The first time I heard the name of Musab al-Zarqawi was on 5 February 2003 when the then US secretary of state Colin Powell singled him out as the link between Al Qaida and Saddam Hussein.
At the time I knew that this connection was fictitious. I had proof that such a link not only did not exist, but that Al Qaida had tried to approach Saddam in 2000 and he had refused to talk to them.
I began reading jihadist web pages and reports from the Arab press. Little by little the life history of al-Zarqawi began taking shape.
Al-Zarqawi is the ultimate product of Al Qaidism, the new anti-imperialist ideology which has risen from the ashes of Al Qaida.
His childhood and youth coincided with the hardening of the Palestinian diaspora and the struggle against the Soviet army in Afghanistan.
Al-Zarqawi’s real name is Ahmed Fadel al-Khalaylah. He was born at the end of October 1966 in Zarqa, Jordan.
Zarqa is an industrial city encircled by Palestinian refugee camps. It is a poor city where unemployment is rampant.
Al-Zarqawi grew up in one of the poorest working class neighbourhoods, Masum, where traditional tribal values clashed daily with rapid modernisation. He was aware of the Palestinian struggle — his father had participated in the battle of East Jerusalem in 1948.
At 16, following the death of his father, he dropped out of school, joined a local gang and eventually spent time in prison.
When he was released he began frequenting the local mosque, where he was recruited to join the jihad (holy war) in Afghanistan.
The idea to become a mujahideen (resistance fighter) appealed to him because he had a romantic idea of the Arab warrior.
He was not aware of the politics behind the war in Afghanistan. He was a very simple and uneducated man.
He arrived in Afghanistan in 1989, after the Soviet army had abandoned the country, and never participated in any battle. He went to work as a junior for the Arab-Afghan bureau in Peshawar where he met al-Maqdisi, a well known intellectual, who introduced him to radical Salafism, a doctrine which calls for a return to the purity of Islam.
In 1993 al-Maqdisi and al-Zarqawi returned to Zarqa where they planned to overthrow the Jordanian regime. They were arrested and imprisoned for five years.
During al-Zarqawi’s time in Afghanistan major changes were taking place inside Al Qaida.
The organisation was taken over by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor who was a member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad.
During the 1990s bin Laden and al-Zawahiri reshaped Al Qaida into an armed organisation for international jihad.
Al-Zarqawi’s journey to becoming an international leader of terror took place in prison. Torture and solitary confinement boosted his determination to challenge authority.
He showed strong leadership qualities and organisational skills. The inmates elected him their leader.
People were impressed by his determination and his kindness. Once he personally bathed a mujahideen who had been injured and had lost a leg.
Al-Zarqawi was convinced that the jihad had to focus on overthrowing the corrupt Arab regimes.
In 1999 when he was released from prison, al-Zarqawi returned to Afghanistan.
In 2000 he met Osama bin Laden who offered him and his followers the opportunity to join Al Qaida.
Al-Zarqawi refused because he was not prepared to fight the Americans. He wanted to continue his struggle against the Jordanian regime.
Al-Zarqawi was able to convince the Taliban to fund a small camp in Herat near the border with Iran.
The camp was frequented by Palestinians, Jordanians and Syrians. It forged suicide bombers. While in Herat, al-Zarqawi established links with a group of Jordanians from the city of Salt.
The group had moved to Iraqi Kurdistan where they joined Ansar al-Islam, an armed organisation linked to Al Qaida. After the fall of the Taliban he found refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The fall of the Taliban regime shattered Al Qaida.
In January 2002 the Kurdish secret service told the US that al-Zarqawi was Al Qaida’s man in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The US contacted the Jordanian authorities who immediately blamed him for a foiled attack during the millennium celebration in Jordan, the assassination of an Israeli citizen and of the US diplomat Laurence Foley. Neither the Kurds or the Jordanians could back their accusation with any evidence.
The Kurds wanted the US to help them get rid of the jihadists in Iraqi Kurdistan and the Jordanians needed a scapegoat for a series of mysterious terrorist attacks.
The US administration welcomed the creation of the myth because they needed a reason to go to war with Iraq.
Today we know that most of Colin Powell’s speech on 5 February 2003 was based on false information. But at the time when he mentioned al-Zarqawi as the new international terror leader the entire world believed him.
From that moment, a totally unknown leader of a small and insignificant group became the new international bogeyman.
Colin Powell’s speech also provided the jihadist movement with a new, much needed operational leader.
With Osama bin Laden and al-Zawahiri trapped in Pakistan’s tribal belt, al-Zarqawi became the new icon of anti-Western struggle.
His myth helped the transition of Al Qaida from a small, highly integrated armed organisation to a global anti-imperialist creed.
All jihadists scattered around the world wanted to be related to al-Zarqawi. Funds and future suicide bombers flocked to Iraq to join his group.
Ironically, while his myth boosted al-Zarqawi’s popularity outside Iraq, in Iraq he was regarded with suspicion.
He waited until August 2003 to enter the fighting, after the end of the official war, when the Shia insurgency was already in full swing and the population had turned against the occupation.
The US claimed he was the leader of the resistance in Fallujah, a myth debunked by the discovery of diaries that admit his supporters accounted for only 15 of the estimated 5,000 fighters in the city.
From August 2003 until December 2004, when Osama bin Laden nominated him leader of Al Qaida in Iraq, he sought recognition from bin Laden because he lacked the legitimacy to rally the Sunni population.
Right from the beginning he was determined to drive a wedge between Sunnis and Shias to prevent them from uniting in a national front.
At the same time he became fully committed to the fight against the US. Thus his struggle was conducted from the beginning on two fronts—one against the Shia and one against coalition forces.
The tactics of suicide attacks, kidnappings and beheadings of Western hostages strengthened and confirmed his status.
But al-Zarqawi has not reached the top through natural selection inside the jihadist movement — he has been pushed there by those who have created his myth — the Kurds, the Jordanians and the US.
Loretta Napoleoni is an Italian journalist who has worked for the IMF, the UN and advised the US homeland security department on terrorism. She is author of Terror Inc. Her new book, Insurgent Iraq, is available from Bookmarks. Phone 020 7637 1848