Zarqawi, Abu Mus?ab al- (1966–2006)

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Zarqawi, Abu Musʿab al-

Abu Musʾab al-Zarqawi (born Ahmad Fadil Nazzal al-Khalayla) was a Jordanian-born Islamic militant who gained notoriety for leading a group of fighters in Iraq who attacked American troops, Western civilians, and Iraqi Shiʾite Muslims in Iraq in the period after the fall of saddam hussein's government in 2003. Known for videotaping the gruesome beheadings of captives, he aligned himself with Saudi militant usama bin ladin and the al-Qaʾida network, and eventually topped the list of American forces' most

wanted individuals as they battled insurgents in Iraq. Zarqawi was killed by an American airstrike in June 2006.


The infamous Islamic militant known as Abu Musʾab Al-Zarqawi was born on 20 October 1966 in the large Jordanian industrial city of al-Zarqa. His family was part of the al-Khalayla clan, part of the confederation of settled Jordanian Bedouin clans known as the Bani Hasan tribe.

Zarqawi was known as a hot-tempered troublemaker as a youth. He finished only the ninth grade at al-Zarqa High School in 1982, and worked at several low-paying jobs in 1983 prior to his obligatory service in the Jordanian army from 1984 to 1986. After leaving the military, he ran afoul of the law on several occasions in the late 1980s for shoplifting and assault, among other things. He also was known for his drinking bouts and for his tattoos, both of which are prohibited by Islamic law.

In the late 1980s, however, he became a religious Muslim, and began frequenting the al-Falah mosque in a nearby Palestinian refugee camp. There he was introduced to political Islamic teachings, as well as at the al-Hussein bin Ali mosque in Amman, where he later attended religious education classes. Zarqawi decided to join with other religious groups waging a jihad against the occupying Soviet army in Afghanistan. He did not see combat because of the Soviet withdrawal from the country, but did participate in the subsequent fighting between Afghan government forces and the guerrillas.


Name: Abu Musʾab al-Zarqawi (name at birth Ahmad Fadil Nazzal al-Khalayla)

Birth: 1966, al-Zarqa, Jordan

Death: 2006, near Ba'quba, Iraq

Family: Two wives, Intisar Baqr al-Umari (Jordanian; m. 1988; two sons, Muhammad and Mus'ab; two daughters, Amina and Raʿida) and Asra Yasin Muhammad Jarrad (Palestinian; m. 1999; one son, Abd al-Rahman). There are reports of a third wife, an Iraqi (m. 2003)

Nationality: Jordanian

Education: High school dropout


  • 1989: Travels from Jordan to Afghanistan to fight Soviet forces
  • 1993: Helps form militant group Bayqat al-Imam in Jordan
  • 1994–1999: Imprisoned in Jordan
  • 1999–2001: Establishes training base near Herat, Afghanistan; renews ties with Usama bin Ladin and al-Qaʾida
  • 2001: Escapes American invasion of Afghanistan
  • 2002: Enters northern Iraq
  • 2004: Establishes militant group Tawhid wa'l-Jihad in Iraq, later called al-Qaʾida in the Land of the Two Rivers
  • 2006: Killed in Iraq

In early 1993 Zarqawi returned to Jordan. He helped establish a militant group called Bay'at al-Imam that sought to attack, among other targets, the Jordanian government. Jordanian authorities arrested him in March 1994. Although sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment, Zarqawi was freed in a general amnesty in March 1999. He soon left for Pakistan, and thence to Afghanistan. He renewed connections there that he had made ten years earlier with the Saudi radical Usama bin Ladin's al-Qaʾida network, and swore an oath of allegiance to Bin Ladin in 2001. However, he established his own training camp for Arab jihadists near Herat.

Injured during the American invasion of Afghanistan that began in October 2001, Zarqawi fled the country for Iran in December 2001. He stayed in Iran until April 2002, was arrested briefly, and from there made his way to Syria for several months. By the end of 2002, he operated from the safe haven afforded him by the Ansar al-Islam group in Iraqi Kurdistan. He began to prepare fighters for the anticipated American attack on Iraq. By May 2004, Zarqawi was fighting the Americans (whom he called "crusaders") with his group, Tawhid wa'l-Jihad. He also led attacks on the new Iraqi army and Shi'ite Muslim civilians. In October 2004 Zarqawi changed the group's name to al-Qaʾida in the Land of the Two Rivers, referring to the Tigris and Euphrates.

Zarqawi did not forget his hatred of the Jordanian government and its American and Israeli allies. In October 2002 his militants assassinated an American diplomat in Jordan, and in August 2003 blew up the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad. In November 2005 Iraqi suicide bombers dispatched by Zarqawi detonated themselves in or near three hotels in Amman, killing fifty-nine people.

