many critics view new warnings of his alleged plans to stage attacks within the US as a case of the White House crying wolf.

Al-Zarqawi is, according to Washington, the key link between Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, guilty of leading tens of thousands of Iraqi insurgents and orchestrating dozens of attacks -- ranging from car bombings and assassinations to kidnappings and beheadings -- against foreign military personnel and contractors, as well as Iraqi government and civilian targets in Iraq over the past two years.

Now, according to an article posted March 13 on Time magazine’s website, unnamed US intelligence officials say they have evidence that Al-Zarqawi is planning attacks -- at the urging of Osama bin Laden -- on stateside "soft targets," such as "movie theatres, restaurants and schools." Time’s sources attributed this information to a man recently interrogated in Iraq, who they claim was one of Al-Zarqawi’s top aides.

But one day later, MSNBC reported that another unnamed government official -- this one from the Department of Homeland Security -- said such warnings were alarmist and that the informant in Iraq was not a credible source.

As with these new reports, much of the previously released information about Al-Zarqawi has been contradictory. Mostly leaked by unnamed government intelligence and military sources and contained in statements from civilian analysts, "news" of Al-Zarqawi’s whereabouts, alliances, operations and intentions is largely unreliable. In fact, it is nearly impossible to report about Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi as man rather than legend.

While officials inside US military and intelligence circles continue to make bold assertions about Al-Zarqawi’s activities and ambitions, some analysts believe that accounts of his past and present are still sketchy at best. US officials have offered little hard evidence to support its numerous assertions about Al-Zarqawi and have provided virtually no proof that statements made in videotapes and posted on Islamic websites, purported to be those of Al-Zarqawi, are in fact authentic.

Those who have done significant digging into Al-Zarqawi’s more distant past have had some luck locating people who claim to have known him and members of his family. Still, the information is thin and represents only the rough outlines of a life spent mostly on the margins of Arab society.

The Early Legend

According to British journalist and author Jason Burke, who has reported extensively from the Middle East for the UK Observer, Al-Zarqawi grew up in a poor Jordanian family with Bedouin roots.

Around the age of 20, Al-Zarqawi reportedly found a cause bigger than himself, one worth traveling a great distance to pursue: the fight against Soviet troops occupying Afghanistan.

Like thousands of other young Muslim men who went to Afghanistan in the 1980s -- many at the behest of the CIA -- Al-Zarqawi was radicalized by his experiences there. According to Burke, after the Soviet military fled Afghanistan, Al-Zarqawi returned to Jordan determined to continue the fight against what he considered to be foreign infidels in the Middle East and to overthrow secular regimes in the Arab world.

Al-Zarqawi reportedly joined the fundamentalist Islamic group Bayaat Al-Imam (Loyalty to the Imam) in the early 1990s and was arrested by Jordanian police for keeping a cache of assault rifles and bombs in his house.

In prison for much of the 1990s, Al-Zarqawi earned a reputation for being a cellblock bully and for trying to memorize the entire Qur’an, according to fellow inmates interviewed by the New York Times. After his release in 1999, Al-Zarqawi reportedly left Jordan for Europe, where he began organizing a militant group called Al-Tawhid W’al-Jihad (monotheism and holy struggle), according to Burke. While there, the US claims that Al-Zarqawi helped organize an attempt to blow up a hotel in his native Jordan that catered to Israeli and American tourists, the Washington Post reported. He was later convicted in absentia and sentenced to death by a Jordanian court for his part in alleged terrorist activities.

In late 1999 Al-Zarqawi returned to Afghanistan, where, under Taliban rule, Osama bin Laden had based his loosely structured Al-Qaeda network.

But whereas the Bush administration has said repeatedly that Al-Zarqawi began working in concert with bin Laden around this time, Burke, in his recent book Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror, writes that Al-Zarqawi was never an Al-Qaeda operative.

Citing reports by German intelligence officials who investigated Zarqawi’s operations there, as well as his own research on bin Laden, Burke argues that Al-Zarqawi’s group operated not as a branch of Al-Qaeda, but as a competitor within the broader fundamentalist movement.

Similarly, in March 2003 Newsweek reported secret German intelligence records that suggested Al-Tawhid W’al-Jihad and Al-Qaeda had separate goals and that the two groups may have been "jealous rivals."

Burke acknowledges that early on Al-Zarqawi sought and accepted logistical assistance from bin Laden, but reports that Al-Zarqawi never swore loyalty to the Saudi-born leader. Instead, Burke contends, Al-Zarqawi set out to build his own reputation as a militant leader with the hope of drawing recruits and attracting funds from wealthy donors who supported extremist Islamic groups.

"Al-Zarqawi is part of a broad movement of Islamic militancy that extends well beyond the influence and activities of any one man," Burke wrote in February 2003 in the Observer.

Bush, Al-Zarqawi and Mutual Mythologies

Al-Zarqawi reportedly fled Afghanistan in late 2001 while the country was under invasion by the US and UK. Several reports say Al-Zarqawi spent much of 2002 moving back and forth from Iran to Iraq. The Bush administration claims that Al-Zarqawi set up a poison and explosives training camp in northern Iraq, working alongside members of Ansar Al-Islam (supporters of Islam). However, that organization, heavily targeted during the 2003 US invasion, was vocally and militantly opposed to Saddam Hussein.

Al-Zarqawi is also alleged by the Bush administration to have been working with Al-Qaeda on a strategy to ignite a civil war among Iraq’s disparate religious and political factions as a way to undermine the US occupation, thus clearing the way for a Taliban-like state.

