Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat- Just like that, the life of a boy from the Masoum neighborhood in al Zarqa ended, when a missile fired from the air targeted the house and his followers were staying, in the small village of Hibhib , in Diyala province.
Who killed Abu Musab al Zarqawi? Who provided the intelligence that lead to his death? Why was he in Hibhib? What role did Jordan’s intelligence services play? How will succeed him? What is fact and what is fiction in the legend of al Zarqawi? How was he linked to terrorist networks in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt? All these and many more questions will remain unanswered, with the death of the “son” of al Qaeda, Ahmad al Khalayleh.
In his last appearance, in the now infamous videotape, he paraded his military skills, walking amongst his supporters in Anbar province and vowing to wreck the political process in Iraq, especially in the wake of the Sunni’s participation in the government. Prior to his death, al Zarqawi threatened the Shiaa and attacked Lebanon’s Hezbollah, describing it as an agent of Israel .
I visited the town of Zarqa, west of the Jordanian capital, a dusty run-down city, in October, looking for Harat al Kissarat in Masoum neighborhood. When the group I was with stopped and asked for directions, the locals knew exactly who and what we were after. They showed us the way to Imadeddine Zanki street, where al Zarqawi’s family home is located, a crowded populous road.
We reached our destination after dusk. The house was modest, but more elegant than those surrounding it were. It had a small courtyard lined with trees where a few teenage boys were playing football. I asked one of them, called Hamza, if this was al Zarqawi’s house. He nodded. I then asked him how al Qaeda’s leader in Iraq was remembered by his former neighbors. “The people here say he was reckless and had many problems. But, we’ve always known him as a very religious person, who attended the local mosque. He was nice to us,” the young man said. Pointing to a nearby house, he added, “This is Abu Qadama’s house [He appeared on al Jazeera on Thursday praising the recently deceased al Zarqawi, before being arrested on air by the Jordanian authorities]. He married his sister. He developed a limp, after getting injured in his foot. I’ve never seen Abu Musab limp or suffer from an injury to his feet, as some reports claim.” Indeed, as others who have met him told me, al Zarqawi was fully fit when he left Jordan in 1999.
Ahmad Fadhil Nazzal al Khalayleh was born on 30 October 1966 in al Zarqa, a city 25 km west of Amman, to a conservative family belonging to the al Khalayleh tribe, one of the biggest in Jordan. His personality would later reflect this tribal background.
According to a senior official in the Jordanian security services, the police have assembled a huge file on Abu Musab, detailing his past arguments and drunken misbehaviors.
But, after embracing religion, Jordan ’s number one terrorist changed into a calm and quiet person, as many have said. He is remembered as a frequent visitor to the neighborhood Abdullah bin Abbas mosque. In Afghanistan, to which he traveled in the late 1980s, he was an ordinary fighter and did not attract attention to himself. Nicknamed Abu Mohammed al Gharib (the stranger), al Zarqawi spent some time in Peshawar , in the hospitality of other Arab fighters. A former Saudi mujahideen remembers seeing him in the Pakistani city and described him as “a silent person. I didn’t notice anything particular about him.” When the two men met again in the house of Abu al Walid al Ansari, in 1989, al Zarqawi had developed fervor for jihad. “The Salafi jihadist current in Jordan was born at that moment”, according to Ibrahim Gharaybeh, a Jordanian expert on Islamist issues. But disagreements between al Zarqawi and leaders of the Afghan mujahideen soon prompted him to return to Jordan.
By the time the future al Qaeda leader returned to his hometown, his beliefs had crystallized: he thought that Islamic groups which joined the political process were misguided and opposed the ruling establishment. He founded Jamaat al Tawheed (unification), later re-named as Baiyat al Imam in 1994 in al Zarqa, an Islamist stronghold, before being detained that same year and sentenced to fifteen years in jail. He was freed four years later in a royal pardon and left Jordan for Afghanistan.
Al Zarqawi’s true character was formed in jail. He became stubborn and headstrong, according to a Jordanian army official. “He was an ignorant man and a show-off. But at the same time he was very obstinate.” His supporters, such as Sheikh Jarah Qadah, confirm this.
Mohammed al Doueik, a Jordanian lawyer, was assigned to defend Abu Musab in the Bayat al Imam case in 1994. “He was accused with carrying a hand grenade and a rifle. He was a well-behaved young man. He used to work in al Zarqa’s municipality. I remember that his arms were filled with tattoos.”
In 1999, after his release from prison, al Zarqawi traveled to Afghanistan , where disagreements between him and bin Laden and his second-in-command Ayman al Zawahiri soon emerged. Saif al Adl, an al Qaeda security official, brought the Jordanian terrorist to Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold, after the Pakistani authorities demanded he leave its territories. Saif al Adl said he and al Zarqawi discussed whether he would cooperate with al Qaeda, after Abu Musab refused to pledge allegiance to bin Laden.
The talks succeeded and al Zarqawi soon left to Herat, in western Afghanistan, close to the Iranian border, where he established a military training camp, exclusively for Jund al Sham, or the fighters coming from Jordan Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. He was assisted by his longtime associate, who was later killed in Iraq, Abdul Hadi Daghlis, and his second wife’s father, the Palestinian Yassin Jarad. It is believed that the latter was personally responsible for the suicide operation targeting the Shiaa cleric Baqr al Hakim, in August 2003 in Najaf.
Following the defeat of the Taliban, al Zarqawi and a group of supporters fled into Iran and then infiltrated Iraqi Kurdistan, where other former mujahideen had also sought preceded them, such as Raed Khoraysat.
The following years of al Zarqawi’s life is well documented. His legend grew after the US- led invasion until he became the country’s most wanted terrorist and a $25 million bounty was placed on his head. He remained stubborn and preferred the military solution to solve the ills of the Muslim world.
Abu Musab’s death has deprived al Qaeda of the notoriety his network proffered. His exploits and in Iraq provided ample ammunition to mobilize new recruits and lay the grounds to move the armed fight to other countries, using Iraq as a base, especially after al Zarqawi announced, a short time ago, the establishment of an Islamic emirate in western Iraq.
Undoubtedly, al Zarqawi’s death is a severe blow to al Qaeda in Iraq and worldwide. Time will tell whether the terrorist group will overcome the elimination of one of its most infamous faces.