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.
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.
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.
Crossing Borders Often
Zarqawi's whereabouts in 2002 are difficult to pin down, although Western and Arab intelligence agencies say that he moved frequently and with relative ease among Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, expanding his network.
Powell, in his speech to the United Nations, said Zarqawi arrived in Baghdad in March 2002 for medical treatment and stayed for two months "while he recuperated to fight another day." During his convalescence, Zarqawi was joined by a dozen followers who moved money, supplies and al Qaeda-affiliated fighters throughout Iraq, Powell added.
About the same time, Jordanian authorities indicted Zarqawi in absentia for his role in the millennium plot in Amman and issued a warrant for his arrest. Jordanian investigators had followed his trail to Iraq and tried to persuade Saddam Hussein's government to extradite him.
"There is proof that he was in Iraq during that time," the Jordanian security official said. "We sent many memos to Iraq during this time, asking them to identify his position, where he was, how he got weapons, how he smuggled them across the border."
Hussein's government never responded, according to the official, who added that documents recovered after its overthrow in 2003 show that Iraqi agents did detain some Zarqawi operatives but released them after questioning. Furthermore, the Iraqis warned the Zarqawi operatives that the Jordanians knew where they were, he said.
After he recovered from his injuries, Zarqawi continued to cross borders in the region frequently, using disguises and fake passports to stay one step ahead of the Jordanians.
In the summer of 2002, according to Jordanian court documents, Zarqawi organized a new plot to attack Western and Jewish targets in Jordan and began training a small band of fighters at a base in Syria. On Oct. 28, 2002, the group staged its first strike, fatally shooting a U.S. diplomat, Laurence M. "Larry" Foley, a senior administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, as he left his house in Amman.
The Jordanian indictment in that case alleges that Foley's assassins met with Zarqawi in Syria and received money for the operation from his network in Iraq. Despite evidence of his presence in their country, the Syrians, like the Iraqis, ignored requests from the United States and Jordan to extradite Zarqawi, according to Arab intelligence sources.
Not long after, Zarqawi found refuge again in a third country in the region, Iran.
In February 2003, Zarqawi met at a safe house in eastern Iran with Mohammed Ibrahim Makawi, al Qaeda's military chief, an Egyptian who is known as Saif Adel, and they discussed strategy for combining forces in Iraq to resist the anticipated U.S. invasion, Arab intelligence sources said. Zarqawi also traveled to Iran's rugged southwestern border with Iraq, where he spent time at a camp run by Muslim radicals who were experimenting with chemical weapons, Powell said in his speech to the United Nations.
By this time, Zarqawi's attention was focused squarely on Iraq, as he and other foreign fighters moved into the region and prepared to battle U.S. forces. In March, British intelligence warned that Zarqawi's network had set up sleeper cells in Baghdad to mount a resistance to the forthcoming U.S. occupation, according to a report made public this summer in London.
A Different Agenda
While Zarqawi has forged alliances with al Qaeda over the years, he has built a largely distinct network. His agenda is different, and there is evidence that he has clashed with al Qaeda leaders and on occasion seen them as rivals.
In the fall of 2001, according to German telephone wiretaps, Zarqawi grew angry when members of his Monotheism and Jihad cell in Germany told him they were also raising money for al Qaeda's local leadership. "If something should come from their side, simply do not accept it," Zarqawi told one of his followers, according to a recorded conversation that was played this month at a trial of four alleged Zarqawi operatives in Duesseldorf. "Just forget it!"
Gen. Hamidou Laanigri, head of the Moroccan security service, said that Zarqawi now rivals bin Laden in prominence among international terrorists and that there is friction between him and Ayman Zawahiri, the second-ranking figure in al Qaeda.
"Zarqawi is an operative that has never agreed with Zawahiri, the ideologue behind al Qaeda," Laanigri said in a rare interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro. "Zarqawi's position both in Iraq and outside is becoming more and more important. He is a specialist in clandestine activities; he can falsify documents, move around, has access to a variety of passports and has an amazing capacity to elude the authorities."
In January, the U.S. military captured a Zarqawi courier in Iraq who was carrying a 17-page letter addressed to al Qaeda's leaders believed to be hiding along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The letter, signed by Zarqawi, asked for money and reinforcements to fight the U.S.-led occupation forces in Iraq, beseeching al Qaeda to work as a team but also sounding a note of independence.
"We do not see ourselves as fit to challenge you," the letter read. Zarqawi said he would swear "fealty" to bin Laden if he sent help. If not, it added, "the disagreement will not spoil friendship" between the two.
Matthew Levitt, a former FBI counterterrorism official who works as an analyst for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the relationship between Zarqawi's network and al Qaeda is part of a pattern among Islamic radicals. Alliances and linkages are constantly shifting, he said, depending on the task at hand and personalities involved.
"The bottom line is that the threat today is not so much from well-defined groups you can put in a pretty little box or on a flow chart," he said. "That's the nature of these things. There are connections, and there are overlaps."
U.S. officials say that Zarqawi has been trying to obtain chemical and biological weapons for years. In his U.N. speech, Powell asserted that Zarqawi's training camps, in Herat and in a Kurdish area of northern Iraq near the border with Iran, specialized in "poisons," adding that the network's operatives were being taught to produce ricin, an especially fatal toxin with no antidote.
U.S. and European officials said they broke up a Zarqawi-inspired plot to carry out ricin attacks in Britain and France in early 2002. But some European intelligence sources said there was no evidence that Zarqawi or his followers have mastered technology that would enable them to inflict mass casualties with toxic weapons.
A German intelligence official said that Monotheism and Jihad agents might have the capability to assassinate individuals with small doses of ricin but not to carry out a more widespread attack. "The chemical and biological weapons are overblown to a certain extent," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Jordanian authorities contend that the opposite is true. In April, the Jordanian government announced that it had disrupted a Zarqawi scheme to blow up the country's security services headquarters with trucks packed with enough chemicals and explosives to create a gas cloud that could have killed 80,000 people.
Officials said they killed four people in a shootout and seized trucks laden with 20 tons of chemicals, including blistering agents and nerve gas. The alleged ringleader confessed to the plot on television and said he was acting under Zarqawi's orders.
On April 30, Zarqawi issued a statement on the Internet admitting that he was behind the planned attack. While he denied that chemical weapons were involved, calling it "a pure lie," he added that he wished he had such a bomb.
"Yes, the plan was to completely destroy the Jordanian intelligence building," Zarqawi said in the statement. "As for the bomb being chemical and poisonous, that was an invention by the evil Jordanian Intelligence. . . . God knows that should we -- and we ask God to shortly empower us to -- possess that kind of bomb, we would not hesitate one second to use it on Israeli cities."
Correspondent Nora Boustany in Washington and special correspondent Shannon Smiley in Berlin contributed to this report.