Blowing up Zarqawi

How the coalition transformed a failed fringe fanatic into The World’s Most Dangerous Terrorist.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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What a difference two years makes when it comes to being the ‘most evil man in the world’.

Until January 2003 Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was a bit of a mystery. He was said to be an Islamic fundamentalist from Jordan, a ‘lone wolf’ according to one CIA official, fixated on toppling the Jordanian monarchy. He moved to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviets in the late 1980s, was imprisoned in Jordan for seven years in the 1990s, was later injured in America’s war in Afghanistan in 2002, and then fled to northern Iraq to seek shelter with the Islamic fundamentalist outfit Ansar al-Islam. He reportedly moved down to Iraq proper some time after the war, with an eye for stirring up trouble (1).

Today Washington has branded him ‘the most wanted man in Iraq’. He is said to have links with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network. Videos allegedly made by his group Tawhid and Jihad, showing American civilians being beheaded and other kidnap victims, notably British construction worker Ken Bigley, chained up, caged and distressed, have captured the world’s attention. He stands accused of wanting to ‘foment civil war in Iraq’ (2). He even seems to have elbowed aside bin Laden to become, in the words of Newsweek, ‘the world’s most dangerous terrorist’. Many other governments are ‘scared to death of him’, too, says Newsweek (3). US officials have put a $25million bounty on his head, the same as that offered for info that leads to the capture of bin Laden.

How did he make this meteoric rise, from being a ‘lone wolf’ moving from one hotspot to another, to being the embodiment of evil who is not only holding Ken Bigley hostage, but Iraq, America, many other governments, and pretty much the entire world? Zarqawi is clearly a nasty piece of work, but his transformation cannot be explained by anything he did over the past two years. Rather, the coalition handed him fame and notoriety on a platter. American and British officials transformed him into an all-purpose bogeyman, ensuring that his name became synonymous with evil and unwittingly granting his grisly acts the international impact such terrorists crave.

As a report in the Washington Post put it on 3 October, Zarqawi was ‘barely known outside Jordan until a year and a half ago’ – or to be more precise, until February 2003 (4). What brought him to the world’s attention was not a declaration of war against the West on his part, or any other act for that matter, but US secretary of state Colin Powell’s speech to the United Nations on 5 February, six weeks before the start of the Iraq war.

Powell cited Zarqawi’s presence in northern Iraq, where he was said to be training and advising Ansar al-Islam, and his alleged trip to Baghdad in May 2002 for medical treatment on his injured leg, as evidence of ‘a sinister nexus between Iraq and the al-Qaeda terrorist network’ (5). This followed a televised address given by President Bush four months earlier, on 7 October 2002, in which Bush referred to a ‘very senior al-Qaeda leader who received medical treatment in Baghdad this year’ (6).

Powell’s speech catapulted Zarqawi on to the international stage. He was, indeed, ‘barely known’ before it. You would be hard pressed to find any serious nod to Zarqawi (described by Bush and Powell as a ‘very senior al-Qaeda leader’) in the many books on al-Qaeda published between 9/11 and the start of the Iraq war. He merits only two mentions-in-passing in Jason Burke’s pretty exhaustive study Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror.

He was rarely, if ever, featured in news reports in late 2001 or in 2002, a time when al-Qaeda was being written about on a daily basis. For example, he is not mentioned in the UK Guardian at all in 2001 and only twice in 2002, both times after Bush’s 7 October address. There is no sign of him in the BBC News online archives for 2001 or 2002. It is after Powell’s speech that he becomes a talking point – he is mentioned in 23 articles in the Guardian in 2003, and in 169 articles in 2004 so far; post-February 2003 he has been the subject of 181 articles on BBC News. The turning point from being a ‘barely known’ to a notorious figure came courtesy of Powell.

Yet Powell’s claim that Zarqawi’s presence in Iraq in 2002 was evidence of a ‘sinister nexus’ between the Ba’athists and al-Qaeda was highly suspect. Zarqawi was based in northern Iraq, territory that had been wrested from Saddam’s control by the UN following the first Gulf War in 1991, and turned into a ‘safe haven’ for Iraqi Kurds. And Ansar al-Islam, the group he joined, was opposed to Ba’athist socialism.

He may have taken a trip to Baghdad for treatment, but that’s hardly evidence that he was a go-between for Saddam and bin Laden. According to some experts, Zarqawi had links with neither man, never mind being the force for bad that brought them together. One CIA insider says that if Zarqawi did visit Baghdad in 2002, it is likely to have been a ‘dangerous’ trip, as Saddam would not have taken kindly to the presence of an Islamic fundamentalist at such a sensitive time (in the run-up to renewed international scrutiny) (7). According to Jason Burke, Zarqawi may have had ‘some contact with bin Laden but never took the bayat [oath of allegiance] and never made any formal alliance with the Saudi or his close associates. He was just one of thousands of activists committed to jihad living and working in Afghanistan in the 1990s’ (8). Now, in a speech given yesterday in New York, even US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld admits that there is no strong evidence of a link between Saddam and al-Qaeda (9).

So Zarqawi’s first step on the road to being a celebrity terrorist came when Bush and Powell credited him with having more power and influence, both inside Iraq and al-Qaeda, than he could have dreamed of. In effect, US officials transformed his rather random (and possibly dangerous) trip to a Baghdad hospital in 2002 into evidence that he was on a mission to bring together Saddam and bin Laden in a union of evil against Western civilisation. In truth, he was probably trying to dodge Saddam’s watchful eye while having an operation on his gammy leg before limping back to northern Iraq.