During the Iraqi insurgency, Zarqawi became notorious for suicide bombings targeting Shi'ite civilians that were carried out mostly by non-Iraqi Arab jihadists, as well as for the brutal murder, often by beheading, of foreigners whom the group captured. Zarqawi's group often videotaped these exploits and posted them on the Internet, adding to his ferocious image, and garnering him media coverage as well as new recruits from across the Arab world. He became the American authorities' most sought-after man after Bin Ladin himself, with a bounty of $25 million placed on his head. On 7 June 2006 American forces finally killed Zarqawi, along with one of his wives and a child of his, in an air strike on their safe house near Hibhib, not far from the Iraqi town of Ba'quba.


After his thuggish youth, Zarqawi moved toward Islamic fundamentalism (also called Islamic revivalism). Among Sunni Muslims, fundamentalists stress absolute monotheism (Arabic: tawhid), and a strict interpretation of Islamic law. They seek to establish Islamic governments run according to shari'a (Islamic law), and interpret the Islamic duty of jihad as requiring them to take up arms against perceived enemies of Islam—be they non-Muslims or even Muslims they consider apostates. However, Zarqawi was not a learned ideologue, but someone who employed his charisma and penchant for violence not for petty crime as before, but for jihad.

Zarqawi also owed much to Bin Ladin and al-Qaʾida, although the two did not always see eye to eye. Yet in December 2004 Bin Ladin stated that he personally had selected Zarqawi as his deputy in Iraq. Those with intimate knowledge of Zarqawi cite the prestige and funding available to al-Qaʾida as reasons why Zarqawi, who previously had insisted on maintaining his independence, agreed to join formally with Bin Ladin and al-Qaʾida. For Bin Ladin, Zarqawi's highly publicized exploits in Iraq provided al-Qaʾida with much-needed successes given the setbacks it had suffered in Afghanistan and elsewhere.


Beyond wider global revulsion at his methods, Zarqawi's methods and what has been termed his "battlefield theology" divided the Iraqi insurgency, and led to criticism within jihadist and fundamentalist communities. Yet for all his infamy, some argue that he was not in fact of lasting importance—that his skillful use of the media, and the ruthless nature of his exploits, inflated his importance in Iraq and globally beyond what it actually was. American government documents leaked to the Washington Post in 2006 reveal that an American military propaganda campaign also may have had a hand in inflating this image in order to turn the Iraqi population against him, a foreigner on their soil.


Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (1959–; name at birth Isam Muhammad Tahir al-Barqawi) is a Palestinian born in Barqa, near Nablus in the West Bank. He spent most of his early life living and studying in Kuwait, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, and later became a major, prolific ideologist for Sunni jihadists worldwide in the 1990s. Al-Maqdisi and Zarqawi established the militant group Bay'at al-Imam in Jordan in 1993, although he later broke with Zarqawi while the two were imprisoned in Jordan from 1994–1999. Rearrested in 2000, al-Maqdisi remains in prison in Jordan.


Zarqawi was significant for several reasons. His ruthless violence and guerrilla attacks confounded American and Iraqi forces, and helped galvanize wider Arab and Islamic support for the insurgency in Iraq. His methods also divided the insurgents and others (in his native Jordan as well as in Iraq), and added to the ferocious image many around the world had of the resistance and perhaps even of Islam itself. Zarqawi also did much to fuel growing Sunni-Shi'ite civil strife in Iraq through vicious attacks on Shi'ite civilians. Finally, his fight against the Americans and high-profile association with al-Qaʾida ironically served to stiffen the resolve of the American government to keep its forces in Iraq to prevent it becoming the breeding ground for a new generation of jihadists.


Brisard, Jean Charles, and Martinez, Damien. Zarqawi: The New Face of al-Qaeda. New York: Other Press, 2005.

Gerges, Fawaz A. The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Ricks, Thomas E. "Military Plays Up Role of Zarqawi: Jordanian Painted as Foreign Threat to Iraq's Stability." Washington Post 10 April 2006.

                                          Michael R. Fischbach


As for the American administration, headed by the bearer of the banner of the cross, Bush—we say to him and to his followers, the Jews, the Crusaders, the Rafidite Shi'ites, the apostates, and others: You will not rest peacefully in the lands of Islam. By God, your life will be unbearable as long as blood flows in our veins and our eyes can see…. And today, with the grace of God, you seek the help of East and West, confused, exhausted, and broken, like someone whom "Satan has prostrated with his touch" (Qur'an 2:275).


Our [U.S. military's] own focus on Zarqawi has enlarged his caricature, if you will—made him more important than he really is, in some ways…. The long-term threat is not Zarqawi or religious extremists, but these former regime types and their friends.