Al-Zarqawi Was Behind Bloodiest Attacks
Thursday, June 8, 2006; 9:01 AM
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Abu Musab al-Zarqawi rose from the life of a street thug in Jordan to become the symbol of "holy war" in Iraq, masterminding the bloodiest suicide bombings of the insurgency, beheading hostages and helping push Iraq into a spiral of sectarian violence with vicious attacks against Shiites.
The 39-year-old leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, slain in a U.S. air strike Wednesday night, was instrumental in turning the swift U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 into a grueling counterinsurgency fight, helping draw Arab militants into what he depicted as a war for Islam against the American "crusaders" and Shiite "infidels."
Al-Zarqawi was not the only insurgency leader. Homegrown Sunni Iraqi guerrillas _ believed to have tense relations with al-Zarqawi _ are thought to have had an equal or even greater role in deadly attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces and Shiites.
Still, al-Zarqawi became the symbol of the jihadi _ or "holy war" _ movement, nicknamed the "slaughtering sheik" by his supporters across the Arab world. He is believed to have personally beheaded at least two American hostages, Nicholas Berg in April 2004 and Eugene Armstrong in September 2004. Grisly videos of the slayings were posted on the Internet, part of the revolutionary Web-based propaganda campaign that was key to al-Zarqawi's movement.
Al-Zarqawi vowed fealty to al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in October 2004 and had the same bounty on his head from the U.S. military _ $25 million _ as bin Laden.
But he played a dramatically different role: While bin Laden was the hidden leader, issuing statements from hiding in Pakistan's border region with Afghanistan, al-Zarqawi portrayed himself as the warrior on the front lines.
In the past year, al-Zarqawi moved his campaign beyond Iraq's borders, carrying out a Nov. 9, 2005, triple suicide bombing against hotels in Amman that killed 60 people, as well as other attacks in Jordan and even a rocket attack from Lebanon into northern Israel.
He also sought to spread Sunni-Shiite strife across the Middle East. In an audiotape posted on the Web last week, he lectured his fellow Sunnis to stand up against Shiites and railed against Shiites for four hours, calling them enemies of Islam.
In April, he released a videotape showing his face for the first time in an apparent attempt to reinforce his image as the leader of Iraq's insurgents and a hero to Sunni extremists. The video emphasized dramatic, iconic images of al-Zarqawi, showing him in a desert landscape firing a machine gun.
The U.S. military tried to undermine that image, issuing what it said were "out takes" of that video captured in a raid, showing al-Zarqawi fumbling with the machine gun.
Born Ahmad Fadhil Nazzal al-Khalayleh on Oct. 20, 1966, in Jordan, al-Zarqawi grew up in the industrial town of Zarqa, from which he eventually took his nom de guerre. He was one of 10 siblings in a poor branch of the prominent Bani Hassan Bedouin tribe, which publicly renounced all ties to him after the hotel bombings in Amman.
As a teenager, he was known as a thug, drinking alcohol and getting in street fights. He was jailed for six months for raping a girl, according to Jordanian security officials.