AMMAN, Jordan -- In a video image posted on the Internet last week, a quivering, blindfolded American kneels on the floor of an empty room as five hooded men stand behind him, dressed in black. After reading a speech from a sheaf of white papers, the leader of the group pulls a long knife from his shirt and slices off the captive's head in a well-practiced manner.
The killer is wearing a mask, but he is identified in a statement accompanying the video as Abu Musab Zarqawi. He is the most wanted man in Iraq and at the vanguard of a new generation of Islamic radicals who have confronted the United States and its allies since the invasion of Iraq 18 months ago.
An Internet posting last week identified the killer of American contractor Eugene "Jack" Armstrong, kneeling, as Abu Musab Zarqawi, at center with knife.
While Zarqawi has assembled temporary alliances with Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network over the years, evidence shows that he has always sought to forge his own path with a largely distinct, if occasionally overlapping agenda.
Zarqawi and his group, Monotheism and Jihad, have become best known for helping to fuel the insurgency in Iraq. But according to European and Arab intelligence officials and counterterrorism specialists, he has never abandoned his primary goals: to topple the monarchy in his native Jordan and attack Jewish targets in Israel and around the world. As Zarqawi has become more prominent in recent years, he has expanded his original sphere of influence in the Middle East by forming cells in Europe.
Skeptics say that the U.S. government has transformed Zarqawi into a larger-than-life figure by exaggerating his capabilities and using him to personify the Iraqi resistance, which has many factions and appears to rely mainly on Iraqi fighters, not foreigners. But Zarqawi has also helped to enhance his own legend by embracing tactics that have generated enormous publicity.
In May, he personally inaugurated a wave of hostage-takings and beheadings in Iraq by decapitating Nicholas Berg, 26, a businessman from Pennsylvania, and posting the videotaped episode on the Internet. Last week, the kidnapping trend reached a new zenith when he and his followers posted videos on the Internet showing the decapitations of two other Americans, Eugene "Jack" Armstrong, 52, a native of Hillsdale, Mich., and Jack Hensley, 48, of Marietta, Ga. The group, which had also taken a Briton hostage, warned that he could meet the same fate.
Almost every week, U.S. forces in Iraq bomb or blow up suspected Zarqawi hideouts and safe houses, but so far they have been unable to corral the 38-year-old Jordanian. The United States has placed a $25 million bounty on his head, the same reward offered for bin Laden.
Zarqawi was barely known outside Jordan until a year and a half ago, when Secretary of State Colin L. Powell identified him as a "collaborator and associate" of bin Laden's. In a speech to the United Nations, Powell cited Zarqawi's presence in Baghdad as evidence that Iraq's president, Saddam Hussein, had struck an alliance with al Qaeda, a claim that became a major part of the Bush administration's argument for going to war.
"He was and is the leading figure of al Qaeda in Iraq," said a Jordanian security official, who agreed to an interview on the condition of anonymity. "He is now the head of the pyramid of terrorism in Iraq, and he does have the ability and psychology to replace bin Laden."
Zarqawi has also been accused by some European and Arab authorities of orchestrating plots to cause mass casualties throughout Europe and the Middle East, including in Germany, France, Britain, Spain, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan and Turkey. But some European intelligence officials say that claims about Zarqawi's reach are overblown. They contend that lengthy investigations have turned up no evidence that he had a hand in some of the attacks attributed to him, such as the bombings in Madrid and Istanbul in the past year.
"He's been centrally elevated to such a position that he seemingly has a hand in everything," said Magnus Ranstorp, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrews University in Scotland. "Certainly he's a real figure, but he's a myth-laden figure, and it's difficult to discern where the lines are."
Zarqawi is often described as a one-legged Palestinian whose uncanny ability to avoid capture has led some people to doubt that he really exists. But according to Jordanian and European intelligence officials, he does exist and he has two legs.
Road to Radicalization
Zarqawi is a member of the Bani Hassan tribe, according to the intelligence officials. His real name is Ahmed Fadhil Nazzar Khalaylah, an identity that he abandoned several years ago when he renamed himself after his home town, Zarqa, an industrial city 17 miles northeast of Amman.
He grew up in a family of modest means and was a troublemaker from an early age, dropping out of high school and repeatedly getting into drunken brawls, intelligence officials say. In the late 1980s, he went to Afghanistan to join Islamic radicals who had been fighting Soviet troops there.