By far the most detailed and perceptive profile of the recently killed jihadist al-Zarqawi was published in Atlantic Monthly. The article has numerous insights into what the jihad has to offer to people like al-Zarqawi, described by a fellow militant as a “zero” when he came to Afghanistan.
The article also throws fascinating light on the uncomfortable relationship between al-Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden.
In December 1999, al-Zarqawi crossed the border into Afghanistan, and later that month he and bin Laden met at the Government Guest House in the southern city of Kandahar, the de facto capital of the ruling Taliban. As they sat facing each other across the receiving room, a former Israeli intelligence official told me, “it was loathing at first sight.”
According to several different accounts of the meeting, bin Laden distrusted and disliked al-Zarqawi immediately. … Bin Laden … disliked al-Zarqawi’s swagger and the green tattoos on his left hand, which he reportedly considered un-Islamic. Al-Zarqawi came across to bin Laden as aggressively ambitious, abrasive, and overbearing. His hatred of Shiites also seemed to bin Laden to be potentially divisive—which, of course, it was. (Bin Laden’s mother, to whom he remains close, is a Shiite, from the Alawites of Syria.)
The article is very critical of the way the Americans, in their simplistic need to have an incarnation of evil, built up al-Zarqawi. For a start, he was not the missing link between Al-Quaeda and Saddam Hussein as Colin Powell claimed to the United Nations.
One can only imagine how astonished al-Zarqawi must have been when Colin Powell named him as the crucial link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s regime. He was not even officially a part of al-Qaeda, and ever since he had left Afghanistan, his links had been not to Iraq but to Iran.
“We know Zarqawi better than he knows himself,” the high-level Jordanian intelligence official said. “And I can assure you that he never had any links to Saddam.
The same official went on:
“The Americans have been patently stupid in all of this. They’ve blown Zarqawi so out of proportion that, of course, his prestige has grown. And as a result, sleeper cells from all over Europe are coming to join him now.” He paused for a moment, then said, “Your government is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
The piece also provides a chilling window into the dangerous cocktail of petrodollars and fanatical religious faith.
I asked Azzam [another Jordanian jihadist] if he knew who was funding al-Zarqawi’s activities in Iraq.
He thought for a moment, and then replied without answering, “At the time of jihad, you can get vast amounts of money with a simple telephone call. I myself once collected three million dollars, which my father had arranged with a single call.”
“A bank transfer?” I asked.
“No. I collected it on my motorbike.
Finally, for although the death of al-Zarqawi may have been “the most significant success for American-led forces since the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003”, in the wider picture al-Zarqawi is not the one who matters. This is the Jordanian official speaking before al-Zarqawi's death:
If Zarqawi is captured or killed tomorrow, the Iraqi insurgency will go on. There is no such thing as ‘Zarqawism.’ What Zarqawi is will die with him. Bin Laden, on the other hand, is an ideological thinker. He created the concept of al-Qaeda and all of its offshoots. He feels he’s achieved his goal.” He paused for a moment, then said, “Osama bin Laden is like Karl Marx. Both created an ideology. Marxism still flourished well after Marx’s death. And whether bin Laden is killed, or simply dies of natural causes, al-Qaedaism will survive him.”