ZARQA, Jordan — Here in a depressed industrial town on the dusty road from Amman, the capital, he is remembered as an ordinary, if somewhat wayward, young man called Ahmed Khalayleh, who later took his nom de guerre from his birthplace.
The Khalayleh home is still here — a drab, white building with a large satellite dish on the roof. Outside, grubby-faced children swarm around at the rare sight of a foreigner. Two young boys are playing tag.
“You’re Abu Musab,” cries Saddam Aoudi, 10.
“No, you’re Abu Musab,” his friend shouts back.
Behind the myth of Abu Musab Zarqawi, the West’s new boogeyman, is the soft-featured terrorist who started out here as a tattooed small-town thug.
In the dimmed recesses of the American military operations rooms dotted across Iraq, they call him “the Z-man.” Intelligence specialists dedicated to studying him are referred to reverentially as “Zarqeologists.”
Zarqawi seems to be everywhere and yet nowhere, plotting terrorist attacks in Britain, Spain and Jordan, while moving like a specter through Iraq’s heart of darkness. Files labeled “Top Secret” bulge with details of his life, but much of the lore surrounding him is suspected to be rumor or misinformation.
A U.S. Marine Corps profile noted that he has a “possible prosthetic leg,” a “possible shoulder injury” and a “possible Jordanian accent.” He likes to travel alone, it revealed, as an “unassuming businessman” in a red Pontiac, gold sedan, white van or “any vehicle.”
But the rumors about his prosthetic leg have been revised. “He’s understood to walk with a limp,” said one source.
Zarqawi also is thought to use a personal digital assistant and take Zantac tablets — a common indigestion remedy.
No one knows for sure whether the Sunni fundamentalist is still hiding out in the Iraqi rebel stronghold of Fallujah. Many opponents of American policy view him as an invention — rather than a terrorist mastermind with cells all over Iraq, the Caucasus and Western Europe.
Whatever the truth, coalition intelligence officers certainly accept his claims that he has organized the killings of hundreds in Iraq and personally beheaded Westerners — including British engineer Kenneth Bigley, killed Oct. 7 by his kidnappers after three weeks in captivity. A videotape of his beheading was delivered to an Arabic television channel the next day.
The myth of Zarqawi grows by the hour. Zarqawi, 38 this month, once was just like the tag-playing boys in his hometown, a child from a settled Bedouin family who enjoyed playing soccer on the dusty ground. He supported Ramtha, the local soccer team, and cheered for Argentina.
“I hope to be like him,” one of the small boys said. “He’s big in America. He makes us hold our heads up high.”
When a foreigner knocks, an elderly woman unbolts the rusty metal front door.
“We don’t have anything to say,” she growls.
When one tries to take a photograph of the house, Zarqawi’s elder brother, Mohammed Khalayleh, comes shooting out.
“He doesn’t live here,” he shouts, his clenched fists quivering. “He used to live here a very long time ago — so why do people keep coming to look for him?”
The house, 13 al-Hasmi St., is situated at the top of a hill, opposite an abandoned quarry. Like most of the neighboring houses, it is built of cement blocks and borders a road that is strewn with trash.
Locals call this town, known for poverty and crime, the Chicago of the Middle East.
Despite his soft features, Zarqawi had a reputation as a hard youth who was adept with a knife. There is talk of a fondness for alcohol — and he was convicted of drug possession. On the inside of his left forearm, he had a homemade tattoo of an anchor.
He might have been just another semi-delinquent, but there is enough resentment here against the West for the residents to view him — with some contradiction — as both a boogeyman created by the Americans and a hero fighting for the oppressed Muslim masses. His first wife still lives in the town with their four children — although, three years ago, Zarqawi married his second, a 14-year-old Palestinian, in Pakistan.
“If he came back, I would welcome him,” said Jihad Sa’id, 36, at the local store. “I don’t think a single person in Zarqa would turn their face away. The Arabs are worn down, beaten almost. They will support whoever defends them, like Osama bin Laden previously, and now Abu Musab.”
Firas Ali, a grocer, was skeptical. Zarqawi was a resistance fighter who defended Muslims, but not a major player in Iraq, let alone in a global jihad, he said.
“No one thinks he’s a terrorist, like they say on television. When Americans blow places up, saying they are looking for him, we know these are all excuses and that he’s not behind every bombing. They’ve built him up into something superhuman.”
Salem Khalayleh, 44, spoke fondly of his first cousin.
“I love him,” he said. “I respect and have esteem for him. I can’t say any more than this. He had a strong personality, and he was always outspoken and had the courage of his convictions.”
When asked whether he approved of the beheadings of hostages, he replied: “They’re just kidnapping a few people to tell them to leave their land. Why don’t you ask the Americans if it’s right to bomb people who don’t even have anti-aircraft guns to defend themselves?”
Some elements of Zarqawi’s background helped transform him from local thug to America’s No. 1 target in Iraq, with a $25 million reward for his capture.
From anger to action
The fact that Zarqa became home to a large Palestinian refugee camp, where generations have lived in abject conditions, has fueled an acute sense of injustice, even among non-Palestinians. Almost inevitably, the town was fertile ground for radical Islamic preachers.
In his late teens, Zarqawi began to heed their message, first giving up alcohol and drugs and then becoming an avowed Islamist.
