Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant who has become a leader in the Iraq insurgency, is using his role to become a major figure in the broader Islamic jihad movement, according to senior counterterrorist and intelligence experts both inside and outside the government.
Although Zarqawi earlier this week pledged his loyalty and that of his organization to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, "he doesn't see himself in a subordinate role," said one senior counterterrorism expert, who spoke on the condition of anonymity yesterday. "He is using Iraq as a springboard, and he now wants to look beyond Iraq and the region."
Zarqawi and some subordinates traveled in and out of Iraq starting in 2001, after leaving Afghanistan and having fought the Soviets in the 1990s. U.S. intelligence analysts have watched his movements since the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003. Since Zarqawi's declaration of loyalty to bin Laden was posted on an Islamic Web site, intelligence officials and others have sought to determine what it means for his current position in Iraq and his intentions for the future.
After the U.S. invasion, Zarqawi saw an opportunity for his small network to play a role in the resistance, the counterterrorism official said. Since that time, the official said, he has shown himself to be "an astute organizer, very smart, crafty and thoughtful."
Despite the capture or killing of dozens of his aides, the official said, Zarqawi "has an apparatus and organization that goes beyond the cells in Fallujah [which remains controlled by insurgents] . . . and is trying to build a network and infrastructure that is countrywide."
In the process, he has shown sophistication in using the media, taking responsibility publicly for bombings and appearing in videotapes of a series of beheadings beginning in May, said Anthony H. Cordesman, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"He's learned what gets attention," said Cordesman, a specialist in Middle East intelligence who has made several trips to Iraq. "Beheadings look horrifying to us, but from the viewpoint of religious absolutists [in the Middle East], they don't horrify them, they are victories."
As a result, Cordesman said, "for many in the region he's become a hero. He is a successful warrior who has attacked the U.S. and been victorious."
Whatever happens between U.S. troops and the insurgents in Fallujah, Cordesman said, will not matter to Zarqawi's standing. "Zarqawi has shown he was like Osama bin Laden and could achieve victories," he said.
Juan Cole, a University of Michigan professor who has specialized in Iraq, described Zarqawi's pledge of loyalty to bin Laden "a worrying sign that even the divided, small radical guerrilla groups are being 'picked up' by al Qaeda."
He attributed the consolidation to a "result of Bush's aggressive invasion of Iraq and of the botching of the aftermath."
Zarqawi was born Ahmed Fadeel al Khalayleh in 1966 in Zarga, Jordan, a dusty industrial city where his wife and four children still live today, according to a report by the BBC. His adopted name, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, means "man from Zarga." The following account of his life is based on records, news reports and articles, and interviews with intelligence officials.
He was described as a minor thug until he went to Afghanistan in the late 1980s to take part in the fight against the Soviets. When he returned to Jordan in 1992, he began to take part in anti-government activities.
He was arrested in 1993 after Jordanian security officers found rifles and bombs in his house and accused him of trying to overthrow the monarchy. He is said to have memorized sections of the Koran while serving seven years in prison.
Leith Shubeilat, an Islamic activist imprisoned with Zarqawi in the 1990s, described him to the BBC as "a leader; he is strong, straight to the point, with a very strong personality."
After he was released from prison, Zarqawi left Jordan but was convicted in absentia of plotting attacks on Jordanian tourist sites frequented by Israelis and Americans. He went to Europe and apparently set up a German cell with Jordanian and Syrian exiles who saw his organization as a rival to al Qaeda. In 2001, he established a training camp in Afghanistan and later went to Iraq, where he received medical treatment and established a presence.
In 2002, Bush administration officials said, Zarqawi went to Baghdad to have one leg amputated after having been wounded by a U.S. bombing attack. That account has turned out to be wrong, according to U.S. intelligence officials who have interrogated Zarqawi associates.
"It was for another ailment, but not his leg," one intelligence official said yesterday. "We are still learning about him," this official added.
After Laurence M. Foley, a U.S. official with the Agency for International Development, was assassinated in October 2002 in Amman, Jordanian authorities attributed the crime to Zarqawi and his network.
Zarqawi has become a "semi-mythic figure built up by the U.S., which has associated him with everything bad," Cordesman said.
"He has the discipline to push buttons that get him media and public attention in the Arab and Islamic world," Cordesman said.
"Jihad has become central in Iraq," the counterterrorist official said, "and Zarqawi is now central to that."