St. Petersburg Times
Special report
Video report
  • For their own good
    Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
  • More video reports
Multimedia report
Print Email this storyEmail story Comment Email editor
Fill out this form to email this article to a friend
Your name Your email
Friend's name Friend's email
Your message


The man behind deadly attacks

Published June 9, 2006

BAGHDAD - To his supporters, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was a holy warrior, the "slaughtering sheik" who defended Islam against American crusaders and Shiite infidels. For the Americans, he was the evil terrorist behind the Iraqi insurgency.

Zarqawi may have been as much myth as mastermind. But with his brutal campaign of suicide bombings and hostage killings - backed by a canny Internet propaganda campaign - he pushed Iraq to the edge of a Shiite-Sunni civil war after the swift success of the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.

Unlike al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, the scion of a Saudi millionaire, Zarqawi was from a poor family.

Born Ahmad Fadhil Nazzal al-Khalayleh on Oct. 20, 1966, in Jordan, Zarqawi took his nom de guerre from the industrial town of Zarqa, where he grew up drinking alcohol and fighting. As a teenager, he was known as a thug and was jailed for six months, according to Jordanian security officials.

He then embraced Islamic militancy, visiting Afghanistan in the 1980s and helping to start an Islamic militant group in Jordan.

He was arrested again in the mid 1990s for weapons possession, and it was in a Jordanian prison that he solidified his radical ideology. He shared a cell block with militant cleric, who became his spiritual mentor in an extremist strain of Islam.

In March 2003, British intelligence warned that Zarqawi's network had set up sleeper cells in Baghdad to mount a resistance to the forthcoming U.S. occupation, according to a British report.

A month before, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell told the U.N. Security Council that Zarqawi's presence in Iraq was proof of Saddam Hussein's links to al-Qaida.

That claim was later debunked by U.S. intelligence officials, but Zarqawi signaled the start of the insurgency with two major suicide bombings by his group, called Monotheism and Jihad, in August 2003.

For the next three years, Zarqawi kidnapped and beheaded Westerners and carried out some of the worst atrocities in Iraq. In October 2004, he swore allegiance to bin Laden, renaming his group al-Qaida in Iraq.

He moved his campaign beyond Iraq's borders, carrying out a triple suicide bombing Nov. 9 in Amman, Jordan that drew contempt from the Arab world for attacking Muslims.

He backed up the violence with a revolutionary use of the Internet to spread both fear and ideology. His group issued grisly videos on the Web showing the beheading of Western hostages, including two Americans whom Zarqawi himself is believed to have decapitated.

Information from the Washington Post was used in this report.

[Last modified June 9, 2006, 06:33:01]

Share your thoughts on this story

[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Subscribe to the Times
Click here for daily delivery
of the St. Petersburg Times.

Email Newsletters