Death of a Terrorist

This time around, the Americans wanted to make sure they killed him. Again and again, Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi had eluded his many well-armed, high-tech pursuers. Now, U.S. commanders were sure, the terrorist butcher was holed up in a safe house about 30 miles north of Baghdad, where he had gone to commune with his spiritual adviser. A circlingF-16C pasted the small building with a 500-pound bomb. Then, just to make sure, the warplane unloaded another 500-pounder. The two bombs, one directed by a laser beam, the other by a satellite, left nothing but a pile of rubble and twisted metal in a grove of splintered palm trees. Inside, two men, two women and a small girl were dead. Somehow, however, Zarqawi was still alive. When Iraqi and American soldiers found him, he was still breathing, barely, and muttering prayers. Lying on a stretcher, he turned away from his captors, imagining, perhaps, what awaited him in paradise.

The Americans examined the corpse closely, looking for telltale green tattoos and old war wounds. No less a presence than Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, chief of the shadowy Special Operations force tracking Zarqawi, looked down on the bloodied body of his adversary, dressed in black. There wasn't much else to see. According to wire reports, soldiers found a few weapons, a skimpy leopard-print nightie, possibly belonging to one of Zarqawi's three wives, and the May 2 issue of the Arabic edition of NEWSWEEK (which featured a cover story on the Iraq war entitled "No Exit"). Nearby was a magazine photo of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Zarqawi's demise may turn out to be a turning point in the long, frustrating war on terror. American special operators staged 17 raids the day Zarqawi died, then 39 more the next day, rounding up at least 25 Qaeda suspects. A military spokesman proclaimed the discovery of a "treasure trove" of information about Zarqawi's shadowy terror network. The jingoes exulted. gotcha! screamed the New York Post, showing a blowup of Zarqawi's face, bruised and puffy (the tabloid couldn't resist a cartoon bubble from the dead terrorist's mouth uttering the command "Warm up the virgins").

But no one expects the Iraqi insurgency to miraculously vanish, or even significantly abate, in the weeks ahead. If anything, Zarqawi's martyrdom may cause a new surge of killing. His goal had been to foment civil war by causing sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites. With morgues filling with bodies daily, some beheaded, it may be too late to stop or contain the bloodshed.

Last week's ambush of Zarqawi was a model of military efficiency, a triumph of patient intelligence gathering and high-tech snooping. But it seems fair to ask why it took three years to get him. Ever since Zarqawi emerged as a threat after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, an elite team--the best of the best, men from Delta Force, Navy SEAL Team Six, Army Rangers and other highly trained special operators--has been on the manhunt, backed by spy satellites and code-crunching computers. Their target, while vicious, seemed to be something of a blowhard and a buffoon. In a video released by the Pentagon in May, Zarqawi, oddly baby-faced despite his beard, could be seen strutting in a brand-new pair of New Balance white sneakers peeping out from his black commando garb. He appeared to be having trouble trying to fire an American automatic weapon.

The truth, of course, is that chasing terrorists in the real world bears little or no resemblance to an episode of "24." People who do not wish to be caught can evade capture for a long time. Remember Eric Rudolph, the bomber who managed to hide in the hills of North Carolina for more than five years. It is also a discouraging fact of history that intimidation works. Zarqawi, who personally performed beheadings for the video camera, terrorized people into silence.

Still, Zarqawi hardly seemed to qualify as an Islamic Scarlet Pimpernel. His infamy was, at least to some degree, a creation of the U.S. government, whose spokesmen seized on him as the visible face of Al Qaeda in Iraq--and living proof that the war in Iraq was the main battlefield in the grander global war on terror (GWOT, in governmentese). Though a high-school dropout, Zarqawi was smart enough to spread his message of death-cult jihad by Internet all over the world. The making of Zarqawi is an ugly Pygmalion story; the catching and killing of him is a reminder that noxious weeds, once they take root, are not easily eradicated.

Zarqawi has long been wreathed in myth. He was said to move about dressed as a woman and to always travel with a giant entourage (both canards). He was Palestinian; no, Jordanian. He was one-legged; no two. He was the link between bin Laden and Saddam Hussein; no, the disciple of neither man. In his early years, Zarqawi seemed more likely to become a loser than a criminal mastermind. Growing up in the grimy Jordanian town of Zarqa (from which Zarqawi takes his nom de guerre), he joined gangs, engaged in petty crime and, according to Jordanian authorities, sexually assaulted a girl. With nowhere else to go, he went to Afghanistan in the late 1980s to join the jihad against the Soviet occupation.