At the same time, some Iraqis, who doubt Al-Zarqawi’s presence, guilt or even existence, suggest his legend is mostly a CIA or Pentagon construction and that the terrorist acts attributed to him are actually carried out by secret American or Israeli operatives. They likewise suggest the mythic Al-Zarqawi is part of a foreign strategy to divide Iraq’s religious sects and political factions and justify a prolonged occupation.

As proof of its own version of the Al-Zarqawi narrative, the Bush administration in March 2004 presented a letter, reportedly written by Al-Zarqawi, requesting Al-Qaeda’s assistance in achieving its goals of overthrowing the US occupation and casting Iraq into chaos.

Pentagon analysts speaking anonymously to Knight Ridder reporters at the time observed that Al-Qaeda rebuffed the request for help, implying that whoever wrote the letter was of insufficient importance to the organization.

In addition, Khalid Abu Doma, who served time with Al-Zarqawi in a Jordanian prison during the 1990s, told the New York Times that Al-Zarqawi was "basically illiterate." Doma and others who say they knew Al-Zarqawi suggest it would have been nearly impossible for him to compose the 6,000-word letter, which contained elaborate political analysis and detailed historical references.

Allegations of an Al-Zarqawi alliance with Al-Qaeda resurfaced again last October when a website posted a statement announcing that Al-Zarqawi and his organization "have pledged allegiance to the leader of the mujahideen, Osama bin Laden." The statement also claimed that Al-Zarqawi’s group agreed with Al-Qaeda’s strategy and the need to unite against "the enemies of Islam," the BBC reported.

Shortly after the message appeared, Al-Zarqawi changed his group’s name from Al-Tawhid W’al-Jihad to the more convenient "Al-Qaeda in Iraq." Western media outlets and government officials seamlessly adopted the new label, which emerged around the same time US Marines said they discovered Al-Zarqawi’s abandoned hideout in Fallujah, handily adorned with a banner reading "Al-Qaeda Organization."

Such statements, if indeed they came from Al-Zarqawi, would appear to refute the Bush administration’s claim that the Jordanian had long been Al Qaeda’s top officer in Iraq.

Mohammed Salah, a Cairo-based journalist who focuses on Islamic militant organizations, hypothesized that the claims made in the internet statement were "more or less a media stunt to frustrate" the United States. Salah also suggested that by openly identifying with bin Laden, Al-Zarqawi may have been trying to benefit from bin Laden’s stature among radical Islamic militants.

More apparent evidence of a link between the two celebrity terrorists surfaced in a December 2004 audiotape in which the speaker, claiming to be bin Laden, endorsed Al-Zarqawi and his operatives. CIA analysts and Aljazeera, the TV network which aired the message, said the tape sounded authentic. If so, it marks the first public mention of Al-Zarqawi by bin Laden.

At odds with the Sunni-led resistance

Michael Ware, an Australian journalist working in Iraq for Time magazine, reported in late 2004 that Al-Zarqawi’s profile within the Islamic fundamentalist movement has grown due to his reputed ability to organize spectacular car bomb attacks and his skill at using the internet to disseminate videos showing what appear to be the beheadings of foreign contractors kidnapped and murdered by Al-Zarqawi’s associates.

The Bush administration, too, has helped raise Al-Zarqawi’s profile by regularly accusing him, albeit without presenting hard evidence, of organizing dozens of deadly attacks against US military and Iraqi government targets during the course of the two-year-old occupation. Last summer, US officials also increased the amount offered for information leading to Al-Zarqawi’s capture from $10 million to $25 million, reinforcing the accusations against him as a leading force behind the anti-occupation rebellion.

Despite the swelling influence in Iraq of Al-Zarqawi’s name, several military analysts believe that Al-Zarqawi -- now thought to be 38 years old -- is not the leading figure in Iraq’s resistance. Many also suggested as early as last summer that he was working at cross-purposes with most insurgent groups.

According to analysts and military documents obtained by the Associated Press, the most organized and active resistance cells consist mainly of native Iraqis: Sunni Muslims, Ba’ath party loyalists -- many with experience in Saddam’s military and intelligence services -- and tribal men who are fighting for a bigger role for their group in Iraq. Although they may be influenced by fundamentalist Islam, they are not, many analysts insist, fighting for a Taliban-like Islamic state as Al-Zarqawi’s fighters purportedly are.

Some even suggest that much of the government’s information linking Al-Zarqawi to the insurgency was obtained from unreliable sources through bribery, but was accepted in Washington because the US needed a high-profile villain in Iraq.

The US Army has offered almost no evidence that any of the dozens of houses and buildings which were alleged to be the hideouts of Al-Zarqawi and his cohorts in Fallujah and that the military bombed last year actually contained militants of any stripe. In fact, it is now known that those strikes were largely based on unverified tips provided by paid informants and satellite photography. Fallujans reported that well over 100 civilians died in the "precision" US bombing attacks said to be targeting Al-Zarqawi and his followers, with dozens of those deaths documented in video and still photography.

"We were basically paying up to $10,000 a time to opportunists, criminals and chancers who passed off fiction and supposition about Al-Zarqawi as cast-iron fact, making him out as the linchpin of just about every attack in Iraq," an unnamed US agent in Iraq reportedly told Britain’s Daily Telegraph in October 2004.

"From the information we have gathered," one agent told the Telegraph, "we have to conclude Al-Zarqawi is more myth than man… At some stage, and perhaps even now, he was almost certainly behind some of the kidnappings. But if there is a main leader of the insurgency, he would be an Iraqi."

Send to Friends Respond to Editors or Reporter

The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Chris Shumway is a contributing journalist.

Recent contributions by Chris Shumway: