I’ve just been reading Mary Anne Weaver’s challenging and ultimately compelling cover story in the Atlantic, “Inventing al-Zarqawi.”
The headline cuts two ways: The invention of Zarqawi, Weaver suggests, was a joint venture by a “short, squat man named Ahmad Fadhil Nazzal al Khalaylah” and, in the words of a former Jordanian intelligence official, “‘the creativity of the Americans.'”
Weaver begins her profile with a question:
Who was he? Was he al-Qaeda’s point man in Iraq, as the Bush administration argued repeatedly? Or was he, as a retired Israeli intelligence official told me not long ago, a staunch rival of bin Laden’s, whose importance the United States exaggerated in order to validate a link between al-Qaeda and pre-war Iraq, and to put a non-Iraqi face on a complex insurgency?
In attempting to answer this question, Weaver is sanguine about who Zarqawi was, in fact —a mass murderer with the blood of hundreds of innocents on his hands whose primary objective was to overthrow the Jordanian monarchy. But she is also clear about who he wasn’t: “He was not the terrorist mastermind that he is often claimed to be.”
Zarqawi clearly aspired to jihadi “greatness”, but for the most part this chubby, semi-literate, ex-video store clerk, was a wannabe. His connection to the Al Qaeda of Osama bin-Laden —”it was loathing at first sight,” Weaver reports of bin Laden’s first encounter with Zarqawi —was a strained marriage of convenience. Zarqawi’s fealty to the Al Qaeda leader was weak; he didn’t want to report to the Saudi, Zarqawi wanted to be his own top dog.
In October 2004, after resisting for nearly five years, al-Zarqawi finally paid bayat [an oath of allegiance] to Osama bin Laden — but only after eight months of often stormy negotiations. After doing so he proclaimed himself to be the Emir of al-Qaeda’s Operations in the Land of Mesopotamia, ” a title that subordinated him to bin Laden but at the same time placed him firmly on the global stage. One explanation for this coming together of these two former antagonists was simple: al-Zarqawi profited from the al-Qaeda franchise, and bin Laden needed a presence in Iraq.
In his attempt to challenge bin Laden’s terrorist primacy, Weaver reports, Zarqawi had an unexpected booster: the Bush administration. For political reasons —first to create a (false) link between Al Qaeda and Saddam, and then to make it appear that the sectarian violence was primarily the work of foreign fighters —the administration aggressively hyped Zarqawi to make him the face of terrorism in Iraq.
The campaign to villainize Zarqawi began before the nasty thug had formally declared himself a follower of bin Laden, Weaver writes:
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.”
In the power vaccum created by Saddam’s fall, Zarqawi used mass violence to insert himself into the mix, bombing the Jordanian embassy and the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, as well as a holy shrine in Najaf. The Bush administration saw in his presence justification for the continued U.S. occupation of Iraq. In turn, they made him the public focus of their anti-insurgency efforts. In doing so, Weaver reports, they perversely magnified his power.
Even then —and even more so now Zarqawi was not the main force in the insurgency, the former Jordanian intelligence official, who has studied al-Zarqawi for a decade, told me. To establish himself, he carried out the Muhammad Hakim operation, and the attack against the UN. Both of them gained a lot of support for him — with the tribes, with Saddam’s army and other remnants of his regime. They made Zarqawi the symbol of the resistance in Iraq, but not the leader. And he never has been.
He continued, 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.
Zarqawi the man, the myth, and the legend are now dead. But after reading Weaver’s important piece you’ll understand why the insurgency is, tragically, destined to live on.