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Going after Iraq's most wanted man

US airstrikes in Fallujah are targeting Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his followers. Is he the mastermind of the insurgency?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 21, 2004


The US military is training its guns now on one of the most intractable challenges to January elections in Iraq: the city of Fallujah.

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The Sunni city is seen as a base of operations for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant accused by US officials of terrorist plots in at least four countries and of ties to Al Qaeda. Mr. Zarqawi's Iraq-based group, Tawhid and Jihad, claims responsibility for beheading hostages, kidnappings - including two Americans and a Briton last week - attacks on churches, and the bombings of Iraqi police stations that have left more than 400 people dead.

US bombs rain down almost daily on Fallujah, targeting alleged Zarqawi associates and killing roughly 70 people this month. But some terrorism analysts, and old associates who spent time with Zarqawi in a Jordan prison, say he runs an organization separate from Al Qaeda. They say that killing the poorly educated, tattooed Jordanian - or many of his followers - will do little to slow the wave of terrorist attacks inside Iraq.

"Just like with Osama, if you were to kill him today, it wouldn't make a difference at all to these networks he's helped create,'' says Rohan Gunaratna, a counterterrorism expert and author of "Inside Al Qaeda." "While much of the suicide bombing in Iraq is coordinated by his network, it's being driven from the bottom up. Regional and local operational leaders plan and execute attacks. Zarqawi probably doesn't know much about them ahead of time and he doesn't need to."

This doesn't mean the shadowy Zarqawi isn't an important contributor to Iraq's instability. But analysts such as Mr. Gunaratna say that his importance lies in having used contacts developed while living in Afghanistan between 1999 and 2002 to stitch together a loose network of likeminded militants stretching from Iraq north through Turkey and into Europe. Zarqawi is just the most visible figure today in a tight-knit group of operatives, many with guerrilla and terrorist training gained in Afghanistan.

If this analysis is correct, the damage is already done. While Zarqawi may be captured or killed, his network is now largely autonomous, with scores of plug-and-play operatives inside Iraq. In fact, many analysts worry that the bombing of Fallujah is strengthening his network. Publicity around civilian casualties, they say, brings more Iraqis and foreigners to the cause.

The US has "killed some important individuals but the power of the network is such that they're able to replace them. They're living in a war zone where the generation of new members is easy,'' says Gunaratna, because of the conviction of many that they're fighting an infidel invader. "Iraq has clearly become the new land of jihad, like Afghanistan produced the last generation of Mujahidin, Iraq is creating the new generation."

Small-time thug to leader

The story of how Zarqawi, once a small-time thug jailed for sexual assault in his hometown in Jordan, rose to be one of the most important figureheads in the global militant Islamist movement, is filled with gaps and contradictions.

Described as poorly educated by cellmates who served time with him in Jordan in the 1990s, the US says he's the author of a 14-page letter intercepted in early 2004 that lays out the blueprint for his jihad inside Iraq, replete with historic allusions and poetic language that people who know him doubt he's capable of writing.

"When I knew Zarqawi, there's no way he could have ever written a letter like that,'' says Abdullah Abu Roman, a Jordanian journalist who's writing a book about Zarqawi and who served time with the militant in 1996, when Mr. Roman was jailed for lèse-majesté. "He was a hard man, completely uncompromising. He had the ability to be a leader in a small jail in the south of Jordan, but I'm surprised that he's now said to be so important."

In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, top US officials such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell cited Zarqawi as a full-fledged member of Al Qaeda, who they claimed had been injured in a post-9/11 US airstrike in Afghanistan and later had a leg amputated in a Baghdad hospital. That treatment, they said, bolstered claims of close ties between Al Qaeda and the regime of Saddam Hussein.

But analysts - as well as German and Italian government court documents in cases against Zarqawi associates - say it's clear now that while Zarqawi has had contact with Al Qaeda members in the past, he has sharp tactical differences with the organization and appears to be operating a wholly separate network. Shadi Abdallah, a Zarqawi associate arrested on charges of running a terrorist cell in Germany, has told interrogators that Zarqawi saw himself as a rival of Al Qaeda, not an ally.US officials now say they don't believe he lost a leg, and analysts such as Gunaratna say there is no evidence he had ties to Hussein's regime.