“Oh Allah, America came with its horses and knights to challenge Allah and his message. Oh Allah, destroy the kingdom of Bush as you destroyed the kingdom of Caesar.”
– Abu Musab al-Zarqawi audio, February 2004
“You know, I hate to predict violence, but I just understand the nature of the killers. This guy, Zarqawi, an al-Qaeda associate – who was in Baghdad, by the way, prior to the removal of Saddam Hussein – is still at large in Iraq. And as you might remember, part of his operational plan was to sow violence and discord amongst the various groups in Iraq by cold- blooded killing. And we need to help find Zarqawi so that the people of Iraq can have a more bright … future.”
– President George W Bush, June 2004
“If they do not turn in al-Zarqawi and his group, we will carry out operations in Fallujah. We will not be lenient.”
– Iyad Allawi, Iraqi prime minister, October 2004
Former US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) asset turned Iraqi prime minister, Iyad Allawi, is set to give the go-ahead to what the US Army twice could not bring itself to carry out: the leveling of Fallujah. Following a purely military logic, this is the next step after the barrage of precision strikes that are killing dozens of Sunni Iraqi civilians, according to Fallujah hospital reports.
Negotiations are going on. Allawi’s government sounds optimistic. Sheikh Khaled al-Jumeili is the key Fallujah negotiator. There seems to be a deal on the table according to which the Iraqi National Guard – including a number of Fallujah residents – will control security in the city of 300,000, and residents with relatives killed or wounded by the American offensives and precision strikes may receive compensation.
But the key point is the handover of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Al-Jumeili says there are only a few foreign jihadis in the city – a fact confirmed to Asia Times Online by sources in Baghdad close to the resistance in Fallujah. Al-Jumeili insists they are not terrorists, but plain mujahideen. One of the Baghdad sources is adamant, “What the Americans could not get the first time they are now getting through Allawi. Zarqawi is just an excuse for them to smash the spirit of the resistance.”
There’s another crucial point. Exactly which “Zarqawi” is everybody talking about?
The making of a legend
Before January 2003, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was little known. Very few people were even aware of the one-legged ethnic Palestinian Ahmed Fadeel al-Khalayleh, born in the dreary industrial wasteland of Zarqa in Jordan, who was basically a semi-literate, tattooed, Shi’ite-hating thug.
His goal while in Jordan was to topple King Hussein. It didn’t work. He became a jihadi in Afghanistan in the late 1980s against the Soviets, and after returning to Jordan in 1992 spent seven years in jail for possession of guns. In fighting in 2002 following the US-led invasion of Afghanistan to topple the Taliban, one of his legs was severely injured – and may have been, or maybe not, amputated. He then found refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan, protected by the Anglo-American enforced no-fly zone, with Ansar al-Islam, a group with a maximum of 400 fundamentalist Kurdish warriors. And he may have moved to the Sunni triangle after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003.
Zarqawi stopped being a non-entity on February 5, 2003, when he was spectacularly catapulted onto the global stage – six weeks before the start of the Iraq war – by US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s weapons of mass destruction speech at the United Nations. Powell used Zarqawi to link Saddam Hussein’s secular Ba’athist regime to the “Islamic terror network”, and thus partly justify the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Asia Times Online confirmed in Amman, Jordan in February 2003 that practically nobody knew Zarqawi outside of Jordan – even though in 2002 he had been the target of a CIA disinformation campaign tying him to the theocratic regime in Tehran. But soon the Bush administration was to invest him with the aura of an “international man of mystery” – the world’s most dangerous man after Osama bin Laden.
Move over, Osama
The US$25 million bounty on his head makes Zarqawi an equal of bin Laden on America’s most-wanted list. Soon Zarqawi started being characterized simultaneously as al-Qaeda’s top operative in Iraq, and the number one promoter of civil war in that country. His organization, al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (Unity and Holy War), cornered the global market of gory videos showing hostages chained, caged and beheaded. The Bush administration went into full gear, wanting the world to believe that petty criminal Zarqawi was holding the world hostage.
