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Zarqawi was often described as a one-legged Palestinian whose uncanny ability to avoid capture led some people to doubt that he really existed. But according to Jordanian and European intelligence officials, he did exist and he had two legs.
Road to Radicalization
Zarqawi was a member of the Bani Hassan tribe, according to intelligence officials. His real name was Ahmed Fadhil Nazar al-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 said.
In the late 1980s, Zarqawi went to Afghanistan to join Islamic radicals who had been fighting Soviet troops there. Upon his return home a few years later, he helped start a local Islamic militant group called Jund al-Sham, which quickly attracted the attention of Jordanian authorities.
In 1992, he was sent to prison, where he developed a reputation as a cellblock enforcer but also adopted more radical Islamic beliefs, according to Jordanian officials and acquaintances.
Seven years later, he was released in a general amnesty by Jordan's King Abdullah. Within months, according to Jordanian officials, Zarqawi tried to resurrect his Jund al-Sham organization and became involved in what became known as the "millennium plot," a bid to bomb the Radisson SAS Hotel in Amman and several tourist sites in Jordan just before New Year's Day 2000.
But the plot was discovered in its late stages and Zarqawi fled to Pakistan. That year, with his visa revoked by Pakistani authorities, he crossed the border into Afghanistan and made his first contacts with the leadership of al-Qaeda.
According to Jordanian officials and court testimony by jailed followers in Germany, Zarqawi met in Kandahar and Kabul with bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders. He asked them for assistance and money to set up his own training camp in Herat, near the Iranian border.
With al-Qaeda's support, the camp opened and soon served as a magnet for Jordanian militants. At a time when al-Qaeda was immersed in planning the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, Zarqawi had other targets in mind.
In mid-2001, he returned to Kandahar to ask al-Qaeda for $35,000 to finance a plan for his fighters to infiltrate Israel, according to a U.S. Treasury Department report. In early September, a few days before the hijackings in the United States, he met in Iran with a Jordanian ally and ordered him to set up a cell in Germany to strike Jewish targets there, according to files compiled by German investigators. German police broke up the group before it could carry out any attacks.
About a month later, Zarqawi was back in Afghanistan and joined Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters resisting the U.S.-led invasion. In late 2001, he was wounded in the chest during a firefight and broke three ribs, according to a Jordanian intelligence source. By January 2002, he and many of his followers crossed into Iran, with the help of fraudulent passports delivered by supporters in Europe, German investigative files show.
Zarqawi's whereabouts in 2002 often were difficult to pin down, although Western and Arab intelligence agencies said that he moved frequently and with relative ease among Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, expanding his network.