He got there too late to fight the Soviets, but he was said to be an eager warrior against the communist-backed regime in Kabul. Commander Hemat, a former anti-Soviet resistance fighter who now assists the Taliban along the Pakistani border, told NEWSWEEK that Zarqawi would disappear for up to 24 hours at a time, leaving his comrades to think he was dead, but then reappear with tales of derring-do. Hemat recalled that Zarqawi loved to man a heavy-caliber machine gun on a mountaintop and relished firing at communist troops in the valley below and at any aircraft flying overhead. Still, says Hemat, "I never expected he'd become an important guy."

Wandering back to Jordan in the early '90s, Zarqawi was imprisoned for plotting against the Jordanian government. Prison was apparently Zarqawi's leadership school. He was shy and semiliterate when he went behind bars. Memorizing passages from the Qur'an, he became an infidel-hating Salafist and a successful prison bully, surrounding himself with bodyguards. He was known for his violent temper and visceral loathing of all Shiites, whom he regarded as unworthy pretenders to the true path of Islam.

Freed on a general amnesty in the late '90s, Zarqawi returned to Afghanistan. Though he apparently trained in Qaeda terror camps, he was not a made man--he did not swear an oath of fealty to Osama bin Laden. Rather, he set up a separate camp to build his own little terrorist gang, whose goal was to kill the King of Jordan and create an Islamist state.

When the Americans attacked Afghan-istan in 2001, Zarqawi and the remnants of his followers fled to northern Iraq (via Iran), where they set up shop with a group called Ansar Al-Islam in a remote mountain region beyond Saddam Hussein's control. Some American intelligence determined that Zarqawi and his cohorts were manufacturing crude chemical weapons there. The Pentagon developed plans to bomb the Ansar camp in 2002, but the White House withheld its approval. "He was up there, we knew where he was, and we couldn't get anybody to move on it," said a former U.S. intelligence official who had worked on the plans to take out Zarqawi, but who refused to be identified discussing military secrets. "We were told they didn't want to disrupt the war planning. It was a real opportunity lost."

The Bush administration wanted to exploit Zarqawi in a different way. When Secretary of State Colin Powell went to the United Nations to make the case for going to war against Saddam in February 2003, he charged that Saddam "harbors" a "deadly terrorist network" headed by Zarqawi, whom he described as a "collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda lieutenants." U.S. intelligence at the time was saying that Zarqawi had gone to Baghdad to receive medi-cal treatment--one report, widely credited in neocon circles, said that he was getting a prosthesis for a leg lost in an American bombing attack. It does appear that Zarqawi went to Baghdad to be treated for wounds sometime in 2002, but there is no evidence that Saddam's government was even aware of his presence. He was walking on two legs until he was killed last week.

Zarqawi apparently was not Saddam's ally. Rather, he rushed into the power vacuum left by the overthrow of the Saddam regime in the spring of 2003. His operatives blew up a car bomb outside the Jordanian Embassy that summer and claimed responsibility for sending a suicide bomber to kill the United Nations' special representative--an attack that drove the United Nations out of Iraq at the critical early stages of Iraq's recovery effort. Zarqawi served notice of his particular bloodthirstiness by ordering a suicide attack on American soldiers handing out candy to kids. The attack killed 35 children. He used his own father-in-law as a suicide bomber.

But it was the beheadings that really sealed Zarqawi's reputation as a monster. A video showed a man in a mask--believed to be Zarqawi himself--using a large knife to saw off the head of an American contractor, Nick Berg. Kidnapped by Zarqawi's gang, Berg had been dressed in an orange jumpsuit--like the suspected terrorists held in the American prison at Guantánamo Bay. The video, along with another gruesome beheading tape, was widely distributed, both door to door in Iraq as a kind of calling card and around the world by Internet. Zarqawi became a hero to radical Islamists in Europe--the July 7, 2005, subway bombers in London praised him, along with bin Laden. Zarqawi was able to recruit true believers from all over the Islamic world to sneak into Iraq to join the jihad. The foreigners carried out only a small percentage of the attacks on American and Iraqi forces, but they were the most spectacular ones, aimed at civilians as well as military and police.

Zarqawi grew in stature. His working- class, barely literate Arabic became more cultured and refined, according to linguist Rita Katz, whose private SITE Institute monitors terrorist Web sites. It was as if a Cockney pickpocket had become the Archbishop of Canterbury. Al Qaeda was now glad to claim credit for Zarqawi, who was dubbed an "emir," or prince. Zarqawi, swearing fealty to bin Laden, changed the name of his organization from Monotheism and Jihad to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.

