What a loser. At 17, he dropped out of high school in the small industrial city of Zarqa in Jordan. One of 10 children of a Bedouin herbal healer, he quickly developed a reputation as a drunk and a rabble-rouser. By one account, he was jailed for sexual assault, and took up the ideology of jihad in prison. After his release, he drifted for a while and then went to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets. But by the time he got there, the war was over. So he got a job in Afghanistan with a small jihadist newspaper, even though he was nearly illiterate, writing in a child's scrawl. Back in his homeland, his first terrorist operation, in 1993, was an utter failure, and he and his confederates were jailed until 1999. He was freed in an amnesty. Then he returned to Afghanistan, but was apparently rejected by Al Qaeda, instead running his own training camp in Herat. "He had no learning," says a former Jordanian intelligence officer. "He was a thug." Yet today, at 37, Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi has managed to become the most wanted man in Iraq.
What Zarqawi lacks in pedigree, he has made up for in brutality. He has personally beheaded at least two Americans, and his group, Tawhid and Jihad, has killed dozens of other hostages. Zarqawi's group has assassinated Iraqi officials, blown up hundreds of Iraqi pilgrims and claimed responsibility for the bombing that drove the United Nations out of Iraq. Using mostly foreign fighters, Zarqawi can be blamed for only a small percentage of the many daily attacks on Iraqi and American forces, but his operations have been far more spectacular than most. With an apparently inexhaustible supply of suicide bombers, Zarqawi has become far more effective than even Osama bin Laden. And the price on his head, $25 million, is the same.
U.S. officials believe Zarqawi uses the rebellious city of Fallujah as a principal base, and Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi has issued an ultimatum to Fallujah to turn him in or face a full-scale invasion. In April, a halfhearted assault cost the lives of 60 U.S. Marines and up to 600 Fallujans, before the fighting ended in a compromise that left insurgents in control of the city. This time, American forces are threatening to go all the way, and the past two months have seen at least 18 airstrikes against what the U.S. military says are Zarqawi safe houses in the city (residents claim many of the victims have been women and children). It's a measure of how far Zarqawi has risen in the terrorist pantheon that during the same period, American forces didn't launch a single airstrike against Qaeda or Taliban forces in Afghanistan.
Before the war in Iraq, U.S. officials touted Zarqawi as evidence of a link between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Washington claimed Zarqawi had been treated in a Baghdad hospital after losing a leg in a U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan. But that is now dubbed "disinformation" by U.S. intelligence officials, who say he actually has both legs. And the available evidence is that as recently as last winter, Zarqawi had only tenuous connections to Osama bin Laden. In a letter Zarqawi wrote to the Qaeda leader at the time--acquired from a captured courier--he practically begged for bin Laden's patronage. He said his Iraq campaign was going badly, "our backs to the sea, the enemy before us." The letter, which U.S. intelligence regards as genuine, ended on a note of humility: "We do not see ourselves as fit to challenge you," Zarqawi wrote, asking for an opportunity "to work under your banner, comply with your orders."
Zarqawi soon discovered he had a lot going for him that Osama bin Laden does not: a target-rich environment, relative freedom of movement and ready access to the mass media. On Friday, a kidnapped British-Iraqi CARE worker became the latest Western victim forced to beg for her life: "Please help me, please help me," pleaded Margaret Hassan, "these may be my last hours." In at least two earlier videotapes posted on the group's Web site, a hooded man whose voice is confirmed to be Zarqawi's personally cuts off the struggling victim's head.
Some 25 different groups have claimed to be fighting the Americans in Iraq. Loosely organized in small cells, few have the bomb-making and organizational expertise that Zarqawi's group has. Western and Arab intelligence agencies estimate that Zarqawi's hard-core followers number only a couple of hundred, but his support seems to be broadening among disaffected young Sunnis. Paul Eedle, a leading British expert on modern Islamist propaganda, calls Zarqawi's Web-based media campaign "brand-building," and believes it's working. "It's impossible to overstate what a kind of mythical figure this guy has become," says Eedle.
Still, there have been signs that Zarqawi's savagery is alienating rival insurgents. "The others are fed up with Zarqawi," says an Iraqi official. "He's getting all the publicity, and their own cause has been obscured by his fanatic cause." One well-connected jihadi source who has known Zarqawi in the past told NEWSWEEK the friction erupted in a gun battle between Iraqi and foreign resistance fighters on Oct. 16 in Fallujah. The Iraqi insurgents "are not fighting an international battle like Zarqawi," said the source. "Most of the operations which have gone off successfully--really hurt the Americans--he was behind [them]... The resistance really needed, and still need him."
The Coalition appears determined to invade Fallujah, if not before the U.S. election, probably not long after it. But Fallujah is hardly the only place Zarqawi might hide. "What if you go into Fallujah and you don't find him?" said a source with close ties to Jordanian intelligence. "They will just destroy the place and kill a lot of people. The worst result will be if they then have to come out and say, 'We didn't find Zarqawi'."
That will put Zarqawi just where he most wants to be, on a par with Osama bin La-den. On Oct. 17, Zarqawi's Web site issued a second message to the Qaeda leader. "We announce that Taw-hid and Jihad, its prince and its soldiers, have pledged allegiance to the leader of the mujahedin, Osama bin Laden." But the communique lacked the obsequious tone of his first one. Al Qaeda, it said, now "understands and encourages" Zarqawi's strategy in Iraq, "and we are happy about that." Their "prince," once just a brutal, small-town thug, believes he has arrived.