End of a hunt

Print edition : June 30, 2006

The killing of Al Zarqawi might affect Al Qaeda operations in Iraq for some time, but it is unlikely to dent the war against occupation.

ATUL ANEJA in Bahrain

ABU MUSAB AL Zarqawi, an undated image.-U.S. MILITARY/AP

THE American occupation forces in Iraq, who seem to have lost their way as far as the situation in the war-torn country is concerned, have good reasons to celebrate the killing of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, near the Iraqi town of Baquba. The Islamist militant was killed on June 7 in the village of Hibhib, when two 500-pound laser-guided bombs fired from an F-16 fighter jet destroyed the safe house in which he was confabulating with his supporters. His "spiritual adviser", Sheikh Abdul Rahman, was among the six who were killed. Among the dead there were three women .

The Jordanian did not die instantly in the attack. According to the United States military command, he died a short while after he was fastened to a stretcher by the Iraqi police, which reached the safe house upon its destruction.

Al Zarqawi's slaying, however, is unlikely to alter the internal dynamics in Iraq, where a wide variety of forces are opposing the occupation that the U.S. has led. In fact, it can be argued that the elimination of the terror mastermind, known for his savagery and extreme sectarianism, may open up more space for the expansion of the legitimate resistance movement, which is premised on non-sectarianism and a strong Iraqi national identity.

Al Zarqawi, whose original name was Ahmad Fadhil Nazzal al-Khalaylah, grew up in Zarqa, an industrial city 40 kilometres from the Jordanian capital of Amman. Zarqa, with a population of around 850,000, has churned out many Islamists who later landed up in Afghanistan and Iraq. Apart from poverty, the area's extensive politicisation appears to have nurtured extremism. Al Zarqawi lived in the Al Masoum neighbourhood, close to the Palestinian refugee camp of Al Ruseifah. In his early years, he was an inconspicuous figure known only for his involvement in street brawls and petty crime. Neither was he known for any specific religious inclination. In fact, it was only three months before he left for Afghanistan in 1989 that he came under the influence of the Tablighi Jamaat, a pan-Islamic missionary group.

In December 1989, he landed in Peshawar on his way to Afghanistan to join the mujahideen after Soviet troops had departed from that country. His stay in Afghanistan was significant on two counts. First, it went a long way in "internationalising" his outlook as he met jehadis from several countries, including Saudi Arabia, with whom he maintained contacts subsequently. It also brought him into contact with Al Qaeda for the first time. Al Zarqawi was trained under Abu Hafs al-Masri in the Sada camp inside Pakistan, close to the border with Afghanistan.

Second, it was in Afghanistan that he began dreaming about spreading jehad, starting with his home country Jordan. In order to do so, he gained important allies, such as Abu Muntassir Bilah Muhammad. Together they started a group called Bayat al-Imam once they returned to Zarqa. More important, Al Zarqawi came into contact with Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, a well-known Salafist cleric who had moved to Zarqa after Palestinians were expelled en masse from Kuwait following the first Gulf war. The Salafists have been known for their puritanical zeal as well as their extreme views regarding Shia Muslims. It is this animus towards Shias that later found expression in Al Zarqawi's bloody campaign against them in Iraq in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion.

Al Zarqawi's exertions in his home town did not meet with any success. Along with Al Maqdisi, he was arrested when the police recovered explosives from his house. The next few years spent in the Swaqa prison, however, helped him enhance his profile in jehadist circles. Al Maqdisi played a major role in this exercise. The cleric was well acquainted with Sheikh Abu Qatada, who was based in London on returning from Afghanistan. Messages by Al Maqdisi and his disciple Al Zarqawi were drafted in the Swaqa prison and then smuggled out to Al Qatada. They were then posted on Internet sites accessed by jehadi groups across the globe. Internally, Al Zarqawi began to acquire more followers, mainly through the Bani Hassan tribe to which he belonged. The tribe extended beyond Jordanian borders to Syria and Iraq, resulting in his group acquiring transnational influence.

