Copyright 2004 Financial Times Information
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Global News Wire - Europe Intelligence Wire
Copyright 2004 Sunday Business Post
Sunday Business Post
May 23, 2004
ACC-NO: A20040526156-830A-GNW

LENGTH: 1804 words


BYLINE: Niall Stanage in New York


Name : Abu Musab al-Zarqawi Age: 38ish Appearance: Mysterious Newsworthiness: The Islamic fundamentalist group led by Zarqawi killed the head of the Iraqi governing council last Monday. A gruesome video recording released over the internet onMay 11 purportedly showed Zarqawi beheading US citizen Nick Berg The first shock comes when the butcher's knife is produced. Until that moment, the video recording that shows American citizen Nick Berg in the hands of his captors in Iraq seems almost familiar. Grainy images of western hostages have, after all, been popping up on our television screens ever since Beirut imploded in the 1980s.

This is different. No sooner has the hooded figure brandished the blade than the camera switches focus to Berg being held down, flat on his left side. The man with the knife then cuts the American's head off. He does so without either fervour or hesitation. There is no sense that he is desperate for the deed to be over and done with.

The process of decapitating Berg - a bit of sawing here, a short jabbing chop there - takes about 30 seconds. Then the killer holds the head up, again with steady satisfaction rather than manic glee. He grips his awful trophy much as a diffident actor might clutch an Oscar statuette. The tape later shows a shot of Nick Berg's severed head perched on top of his body.

The CIA and the fanatics who made the gruesome video, released over the internet on May 11, are agreed on one thing. The man who offers up praise to Allah and then kills his captive is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He is the most dangerous man in Iraq. He has even begun to challenge the position of Osama bin Laden as the world's pre-eminent Islamic terrorist.

Zarqawi's deadly power was on display again this week. The group that he leads, al-Tawhid, claimed responsibility for the bomb attack that killed the head of the Iraqi governing council last Monday. Izzedin Salim, also known as Abdul Zahrah Othman, was killed along with ten other Iraqis at a checkpoint just outside Baghdad's supposedly secure "Green Zone".

Salim's assassination was an emphatic reminder of the scale of the problems in Iraq as America prepares to hand over limited sovereignty at the end of June.

Zarqawi has either claimed responsibility or been blamed for most of the major attacks in Iraq in recent months. But his malignant influence is not confined to Iraq, or even to the Middle East as a whole.

He is suspected of involvement in the Madrid train bombings of March 11, in which 191 people died. He is also alleged to have provided inspiration and backing for fundamentalist cells in Germany and to have hatched a plot, subsequently thwarted, to put the poison, ricin, on t he London Underground. It would be difficult to exaggerate the threat Zarqawi poses.

Yet, despite his murderous prominence, remarkably little is known about him.

No one is certain when, where, or under what name the man now known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi arrived into the world. The best guess is that he was born somewhere in Jordan about 38 years ago, and that his birth name was something like Fadil al-Khalaylah.

He grew up within an unremarkable family in the small Jordanian town of Zarqa - it is from the town's name that he takes his alias. He dropped out of school early and, like bin Laden and thousands of others, went to Afghanistan in the late 1980s to fight the Soviet invaders.

This was a pivotal experience. When he returned to his hometown in the early 1990s, his mother noticed that he had become more religious. She told a reporter from The Wall Street Journal that he spent hours in the family home memorising verses from the Koran.

Zarqawi got married during this period, but work was hard to come by. He opened a video rental shop. The business failed. He rebuffed suggestions that he should consider trying to complete his education.

Zarqawi's mother has said the Jordanian authorities harassed her son. There is no question that the royal family was concerned about the influence of returning mujahideen on a previously docile population. Zarqawi was thrown into jail in 1992 for offences, either real or imagined.

He spent seven years as a prisoner; his life behind bars radicalised him further. Zarqawi apparently began plotting to overthrow the Jordanian monarchy upon his release, but, under pressure from the kingdom's security apparatus, he soon left the country. He may have gone to Europe at one point.

He eventually ended up in Pakistan. His mother has said he made his living there selling honey. Others believe he kept himself occupied with much less innocent activities.

The history of Zarqawi's relationship with al-Qaeda is the subject of keen debate. It is alleged that he approached the group sometime in 1999 seeking help. He wanted to set up a training camp for Jordanian radicals, apparently still with the goal of replacing the royals in Amman with an Islamic regime.

Western intelligence officials have said he eventually set up his camp in Herat, Afghanistan in late 2000. Training in the use of toxins as weapons was a key part of the tuition on offer.

Although Zarqawi's standing was supposedly strengthened by financial donations from al-Qaeda in the summer of 2001, the American invasion of Afghanistan later that year put him back on the defensive.