What had he actually done until 2004? Not much. Unlike bin Laden in 1998, he never issued a declaration of war against Jews and Crusaders. Because Zarqawi may have been in northern Iraq at the time – training Ansar al-Islam fighters – and because he may have traveled to Baghdad in May 2002 to treat his injured, or amputated leg, was evidence enough for Powell to speak of “a sinister nexus between Iraq and the al-Qaeda terrorist network”. Powell of course never mentioned two crucial facts: even if Zarqawi was really in northern Iraq, he was in a safe heaven for Iraqi Kurds; and Ansar al-Islam was a mortal enemy of Saddam’s Ba’athists. Not to mention the fact that the Pentagon always refused to take out Ansar’s base: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was not interested in obliterating a perfect pretext for the war. Moreover, Ansar could also be used as an ally against Saddam.
Although the full weight of the Bush administration described Zarqawi as “a very senior al-Qaeda leader”, strangely enough there was no meaningful Zarqawi connection whatsoever when one sifted through the terror information in the global media between September 11 and Shock and Awe in March 2003.
Senior former CIA agents say that Vice President Dick Cheney “blew up” when a report proved no links between Saddam and Zarqawi. No wonder: it was always a propaganda stunt. Cheney and the neo-conservatives had always insisted that the Iraqi resistance to the American occupation came either from “remnants” of Saddam’s regime or from al-Qaeda “foreign fighters”, preferably a partnership. It was not in their interests to admit to a more widespread indigenous resistance movement.
Cheney also insisted that Zarqawi could not have had his leg treated in a Baghdad hospital without Saddam’s Mukhabarat (secret service) knowing it. But the leg story is a mess. US intelligence thought that Zarqawi had lost a leg in Afghanistan in 2002. But then, last May, they concluded that he still had both legs. The Bush administration’s “evidence” of an al-Qaeda-Saddam link via Zarqawi may be an intercepted phone call by Zarqawi from a Baghdad hospital in 2002, while his leg was being attended to. But then “Zarqawi” shows up in a video with both legs in the 2004 beheading of hostage Nick Berg.
The truth is more straightforward. Zarqawi had no connection either with bin Laden or with Saddam. Secular Saddam hosting an Islamic radical, of all people, at a time when the American campaign against the “axis of evil” had reached a fever-pitch is a ludicrous proposition. A newspaper editor in the Sunni triangle says Zarqawi may have gone on an underground trip to Baghdad to have his leg operated on before scurrying back to Kurdistan. And sources in Peshawar confirm to Asia Times Online that Zarqawi never took the all-significant bayat (oath of allegiance) and so never struck a formal alliance with bin Laden and the al-Qaeda leadership.
A ‘star’ is born
Zarqawi suddenly had a global starring role, so he had to live up to it. Al-Tawhid wal-Jihad was organized in early 2004. It has since claimed responsibility for the beheading of Berg in May and Americans Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley in September and and Briton Ken Bigley in October. Tawhid’s videos feature masked, armed militants, either with the voice over explaining how “Zarqawi” is beheading yet one more American infidel or the captions announcing the capture of yet more hostages.
This “film” career ran parallel to his emergence as a fiery ideologue. That’s the thrust of the exceedingly suspect email allegedly found by the US Army in a raid of “an al-Qaeda safe house” in Baghdad in early 2004. In that email – which immediately showed up at the website of the ultra right-wing Project For a New American Century – Zarqawi allegedly writes to bin Laden asking for his help in detonating a civil war between Sunnis and Shi’ites in Iraq.
The email – good timing – was found exactly at a juncture when the Bush administration could not disguise any more the lack of evidence linking Saddam and al-Qaeda. There’s only one problem – or several, for that matter. Al-Qaeda was actually encouraging total cooperation among all factions of the Iraqi resistance, Sunni and Shi’ite, secular Ba’athist and Islamic. The email could not possibly have been written by a mujahideen like Zarqawi. The characteristic, elaborate Islamic phraseology was not there. No mujahideen in his right mind would complain of his imminent martyrdom, as it’s implied in the text. And to top it all, for the many different strands of the resistance, Allawi’s administration is just a temporary nuisance in the long road of a national liberation struggle. So the plot didn’t fly, and it was scrapped after a few days.