While Al Zarqawi was serving a 15-year jail sentence, a stroke of luck bailed him out. King Abdullah II, on his accession to the throne in May 1998, announced an amnesty, resulting in his release from prison. Armed with a letter from Abu Kutaiba al-Urduni, a well-known Jordanian jehadi leader, Al Zarqawi headed for Afghanistan for his second stint. As a result of his much-improved credentials, he could gain access to higher echelons in the Al Qaeda ranks, including its leader Osama bin Laden. According to several media accounts, his first meeting with the Al Qaeda chief at a government guesthouse in Kandahar did not go off well. Al Zarqawi refused to acknowledge bin Laden as his leader - a position that he maintained until October 2004.

On the intervention of Saif Al Adel, a former Egyptian colonel and bin Laden's military chief, Al Zarqawi was, nevertheless, allowed to run an independent training camp in Herat, along the border with Iran. The purpose of the camp was to train fighters for jehad in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. This resulted in Al Zarqawi's emergence as an independent commander for the first time. His camp housing Jund Al-Sham or Soldiers of the Levant, which began functioning in 2000, soon managed to attract a large number of recruits. It, however, had to be wound up ahead of the U.S. air strikes in Afghanistan in October 2001 following the 9/11 attacks.

With U.S. operations gathering steam in Afghanistan, Al Zarqawi left for Iran, and from there to the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq where he formed the Ansar Al-Islam. Within months of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, he migrated to the Sunni strongholds of central Iraq, making the Ramadi area his base subsequently.

He announced his arrival in Iraq in a dramatic fashion with the bombing of the United Nations headquarters on August 19, 2003. The brutal assassination of the Shia leader Ayatollah Mohammad Baqr al-Hakim in a car-bomb attack outside Shia Islam's holy shrine in Najaf entrenched him in Iraq further.

Incidentally, his father in-law Yasin Jarrad was the suicide bomber in this attack. Al Hakim's assassination was also the beginning of a spate of sectarian killings masterminded by Al Zarqawi, in which Shias were the prime targets. This included the serial bombings on March 2, 2004 of Shia mosques in Najaf, Karbala and Baghdad, which left 181 people dead. Najaf and Karbala were once again targets of car bomb attacks on December 19, 2004.

Al Zarqawi was known for brutally slaughtering foreign hostages. For instance, the grisly beheading of two U.S. civilians, Nicholas Berg and Eugene Armstrong, as well as that of the British national Ken Bigley was videotaped and posted over the Internet.

Al Zarqawi's attack on three upscale hotels in Amman in November last appears to have been his undoing. It breached his support base within the Bani Hassan tribe, which the Jordanian intelligence could now better infiltrate. It appears that the Jordanians were the first to know about his meetings with Sheikh Abdul Rahman.

Consequently, a Remotely Piloted Vehicle then tracked Rahman's movements, bringing Al Zarqawi also under the surveillance net. U.S. officials have hinted that a mole in Al Zarqawi's core group gave real-time intelligence about his whereabouts, leading to the late-evening attack by the two F-16s.

While the killing of Al Zarqawi might jolt Al Qaeda in Iraq for some time, it is unlikely to dent the guerilla war in the country. It is now well acknowledged that foreign jehadi elements under the Al Qaeda umbrella form only a small part of the armed groups fighting the U.S.-led occupation.

Soon after the death of Al Zarqawi, a statement posted on the Internet by an umbrella organisation representing "jehadi groups" declared: "The death of our leaders is life for us. It will only increase our persistence in continuing holy war so that the word of God will be supreme." The search for Al Zarqawi's successor is also well under way, and the names that are cropping up are that of Egyptian-born Abu Al Masri and the Iraqi Abdullah bin Rashid Al Baghdadi. With the mess in Iraq being so extensive, it is clear that there will be no silver bullet solution to end the crisis that has resulted from its occupation.

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