Some intelligence reports suggest he was seriously injured in an American bombing raid; others dispute that.

In any case, he left Afghanistan, apparently moving first to Iran. Soon - possibly having been urged by the Iranian authorities to get out before his presence provoked America's wrath - he moved again, this time to Iraq. The next chapter in Zarqawi's story is among the most bitterly contested of all. American intelligence has claimed that the Jordanian sought a safe haven under Saddam Hussein.

They say he went to the north of the country, possibly as an emissary of al-Qaeda, to develop links with a small band of fundamentalists who had come together under the banner of Ansar al-Islam (Supporters of Islam).

Intelligence sources also told various US media that Zarqawi had a leg amputated and prosthesis fitted in a Baghdad medical centre in May 2002.

The Ansar al-Islam issue is crucial because the Bush administration suggested that the group's existence was proof of links between Saddam's regime and al-Qaeda.

Colin Powell, in his February 2003 speech to the UN which sought to make the case for war, said: "Iraq today harbours a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda lieutenants." It was also suggested, though not by Powell, that Saddam and al-Qaeda both supported Ansar al-Islam financially. The charge was viewed with scepticism, largely because bin Laden's group had previously advocated the overthrow of Saddam.

Even the question of the medical treatment Zarqawi is alleged to have received in the Iraqi capital has been hotly disputed. Earlier this year, an article in Newsweek magazine archly pointed out that "we don't even know for sure how many legs Musab al-Zarqawi has".

There are few images of the man in existence. The most widely circulated photo of Zarqawi, which is undated, shows a bearded and somewhat mournful-looking Middle Eastern man.

What we do know for sure is that, on the second day of the Iraq war, about 40 US missiles were fired into the area where Zarqawi was alleged to have set up another training camp. There have subsequently been numerous attempts by US forces to kill or capture him.

Meanwhile, the list of attacks continues to grow.

The suicide bombing of the UN headquarters in Iraq last August; the assassination of a prominent Shia cleric in Najaf in the same month; bombings of Iraqi police recruitment centres in February, in which more than 100 people died; a car bomb outside US headquarters in Baghdad earlier this month that killed at least five Iraqis as well as an American soldier.

And, of course, the killings of Nick Berg and the top man on the Iraqi governing council.

All of these, and more, are believed to be Zarqawi's work.

The basic facts of Zarqawi's life are difficult to uncover, but answers to the deeper questions about his actions lie even further out of reach. Why, for example, has he become so central to so much terrorist action? Unlike bin Laden, he does not have a family fortune on which he can draw to finance his plans. Despite the reams of speculation about him, there is no suggestion that he possesses powerful personal charisma.

The Wall Street Journal could only allude to his "rare talent for building overlapping networks of friends, relatives and conspirators of various nationalities".

Such a trait might be useful, but it hardly sounds like a full explanation for Zarqawi's rise to the top of Islamic fundamentalism. Other factors, if they exist, remain hidden.

The exact nature of Zarqawi's relationship with al-Qaeda is also elusive. He is routinely described in reports as either a member or an associate of bin Laden's organisation.

But some intelligence reports contend that Zarqawi sees al-Qaeda more as a rival to his own organisation than as a band of comrades. The members of the Zarqawi-supported cell uncovered by German security forces stated that their group was specifically for Jordanians who did not want to join al-Qaeda.

The question of the al-Qaeda link is complicated by the dubious allegations made by US intelligence. Colin Powell's tenuous claim about Ansar al-Islam is one example, but there are others.

Earlier this year, US forces said they had uncovered a letter from Zarqawi to al-Qaeda, in which the Jordanian asked for reinforcements to buttress the struggle inside Iraq.

The letter, which included a bizarrely long retelling of Iraqi history, is widely thought to have been forged, though possibly by the original writer rather than the Americans themselves.

There are other questions too. Is it, for example, in the interests of American forces in Iraq to paint Zarqawi as a more powerful figure than he actually is? After all, if so many attacks can be portrayed as being led by one man, it makes it much easier to claim that the Iraqi insurgency lacks broad support.

Yet, for all those caveats, there is no doubt about Zarqawi's propensity for indiscriminate violence.

Even by the standards of guerrilla warfare, he is a conspicuously callous figure. His organisational ability is deployed in the service of a very simple objective - to kill as many people as possible.

In an audio tape released in January, Zarqawi asked his God for help in his struggle. "Oh Allah," he pleaded, "rend the kingdom of Bush as you rent the kingdom of Caesar." Whatever the downside of life under Bush - or even Caesar - a kingdom presided over by the man who cut off Nick Berg's head would be an infinitely more frightening place.