The terrorist once known as the “Shaykh of the Slaughterers” was killed 10 years ago this day in a U.S. drone strike, and though he died at only 39 years old, but the murder and chaos he spread are still hurting people today.
Abu Musab Zarqawi was the former leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, the terrorist group that would be the progenitor of what we now know as the Islamic State. During his brief and bloody reign, he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of U.S. troops and countless thousands of Iraqis. He capitalized on chaos, stoking the sectarian divide between Sunni and Shia Iraqis still widespread in the country.
By most accounts, Zarqawi was nothing special. He grew up as a street urchin living in Jordan, eventually dropping out of school and engaging in a life of crime as a young man. Like many of his contemporary jihadis, Zarqawi would leave his criminal past and begin a new life after being exposed to radical Islam while serving a prison sentence for sexual assault.
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Zarqawi’s turning point came in 1989 when he decided to join the Mujahideen fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Unfortunately for him, the Soviets were already on their way out of the country by the time he arrived. Around this time, Zarqawi allegedly worked as a reporter for a radical newsletter, which allowed him to form relationships with many of the premier radical Islamists of the day, including Osama bin Laden.
Bin Laden and Zarqawi had a tenuous relationship from the start. While al-Qaida certainly saw potential in the young Jordanian, it was clear that he and bin Laden had very different views on radical Islam. Zarqawi’s proclivity for violence, especially against fellow Muslims, was a major point of contention. After he rebuffed an oath of allegiance to bin Laden, it was clear it was time to move on from Afghanistan.
Zarqawi’s disdain for al-Qaida’s leadership style was not particularly surprising. Bin Laden came from a wealthy Saudi family and was educated in engineering prior to taking up the jihadi flag in the 1980s. His second in command, and now current head of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri was a trained surgeon. Al-Qaida believed that its leaders had to be well-schooled in Islamic theology and doctrine; Zarqawi could barely read and write. It was on the battlefield that he believed one earns leadership, and we would soon prove it.
Leaving Afghanistan sometime between 1989 and 1992, Zarqawi went home to Jordan and attempted to foment an overthrow of the Jordanian king with the help of his new terror group, Jund al-Sham. He would eventually be arrested in 1992 for possession of explosives and weapons found in his home by Jordanian security. While serving his seven-year sentence, Zarqawi fully embraced takfiri doctrine, a radical concept where one Muslim can brand another as an apostate, thus justifying murdering them. Takfir would become a core ideological component for both al-Qaida in Iraq and later, ISIS.
Though Zarqawi would receive amnesty for his crimes in 1999, it was clear several years in prison had only steeled his resolve to engage in jihadism. After a failed attempt to resurrect Jund al-Sham, Zarqawi became involved in a failed bombing attempt on a hotel in the Jordanian capital of Amman. After the plot was discovered, Zarqawi fled to Pakistan, and eventually made his way back to Afghanistan. After getting back into the good graces of al-Qaida, he was given money to start up his own training camp.
After a brief stint in Iran, Zarqawi returned to Afghanistan to fight U.S. forces during the invasion in late 2001, during which time he was supposedly injured. He returned to Iran in December to receive medical treatment before moving on to Iraq. The U.S. has alleged that Zarqawi received treatment in Iraq and was under the protection of then dictator Saddam Hussein. He is believed to have started his next group, Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, around this time. Zarqawi’s whereabouts after that are spotty, though he is believed to have been traveling between Syria and Iran throughout 2002.
Zarqawi would resurface in 2003 during the U.S. invasion of Iraq. At this point, Zarqawi had become known to the U.S. and his presence in Iraq was pointed to as a reason for the invasion. He would leverage the opportunity to create chaos across the country, eventually targeting important Shia areas and mosques in an attempt to spark sectarian warfare between the Sunni and Shia. Zarqawi’s antics earned him a $25 million dollar bounty from the U.S. in 2004, the same amount applied to bin Laden at the time. By 2005, Zarqawi was the most wanted man in Iraq.
Zarqawi would eventually pledge allegiance to al-Qaida in October 2004, officially becoming the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq. The pledge was hardly a sign that all was well between the two terrorist groups; Zarqawi’s brazen killing of Muslims was becoming a problem for leadership. A year later, a now infamous letter from Zawahiri outlined al-Qaida’s frustrations with Zarqawi’s actions.
“Muslim admirers amongst the common folk are wondering about [Zafrqawi’s] attacks on the Shia,” wrote Zawahiri. “This matter won’t be acceptable to the Muslim populace however much you have tried to explain it, and aversion to this will continue.”
Cultivating the image of a hardened battlefield commander was key to Zarqawi’s public image. Unlike other terrorist leaders, Zarqawi is alleged to have personally engaged in the beheading of journalist Nick Berg. He would utilize media to propagate his image. But when the U.S. captured footage of him bragging about how good he was at shooting, it made him look like a fool unable to clear a jam, and it showed his associate hurting himself grabbing the gun’s hot barrel.
Zarqawi would continue wreaking havoc on Iraq until he was tracked down in 2006 in Bakuba, a town just north of Baghdad. He was killed in an air strike in June 7, 2006 after being hunted by U.S. forces for two weeks. Zarqawi’s death came just as quickly as his rise.
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