I did it my way
So, first Zarqawi was used as a justification for the Iraqi war; then he became the reason for why there was no peace. Instead, what sources close to the resistance tell Asia Times Online, is that Zarqawi is a minor player: most Iraqis, Shi’ite and Sunni alike, reject his brutal methods, and even Islamic clerics who support the resistance but criticize Zarqawi’s methods are routinely denounced by Zarqawi as “collaborators”.
Where is his “base”? Zarqawi may have found plenty of funds and manpower in Saudi Arabia, especially after the siege of Fallujah in April, as well as in pockets of the Sunni triangle. Tawhid does exist as a movement, it may have as many as 1,000 members. Once again, the majority of the Iraqi resistance refuse to blow up Iraqi policemen or the desperate urban youth queuing up every day to get jobs in the security services. But for Tawhid, any Iraqi collaborating with the occupation in any way is a legitimate target.
Everything imaginable, in Iraq and elsewhere, has been attributed to Zarqawi: the Casablanca and Istanbul bombings in 2003; the assassination in August 2003, in Najaf, of key Shi’ite player Ayatollah al-Hakim; bomb attacks in February 2004 where more than 100 unemployed people applying for a job with the Iraqi police were killed; the Madrid bombings in March; the beheading of Berg; a wave of attacks in June, with more than 100 dead; the beheadings of the two Americans Armstrong and Hensley and Briton Bigley in September/October. Zarqawi is connected to something like three dozen “terrorist attacks” in Iraq, not to mention countless warnings, threats or communiques. But only half a dozen attacks among roughly 3,000 against the Americans and the so-called coalition can be attributed with certainty to Zarqawi.
There’s no shortage of documentation, in print and online, on how US intelligence agents operating around the world since the 1950s have created and developed their own terrorist groups; their own terrorist warnings concerning these terrorist groups; and then how they applied multibillion-dollar counterterrorism tactics – including black psy-ops – to neutralize these terrorist groups they created in the first place.
Disinformation and propaganda are key. Creating a “face” to terror is key. So these black psy-ops always include the creation of a cipher. One American psy-ops operative recently leveled with the Australian newspaper The Age: “We were basically paying up to US$10,000 a time to opportunists and criminals who passed off fiction and supposition about Zarqawi as cast-iron fact, making him out as the linchpin of just about every attack in Iraq.”
Will the real Zarqawi please stand up
Zarqawi, described as “a master of disguise and bogus identification papers”, has had a tendency to appear in several places at the same time, always eluding the efforts of the multibillion-dollar US intelligence machine. The Rupert Murdoch-owned The Weekly Standard, very cosy with the neo-cons, trumpeted that Zarqawi “is mounting a challenge to bin Laden’s leadership of the global jihad”.
But not a single source, anywhere, claims to have actually seen “Zarqawi” since late 2001 in Afghanistan. Ask the Pentagon. Ask the CIA. Ask the Federal Bureau of Investigation. No one, on the record, is able to independently verify that “Zarqawi” actually exists. There are no photos – only that same CIA-owned black and white. The CIA doesn’t even know how tall or how fat “Zarqawi” is. All the literature on “Zarqawi” since late 2001 springs from dubious “confessions” by prisoners and “statements” by all sorts of people claiming to be “Zarqawi”.
Even more extraordinary is that everybody and his neighbor is after Zarqawi: the Pentagon; the CIA; the Mukhabarat-lite intelligence services of Allawi; the Mehdi Army of Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr; the bombed residents of Fallujah, where he apparently is hiding; not to mention millions of Iraqis who would bless the heavens above for a shot at laying their hands on a $25 million bounty. Just like bin Laden, nobody can find Zarqawi. Why?