All the while, the Americans were trying to catch Zarqawi. The name of the unit tasked with capturing him changed from time to time--the most recent moniker, Task Force 145, was recently dropped after it became too widely known, says a senior diplomat who did not wish to publicly discuss classified information. The toughest U.S. commandos were working the streets in Iraq for any clues, and their methods were not always Marquis of Queensberry. In March, a New York Times story described how an elite Special Operations unit called Task Force 6-26 had taken over one of Saddam's old torture chambers and turned it into an interrogation cell called the Black Room. Placards on the wall advised no blood, no foul, and interrogators spat on prisoners and beat them with rifle butts, all to extract information that might lead to the capture of Zarqawi, according to the Times story.

The Iraqis and Americans came close on at least several occasions. Once, Iraqi forces actually held Zarqawi in custody outside Fallujah, but failed to recognize him and let him go after a half hour. Another time, American forces captured his driver and his laptop--but Zarqawi somehow slipped away.

It may seem odd that super-soldiers like Delta Force, celebrated for missions impossible in film and fiction, cannot catch a man with a $25 million bounty on his head in an area crawling with U.S. and Iraqi soldiers. But the bureaucratic and logistical obstacles facing even the most elite operators were portrayed in revealing detail in an Army Times article, published last month. The article, whose details were confirmed by a U.S. counterterror official who wished to remain anonymous discussing secret operations, recounted the failed attempts of the group then called Task Force 145 to hunt down Zarqawi, who was known to be on the run inside the Sunni Triangle.

In February 2005, the Americans got a tip that Zarqawi was due to travel down a road alongside the Tigris River. An elaborate ambush was set up--but Zarqawi didn't show. Then, just as the Americans were about to give up, a vehicle blew through a Delta Force roadblock and came bearing down on a checkpoint manned by Rangers. A machine gunner had the SUV squarely in his sights and asked permission to fire. The lieutenant in charge hesitated; he did not have a "positive I.D." of the passengers inside. The vehicle roared by, and there, holding a U.S. assault rifle and staring wildly out the window, was the face of Zarqawi. Quickly, the special operators mounted a pursuit. Delta operators took off on a high-speed chase while an unmanned aerial drone, known as a Shadow, watched the scene unfold from on high. Zarqawi was "s---ting in his pants," a special operator later recounted to the Army Times. "He was screaming at the driver. He knew he was caught."

But technology failed the hunters. The camera on the drone automatically "reset," switching from a tight focus on Zarqawi's vehicle to a wide-angle view of the town. Staffers manning the Shadow's camera scrambled to zoom back in on Zarqawi--but by then he had jumped out of the car and vanished.

This spring the Americans began squeezing Zarqawi again. In April, a raid on a terrorist safe house by Navy SEAL Team Six killed five terrorists, three of whom wore suicide belts. At the time, Zarqawi "was probably 1,000 meters away," a Special Ops source told Army Times. In the safe house, special operators found a tape--showing Zarqawi, in his black pajamas and white running shoes, fumbling with an American-made automatic weapon.

In the end, Zarqawi may have been brought down by his own vanity and virulence. In an effort to stir sectarian violence, to pit Shiites against Sunnis in civil war, Zarqawi had staged several bombings against Shia holy places, including a February attack against a revered shrine in Samarra. The bloodbaths had their desired effect; Iraq seemed to be verging on all-out civil war. But they brought a reprimand from bin Laden's chief lieutenant, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who chided Zarqawi for turning public opinion against Al Qaeda by targeting fellow Muslims.

By the time Zarqawi was making videos of himself in April, he was increasingly marginalized and in danger of betrayal. "He felt under pressure, and he felt he was losing power," says a senior Jordanian security official who declined to be identified discussing intelligence. Zarqawi had recently formed a mujahedin Shura Council to put more of an Iraqi face on the insurgency. The tape was an effort to assert his control, says the official, who adds, "It was a big mistake. The minute the tape was released was the beginning of his end."

The Jordanians had been aggressively seeking Zarqawi ever since his forces bombed three hotels in Amman in November, killing 60 people and wiping out a wedding party. In December, King Abdullah, wearing the uniform of the Jordanian Special Forces, personally told his top intel officers, "I am not going to wait for Zarqawi to come and hit Jordan." In short order, an elite unit called the Group of the Knights of God was established to hunt the outlaw.