“He was like all these religious people who have no television in their house and just read the Koran,” his cousin said.
His family almost certainly encouraged this transformation. Zarqawi’s father, a sheik, returned home in 1949 after defending Jerusalem against the fledgling state of Israel. He was respected for both his religious views and his part in fighting the Jews.
He appears to have approved of his son’s departure for Afghanistan in the late 1980s to fight the Soviets — along with many other idealistic young Arabs. There, Zarqawi acquired yet another name: “al-Gharib,” “the stranger.”
Returning to Jordan in 1992, he joined a radical Islamic group called Bayat al Imam. A year later, he was arrested and convicted of plotting to overthrow the Hashemite monarchy after explosives and assault rifles were found in his house.
Fellow inmates in prison — from which he was released under a general amnesty in 1999 — were struck by the hold that Zarqawi exerted on those around him. He gradually marginalized and then excluded his superior, Abu Mohammed Maqdisi, and emerged as leader of Bayat al Imam.
By then, he was wearing Afghan robes and a turban and committing to memory all 6,236 verses of the Koran. He forbade his new followers from reading anything else. The anchor tattoo was removed with hydrochloric acid.
“He was a perfectionist,” said Abdallah Abu Romman, a journalist who was jailed about the same time for criticizing Jordan’s King Hussein.
“He looked on himself as a role model, who was honest, brave, clean and very serious. In the three months I was with him, I don’t believe I heard him laugh once.”
Basil Abu Sabha, the prison doctor, recalled: “He could direct his men simply by moving his eyes.”
It was in prison that Zarqawi’s ideology took shape. As a Salafist, who rejects all modern interpretations of Islam, he would seek to convert the world to the faith as it was in the days of the prophet Muhammad, 14 centuries ago. Zarqawi’s dream is to establish a worldwide medieval caliphate, governed by Islamic fundamentalist law, or Shariah.
His righteous fury initially was directed not against Christians or Americans, but those who rejected all religion.
“He did not consider America an enemy,” Mr. Abu Romman said. “His main foe was Russia and communism. Americans, at least, had faith in God.”
Yousef Rababa, another prisoner, said Zarqawi divided the world into “infidels” and believers and would debate so fervently that “he almost used to attack us with his fists.”
“The infidel is, for him, an infidel — whether he is a foreigner, Arab or Muslim,” Mr. Rababa said. “His principle is: ‘If you are not with me, then you are against me’ — the same logic that President Bush uses.
“Bin Laden is a person of political priorities — he has enemies in America, Iraq and Palestine. Zarqawi has no political issues. It is all about doctrine.”
So what propelled Zarqawi into such rabid anti-Americanism? The Zarqeologists think the trigger was the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, which unseated the Taliban regime — viewed by Zarqawi as a true Salafist state. Afterward, he fled to Iran before basing himself in northern Iraq in 2002.
American military planners think Zarqawi is more extreme than bin Laden, whom the former met some time before the September 11 attacks.
“His mental state, his rabid dedication to jihad causes him to do things a normal person would not do,” said one senior U.S. military officer.
“He blows up people he’s trying to get to join him in his cause. He professes in deed, if not in word, that it’s OK to kill Shias if you are a Sunni. That’s not even al Qaeda’s plan.”
CIA profiles portray him as almost mentally deranged, but America’s obsession with Zarqawi may have boosted the numbers of his potential recruits and financial backers.
“Have we contributed to the misperception that he is more than he is? The answer’s ‘yes,’” the officer said. “But it’s an unintended consequence. He is not our main adversary right now. In terms of what amounts to a potential for a grass-roots insurgency that would hinder the future health of Iraq, the former regime elements (FREs) are the problem.”
Those “FREs” — mainly former military officers loyal to Saddam Hussein — reject Zarqawi’s methods and his desire for an Islamic state. But there are some low-level alliances between the two groups because they share the short-term aim of forcing out American and British forces.
According to best U.S. estimates, Zarqawi commands about 500 men in Iraq, the majority of them fighters from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia. He is backed by wealthy persons abroad, but no states support him.
So how dangerous is he? The senior U.S. military officer theorizes that Zarqawi may no longer be able to pull off the “spectacular” coordinated attacks that he was achieving months ago; he is killing fewer people, and more of his operations are being thwarted.
The recent announcement that he apparently has joined forces with al Qaeda could be a sign of weakness or desperation.
“He was more of an al Qaeda competitor, in many ways, and resisted allying with them because he didn’t want to be dominated by them,” the officer said.
Mr. Bush, however, long has said that the Jordanian is bin Laden’s man in Iraq, despite evidence to the contrary.
“Zarqawi is the best evidence of connection to al Qaeda affiliates and al Qaeda,” he said at an Ohio campaign rally.
Some have accused the Bush administration of deliberately exaggerating Zarqawi’s role in Iraq as a way of delegitimizing the insurgency — the main elements of which are indigenous.
Meanwhile, American forces are increasingly confident that his days are numbered.
“We’ve been real close to killing him, and we’re in hot pursuit right now,” the U.S. officer said. “He’s more lucky than he is good — and he’s going to get unlucky soon.”
Whether eliminating Zarqawi also will slay the monstrous myth that continues to swirl around his name is a more difficult question. The power of “the Z-man” might not die with him.