Taunting President Bush during the videotaped killing of a sobbing, blindfolded U.S. hostage, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi boasted that the al-Qaida fighters he commanded “love death just like you love life.”
“Killing for the sake of God is their best wish,” the insurgent leader said, drawing a knife to hack off the head of his kneeling victim. “Getting to your soldiers and allies are their happiest moments, and cutting the heads of the criminal infidels is implementing the orders of our Lord.”
By the time he was killed Wednesday in a U.S. airstrike, al-Zarqawi was more powerful as a myth than as a man.
The killings he masterminded were carefully calibrated to have the maximum psychological effect and feed his legend.
His repertoire of violence was a guerrilla version of the “shock and awe” tactics of his American foes. Suicide bombings were planned with great precision but rarely aimed at targets of military value — their symbolic effect was more important.
The killing of hostages was also choreographed for maximum shock value and followed a ritual that became grimly familiar.
Victims were dressed in orange clothes to mirror the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, and were filmed weeping and pleading for their lives, sometimes caged. Their decapitation — often at the hands of al-Zarqawi himself — was swiftly distributed over the Internet.
With his horror videos — including the beheading of American hostage Nicholas Berg — the Jordanian-born militant seemed to revel in taunting those seeking to catch or eradicate him. His bloodshed made the U.S.-led war on terrorism look impotent to some extent, an impression that the airstrike that killed him helped to dispel.
“It indicates that the intelligence services and police are now more capable of infiltrating the terror groups,” said Italian expert Stefano Silvestri, president of the Institute of International Affairs in Rome.
Reputation for brutality
Al-Zarqawi’s reputation for personal savagery stood out even in a country where brutal killings have become routine, and sparked reports that al-Qaida elder statesmen Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri were worried his homicidal zeal would undermine support for their militant network.
Although bin Laden anointed al-Zarqawi as prince of al-Qaida in Iraq, the two men were widely seen to be rivals, with al-Zarqawi keen to outshine bin Laden’s fame and notoriety.
As a foreign militant whose attacks killed far more Iraqi civilians than foreign troops, al-Zarqawi was despised even by many Iraqi insurgents fighting U.S. forces, and at times the hatred spiraled into fierce battles between insurgent groups.
Some of his methods and efforts to ignite a civil war between Sunnis and Iraq’s majority Shiites also made al-Zarqawi a divisive figure among Iraqi insurgent groups, and experts say his death could give them an opportunity to close ranks.
Al-Qaida in Iraq described Al-Zarqawi as a martyr. But Western experts said that because he made his name through brutality, rather than as an ideologist or as thinker, al-Zarqawi was not likely to become a widely respected and inspirational figure for Islamic militants.
“He was a particularly ruthless and malignant force, responsible for the death of hundreds of Iraqi civilians,” said Paul Wilkinson of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
“He’s killed so many of his fellow Muslims that I think there will be a general sigh of relief in the Middle East.”
Feeding the legend
U.S. forces sometimes found it convenient to feed the al-Zarqawi myth. Most experts believe his foreign fighters make up only a fraction of the insurgency, but the U.S. military portrayed al-Zarqawi as its most dangerous foe in Iraq. The $25 million price put on his head matched the bounty on bin Laden.
The Washington Post reported this year that internal military documents showed the U.S. military mounted a psyops (psychological operations) campaign to magnify the role of al-Zarqawi in the insurgency.
“Our own focus on Zarqawi has enlarged his caricature, if you will, made him more important than he really is,” military intelligence officer Colonel Derek Harvey was quoted as saying.
However, while the U.S. military focused on al-Zarqawi’s role in an effort to turn Iraqis against the insurgency, it also tried to puncture the legend of a fearless guerrilla leader.
U.S. officers say they came closest to capturing al-Zarqawi in February 2005, when his car nearly ran into an American roadblock in western Iraq, heartland of the insurgency. They say he escaped by leaping from the vehicle but his laptop computer and two of his aides were seized.
The military quoted one of those aides as saying al-Zarqawi “became hysterical” when he feared he would be captured.
But Al-Zarqawi’s hands-on violence made it likely that he would be caught in the end. Unlike bin Laden and his deputy al-Zawahri, al-Zarqawi’s focus seemed to be not so much staying alive but doing as much damage as possible, through suicide attacks, kidnappings and killings that stole some of bin Laden’s thunder. Al-Zarqawi’s older brother said his family had long anticipated his death.
Last month the military released captured footage of al-Zarqawi — out-takes from a propaganda video — showing the al-Qaida leader having problems firing a machinegun, and one of his aides grabbing a hot gun barrel and recoiling in pain.
U.S. forces even mocked the fact that al-Zarqawi was wearing sneakers made by American brand New Balance.
“A warrior leader, Zarqawi, who doesn’t understand how to operate his weapons system,” spokesman Major-General Rick Lynch said. “It makes you wonder.”
The edited version of the video, 35 minutes of footage posted on the Internet in April, portrayed him as he wanted to be seen — a military leader shown dressed in black with an ammunition belt slung over his shoulder, energetically firing a machine gun, directing recruits and poring over maps.
The video at least gave U.S. forces hunting al-Zarqawi a better idea of what he looked like. When he began his campaign of high-profile suicide bombings in 2003, with bloody attacks on the Jordanian embassy, the United Nations and a revered Shiite leader, Washington had only the haziest information on him.
He was long said to have an artificial leg, fitted in Baghdad during Saddam Hussein’s rule — a claim some U.S. officials used to bolster their case that the Iraqi president was conspiring with al-Qaida. The tale about the leg — like so many of the myths around al-Zarqawi — turned out to be false.