The coalition also accused him of harbouring WMD in Iraq. Powell said in February 2003 that ‘one of the specialties of [Zarqawi’s camp in northern Iraq] is poisons…. [He] is teaching operatives how to produce ricin and other poisons’ (10). During the war, when Saddam’s WMD failed to turn up, coalition officials focused on Zarqawi instead. Indeed, when the coalition destroyed the Ansar al-Islam camps on 30 March 2003, the front page of the UK Sun said ‘PROOF’, claiming that ‘an Iraqi terror camp making ricin poison has been smashed by a huge Allied blitz’ (11).

Again, these claims were unfounded. Reporters who visited the camps in the days and weeks after they were destroyed said there was ‘no evidence of chemical weapons having been used or stored here’; a US official later admitted that he was ‘unaware that any WMD have been found’ (12). Coalition officials desperate for some justification for their war constantly turned to Zarqawi, first labelling him ‘the link’ between terror groups and a rogue state and then citing him as evidence that Iraq (by which they meant northern Iraq) had WMD (which it didn’t). In the process they elevated this ‘lone wolf’ hiding out in northern Iraq into something he wasn’t – an international player, a terrorist with unprecedented reach, the embodiment of modern evil.

It’s not surprising, then, that after the war Zarqawi decided to venture down into
Iraq to exercise these newfound powers. He is reported to have set up a group called Tawhid and Jihad (Unity and Holy War), which has carried out some gruesome kidnappings and executions, including the beheading of 26-year-old American Nicholas Berg in May, and the killing of Americans Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley, who were kidnapped alongside Ken Bigley, in September. Zarqawi’s group films the executions and posts the footage on Islamic websites.

Again, coalition officials have blown his actions, grisly as they are, out of all proportion. They have credited him with stirring up civil tensions in postwar Iraq, after finding a letter allegedly written by Zarqawi to bin Laden, in which Zarqawi asks for help in fomenting conflict between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shias. Now coalition officials claim that by carrying out kidnappings and executions Zarqawi stands as a ‘barrier to peace’. The truth is that Zarqawi is on the margins of the margins of the Iraqi insurgency. According to Sami Ramadani, a refugee from Saddam’s Iraq and a senior lecturer at London Metropolitan University, ‘the vast majority of Iraqis reject Zarqawi and his ilk’. Ramadani points out that of 2,700 attacks against coalition forces, documented by the coalition itself, only six have been claimed in the name of Zarqawi (13).

This week, US agents in Iraq admit that they may have helped to promote Zarqawi. One told the Australian newspaper The Age that, ‘We were basically paying up to $10,000 a time to opportunists, criminals and chancers 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’. Looking coolly at the info they have gathered, the agent said: ‘We have to conclude that Zarqawi is more myth than man….’ (14)

It was coalition officials who transformed the man into myth. They cited Zarqawi as both a justification for their war and as an explanation for why there is still no peace; they pointed to him as evidence of evil in pre-war Iraq and now project on to him their concern about postwar Iraq; they accused him of having WMD and now claim that he’s single-handedly standing in the way of a peaceful resolution. If Zarqawi, the loner with the bad leg, really were this powerful, with the ability to provoke war and prevent peace, shouldn’t the coalition try to recruit him rather than destroy him?

Blowing up Zarqawi not only distorts the facts – it can also have a destabilising impact. Western officials have ensured that anything done in his name will have a disproportionate impact. Fearful officials have effectively written the script for an Evil Ruthless Terrorist Holding Iraq Hostage, and it seems that Zarqawi (or somebody) is more than keen to play the part. Witness how the kidnapping and execution videos flag up Zarqawi’s alleged involvement. They feature individuals wearing masks, with voiceovers saying things like ‘Zarqawi beheads an American infidel….’, and captions such as ‘Zarqawi takes hostage two more Americans….’. One of these masked men may or may not be Zarqawi, but it doesn’t really matter; by looking the part of the villain and adopting the name of the coalition-created super-villain (Zarqawi), they are guaranteed to stop the press.

Zarqawi, it would appear, remains the petty killer he always was. But by making a myth of the man, the coalition has ensured that his killings have an instantaneous, global impact – surely what every terrorist desires. Why would Zarqawi stop, when the coalition has given him top billing in postwar Iraq?

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Who is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi?, Barbara Starr, CNN, 24 September 2004

(2) He’s everywhere, he’s nowhere, Greg Weiher, CounterPunch, 9 March 2004

(3) The world’s most dangerous terrorist, Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball, Newsweek, 23 June 2004

(4) Zarqawi building his own terror network, Craig Whitlock, Washington Post, 3 October 2004

(5) US secretary of state Colin Powell addresses the United Nations Security Council, Colin Powell, 5 February 2003

(6) White House ‘exaggerating Iraqi threat’, Julian Borger, Guardian, 9 October 2002

(7) White House ‘exaggerating Iraqi threat’, Julian Borger, Guardian, 9 October 2002

(8) Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror, Jason Burke, IB Tauris, 2003

(9) Rumsfeld questions Saddam-bin Laden link, BBC News, 5 October 2004

(10) US secretary of state Colin Powell addresses the United Nations Security Council, Colin Powell, 5 February 2003

(11) See Propaganda defensive, by Brendan O’Neill

(12) See Propaganda defensive, by Brendan O’Neill

(13) The true face of Iraqi resistance, Guardian, 30 September 2004

(14) Doubt over Zarqawi’s role as ringleader, Adrian Blomfield, The Age, 2 October 2004

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