Zarqawi as evil personified is a non-starter: this role has already been attributed to bin Laden hiding in his cave along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The truth may be that the real one-legged, squat, tattooed thug Zarqawi is dead, but a composite Zarqawi lives. He may have been created by a faction, or factions of the Iraqi resistance as a mobilizing factor, a dashing neo-Saladin rousing the masses against the infidel occupiers.
Or better yet, he may have been created by US military intelligence. This American “Zarqawi” is definitely a Hollywood improvement on the original: tall, urbane, highly articulate, and with agile legs. But then something went badly wrong with the plot. A rogue group, composed of Iraqis or foreign fighters or both, kidnapped the American Zarqawi identikit and inoculated its own virus: thus the savage, multiple beheadings.
Zarqawi exists in audio, but not in video. Unlike bin Laden, he has never performed unmasked. In both the Berg and South Korean Kim Sun-il execution videos, the Zarqawi voice is the same – and the Zarqawi character as well (although he certainly doesn’t look like the “original” Zarqawi). Both videos look the same – with the same people, the same orange jumpsuits, and the same execution where mysteriously little blood flows. Audio and video are not in synch, and that suggests heavy editing.
Zarqawi was extremely useful to defuse attention from the Abu Ghraib scandal: the Berg video showed up at the height of Abu Ghraib. The “Zarqawi” in the video does not speak Arabic with a Jordanian accent. His legs seem pretty normal. And crucially, he wears a golden ring, which for an authentic jihadi would be the ultimate affront.
On the same day, June 22, of the release of the Kim video, “Zarqawi” also released a statement – but with a different voice, saying he was determined to “ignite a civil war between Sunnis and Shi’ites”. Curiously enough, that’s exactly what US intelligence wants, a rehashing of the same old British maxim of “divide and rule”.
Tawhid is also venturing into more elaborate productions. One of its recruiting videos features plenty of interviews and statements from Saudi, Algerian, Libyan and Jordanian jihadis. “Zarqawi’s” voice can be heard for a few seconds – but the audio was taken from another tape released after Abu Ghraib when he was threatening Allawi’s government.
This cat has nine lives
“Zarqawi” is much like a movie. Fake leg or not, return of the living dead or not, he is everywhere. American corporate media do not even bother to examine all the holes in the story. Who cares? Without Zarqawi, the Bush administration would have to painfully admit that the Iraqi resistance is a national liberation struggle. With Zarqawi, the administration can parrot to oblivion the line that Iraq is in the frontline of the “war on terror”.
If multi-purpose “Zarqawi” did not exist, he would have to be invented. The “Zarqawi” myth straddles pre-invasion and post-invasion, so the neo-cons can use it to justify just about anything. Cheney and Rumsfeld may keep exhuming Iraq’s “long established ties with al-Qaeda” and may justify the de facto occupation because “Zarqawi”, “linked to al-Qaeda”, is still there, so Iraq is turning into al-Qaeda’s base for more attacks against the US. It doesn’t matter that German intelligence has consistently pointed out that Zarqawi would be a fierce rival to bin Laden as the leader of global jihad.
If Bush loses the presidential election in November, the neo-cons who control his administration will be totally roasted and cannibalized by traditional Republicans. But if Bush is re-elected, he will have two months to launch and complete the all-out subjugation of Fallujah already announced by the US military and Allawi – the logical sequence of the current, devastating precision strikes.
This poses a problem. Zarqawi would have to be smoked out. But what for? The neo-cons would lose a formidable asset: after all they now insist Zarqawi is sponsored by Tehran. Yet another measure of the neo-cons’ ignorance of the Muslim world is how they put all cats – Wahhabi al-Qaeda, secular Iraqi Ba’athists and Iranian Shi’ite mullahs – in the same bag.
So the world should expect more “Zarqawi” merchandise – emails, threats, communiques, grisly videos. “Zarqawi” lives. What a legend. He’s unstoppable. And he votes Bush.