It appears that the Jordanians were the first to penetrate Zarqawi's network, although even Jordanian officials concede that the final attack on Zarqawi was the work of American special operators. The details remain murky, but military and intelligence officials laid out a basic outline of the final hunt.

At some point about two weeks before the attack, the Americans learned the identity of Zarqawi's latest spiritual adviser, Sheik Abdel-Rahman. American intelligence began to stalk him, following his movements by an aerial drone, hoping he would lead the Americans to Zarqawi. Some news organizations also reported that American spooks had an informer inside Zarqawi's inner circle. It is hard to know for sure: American intelligence has been known to plant disinformation about spies and traitors in order to sow distrust among terrorist cells. U.S. intelligence officials, asking to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the matter, would say only that the Americans were able to piece together a mosaic from human sources, aerial reconnaissance and electronic intercepts.

Bureaucracy had slowed the hunt for Zarqawi in the past. This time, the special operators moved quickly. When they were sure that Zarqawi had arrived at the safe house in a palm grove outside the village of Hibhib, commanders ordered in a bombing attack. Apparently, little thought was given to trying to storm the safe house to take Zarqawi alive. "You have to ask yourself, is it worth putting American men and women's lives at risk to go into what was probably a heavily fortified and guarded thing, in order to grab him?" said Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, a senior military spokesman in Baghdad. A U.S. counterterror official, who asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, noted that this was the first chance the Americans had to bomb Zarqawi without causing a great deal of collateral damage, i.e., killing many innocent civilians, including women and children.

At about 6:15 on Wednesday night, two F-16 warplanes on routine patrol were given coordinates of the safe house and told a "high-value target" was inside. Since one of the planes was in the midst of midair re-fueling, both bombs were dropped by one plane. The devastation was complete. According to wire reports, a pair of thin foam mattresses were scattered across the rubble, along with a small carton of pineapple juice, with its straw intact. Little else was. (A neighbor claimed that Americans beat Zarqawi before he died.)

Almost immediately, special operators began raiding terrorist safe houses in Baghdad and the surrounding area, rolling up Zarqawi's allies and deputies. The men had been under observation while the hunt for Zarqawi went on; now the time had come to kill or capture them before they could strike again. The roundup was deemed a great success by military spokesmen.

Zarqawi, who was always extremely well financed, was smart enough to decentralize his operation, delegating to local "emirs" the authority to stage attacks without checking with him. Even with special operators rounding up some lieutenants, there may be operations already in the works that can't be cut off. Still, at least one Zarqawi expert is sanguine. Historian Amatzia Baram of Israel's University of Haifa says, "This is a feather in the cap of American intelligence. It has very little to do with drones. This is HUMINT [human intelligence]." When the Americans conquered Iraq, "American human intelligence was close to zero," says Baram. True, "terror organizations are not taken out with one blow; somebody takes their place." But Baram sees an opportunity to drive a wedge between Sunni tribal leaders and the remnants of Zarqawi's group. Even before Zarqawi was taken out, there was tension and even open fighting between them in the Sunni Triangle and along the Syrian border.

It is tempting to hope that if U.S. forces could finally catch and kill Zarqawi, they could do the same to Osama bin Laden and his chief henchman, Ayman Al-Zawahiri. American special operators are up in the mountains along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, still looking for the Qaeda masterminds. But culture and geography greatly favor bin Laden. "Look at the area Zarqawi was working in and look at the enormous area Afghanistan provides for bin Laden," says Nick Pratt, a retired Marine colonel who runs an antiterrorism program at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Germany. "And it's almost a three-dimensional problem because of the mountains." Zarqawi "was very much a publicity hound," says Pratt, while bin Laden is more careful about his audio and video releases. Bin Laden is surrounded by loyal villagers, some of whom are second-generation Qaeda fighters. "This is a very comfortable operating environment," says Pratt. "He has free rein wherever he goes."

But maybe American forces are slowly learning, over time and by trial and error. It was not so long ago that targeted assassinations were out of the question for U.S. Special Forces and intelligence agencies. A former Israeli official, speaking to NEWSWEEK anonymously for diplomatic reasons, recalled being called over to the Pentagon in October 2000, while he was stationed in Washington. The phone call came from Gen. John Abizaid, at the time the head of strategic policy and planning for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The American general told the Israeli official that the USS Cole, an American destroyer in Yemen, had just been hit, and that bin Laden was behind the attack. Abizaid asked what the Israelis would do. "General," the Israeli official says he replied, "you have to kill this guy." Abizaid, apparently mindful of an executive order banning assassinations, just shook his head. "No, no," he said, "We have a policy. We don't do that."

Those were the days.