Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 June 2005
Issue No. 746
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Hot pursuit or hot air?

The hunt for Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi is in high gear, yet America's most wanted fugitive in Iraq remains something of a mystery, writes Salah Hemeid

Click to view caption
Iraqi troops guard arrested suspects during a raid in Nihran Omar area, some 70 kms north of Basra, Tuesday, 7 June

Speculations over Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi's fate soared after last month's Internet announcement that the leader of a jihadist group in Iraq had been wounded. The statement reported that Al-Zarqawi was injured "in the path of God" but did not say how, when, or where and it urged Muslims to pray for his recovery. Later, another Internet statement said a Saudi militant, known as Abu Hafs Al- Gerni, had been made the group's interim leader until Al-Zarqawi recovers from his wounds. Shortly thereafter, a rival statement appeared on the same site to reject suggestions that a replacement had been named for Al-Zarqawi.

On 30 May Al-Zarqawi resurfaced to announce that he is safe and alive. The Jordanian purportedly made an audio address to Osama Bin Laden to assure the Al-Qaeda leader that he was in good health after sustaining a wound in a fight with American troops." Let me assure you and the Muslim nation that these were pure allegations. It was only a light wound, thank God. We are back fighting in the land of two rivers," the speaker on the tape said.

The conflicting statements raised doubts of a breakthrough in the so far fruitless hunt for the terror mastermind. The statements came in the aftermath of several major operations the US military carried out in the Sunni-dominated Western region of Iraq where Al- Zarqawi is believed to take refuge among anti-US insurgents. Is Al- Zarqawi dead, wounded or alive? Even American top brass claim to be unaware of the details of Al-Zarqawi's fate. Air Force General Richard Myers, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, revealed that he receives information about the Jordanian from website postings and does not know for sure if the Jordanian terror mastermind was seriously wounded. Iraqi leaders have boasted of success in cracking down on Al-Zarqawi's terror network, including detaining several of his key aides, but they too are unsure of his fate.

The first time the world heard the name Al-Zarqawi was during the run-up to the Iraq war, when on 6 February, 2003, former US secretary of state Colin Powell told the UN Security Council that the 37-year-old Jordanian radical was an associate of Osama Bin Laden who had sought refuge in Iraq. Since then his name has been associated with ruthless kidnappings, bombings and beheadings of Iraqis and foreigners in Iraq.

Al-Zarqawi, whose real name is Ahmed Fadil Nazzal Al- Khalayla, was born in 1966 in the Jordanian desert town of Zarqa to a family from the Bani Hassan tribe. He spent his childhood in a poor and crowded family, and in his teens, he was known as a neighbourhood bully. He soon turned to religion and began to frequent mosques, where he made friends with members of Islamic groups calling for jihad.

In the late 1980s, Al-Zarqawi joined the jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. After the defeat of the Soviets, Al- Zarqawi went back to Jordan with a radical Islamist agenda and joined an extremist sheikh, Abu Mohamed Al-Maqdisi, in forming the Al-Tawhid group. In Jordan, Al-Zarqawi spent seven years in prison, accused of belonging to a terrorist group conspiring to overthrow the monarchy and establish an Islamic state. Not long after his release by a royal amnesty in 1999, he fled the country and turned up again in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, he turned down an invitation to join Bin Laden and his holy war against America and instead set up a training camp in the mostly Shia western province of Herat, near the border with Iran.

After the US war on Afghanistan, Al-Zarqawi escaped to neigbouring Iran, an odd place for a militant Sunni who always considered the Shia branch of Islam heretic. Soon he showed up in northern Iraq where he established links with Ansar Al-Islam, a group of Kurdish Islamist extremists from the mountainous north of the country. Surprisingly, he moved to areas under Saddam Hussein's control shortly before the war the United States launched to topple the Iraqi dictator in March 2003. Whether he was in hiding, as his followers claimed, or he was there with the regime's consent, his existence in Saddam's territory just before the war started meant that Al-Zarqawi had chosen American occupied Iraq as his best venue for anti-US jihad.

Shortly after the collapse of Saddam's regime, Al-Zarqawi put his highly motivated terror group to action. They carried out a series of lethal attacks in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, including the bombing of the Jordanian Embassy, the UN mission, recruiting centres for the Iraqi security forces, and the assassination of the Shia cleric Ayatollah Mohamed Baqir Al-Hakim at a shrine in the town of Najaf. It was just the beginning of a busy two years for Al-Zarqawi, whose group has launched attacks across Iraq almost daily.

Al-Zarqawi's goal has never been a secret -- defeating the United States in Iraq and then building an Islamic state that will spread into the rest of the Muslim world. His strategy is to ignite sectarian conflict in Iraq as a means of undermining the US presence there, forcing Washington to pull out and paving the way for his group and their allies to take over.

Al-Zarqawi faces more lasting problems in dealing with the Iraqi population, who are hardly receptive to his plans for their country. Most Iraqi Sunnis do not see Al-Zarqawi as a hero. Even supporters of the insurgency have criticised the strikes carried out by his group which target innocent Iraqis. While other Iraqi insurgents also oppose the US presence, they hardly support Al-Zarqawi's plans to build a fanatic Islamic state in Iraq. Rather, they seek an equal share of power and wealth in a democratic and united Iraq. As for the nearly 16 million Shia to whom he has never disguised his hatred, in order to carry out his long term goals, he must subdue them, which is an impossible task considering the political realities of Iraq today.

The question now is how much attention and focus Iraqis and the world at large should place on Al-Zarqawi and his group. It is true that the terror mastermind is bent on continuing his jihad in Iraq, or as he put it in his latest tape "We will either win or die trying." More innocent Iraqis and more American soldiers will probably be killed by his terrorist group and Iraq's rebuilding into a democratic, multi- ethnic and multi-religious state might take a longer time, but as history has repeatedly proven, terror cannot win.

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