The road to Zarqa from Amman runs for 15km through beige hills peppered with limestone quarries, past factories, military camps, a scrapyard for big yellow cabs and a KFC joint. Trucks, taxis and military Land Rovers speed up and down, leaving trails of dust and black smoke.
Like every other town in that part of Jordan, Zarqa is a place of filthy streets, traffic jams, donkey carts and grey breeze-block buildings. What makes it different, however, is its connection to one of the world’s most feared Islamic militants, because this is the home of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
In Zarqa’s streets, women hurry to and fro in different stages of hijab while young men in jeans stand on street corners. There are other men, too, in traditional Afghani shalwar kameez and prayer caps, who wear long bushy beards and wary looks. These are the salafis, followers of an austere interpretation of Islam, some of whom consider jihad as the only way to achieve the puritanical society they wish for. They know they are being monitored by the secret police. When they see each other they nod, say “alsalam aleikum’’ in a low voice and keep moving.
“These are not good times; another brother was taken yesterday,’’ says a frail young man. “I am monitored. See the people selling coffee over there? They are mukhabarat [secret police].’‘
This man, still in his early 20s, was a veteran of the Jund al-Sham jihadi camp in Afghanistan, where in 2000 he joined al-Zarqawi. They stayed together for two years, later meeting in Iraq for a few months. He is not unusual in Zarqa. This town is filled with al-Zarqawi’s disciples and acquaintances.
Al-Zarqawi’s life story is shrouded in myth and propaganda. The Jordanians and Americans portray him as a lunatic who grew up among gangs, guns and drugs. His followers say he is a prophet, a young man who took on the task of enforcing the will of God. According to family members, he fits neither of these descriptions.
He was born in 1967, has seven sisters and two brothers, and there was little unusual about his upbringing. A cousin of al-Zarqawi narrows his eyes as he thinks back, then says he was like all the kids in the street: high-tempered and thuggish.
Mukhlf al-Zayoudi, another cousin of al-Zarqawi, explained how the tribe perceives him: “He represents a superhero for the tribe in a time when heroism has disappeared. He is a source of pride and honour. They are proud they produced this historical hero, the saviour. We wish we had 10 Zarqawis.’‘
One of the people who knew al- Zarqawi in the early days is Abu al-Muntasser, a big, 42-year-old Palestinian with a grizzly beard and a keffiyeh wrapped around his head like a turban. In 1988 he went to Pakistan to fight alongside the mujahideen against the Russians and found his way to Sada camp for Arab Afghans, returning to Jordan on the eve of the 1991 Gulf War. There, most of the popu-lation sympathised with Iraq, and al-Muntasser found the atmosphere ripe for spreading the radical Islam he was familiar with from Afghanistan.
The Jordanians cracked down on the jihadi groups, and in 1992 al-Muntasser was keeping a low profile in his house when two guests arrived. They sat in the small room that doubles as a prayer room, and discussed Islam and the plight of Muslims around the world.
One of the guests was a stocky 25-year-old Jordanian who had just spent three years touring the jihadi camps in Afghanistan. He sat listening attentively and said nothing. The next day he returned, and sat on the floor.
Al-Zarqawi was more talkative on his second visit, says al-Muntasser, and was filled with enthusiasm. He asked al-Muntasser to join an Islamic militant group, drawn from the ranks of the veterans of the Afghan jihad, that would work to establish an Islamic nation and start the jihad against the “Zionists and the American imperialists’‘, but their first enemy would not be the United States or the West but Arab governments like that of Jordan, perceived as an agent to Israel and the Americans.
Al-Muntasser accepted al-Zarqawi’s offer and joined the group, called Baya’t el-Imam, or Allegiance to the Imam. “He was enthusiastic and wanted to work fast. I urged him to slow down, to concentrate more on establishing a group that focuses on preaching as we had no power and no weapons.’‘
According to al-Muntasser, a hastily planned operation by al-Zarqawi, which involved sending a man with hand grenades to attack Israeli targets, led to the Jordanian government uncovering the group. Al-Muntasser went into hiding and was later joined by al-Zarqawi and his family. For three months they shared a two-room house. “We had to share the little food we had, we spent the days reading the Qur’an and praying ... We lived just like the prophet and his companions.’‘
Al-Muntasser describes al-Zarqawi as a quiet man with extreme views. “He was more extreme than [Osama] bin Laden. He used to say that Bin Laden was too tolerant and despised the Taliban for its efforts to join the UN. He said the UN is a council of kafirs [unbeleivers]; why should the Muslims join?’‘
After three months, the men were arrested and sentenced by a Jordanian security court. Al-Zarqawi spent seven years in prison until his release by a royal pardon in 1999.
Abdullah Abu Roman, a Jordanian secular journalist, went to the same prison for insulting the king. He remembers the group of militants. “In prison [al-Zarqawi] was given responsibility for organising the group and leading it. They were a small group of around 30 men—some of them were ordinary criminals who converted. In the beginning they were a loose organisation, but al-Zarqawi managed to control it in a professional way.’‘
According to Roman and al-Muntasser, al-Zarqawi imposed on his comrades a strict order of reading the Qur’an and daily fitness training. “They all started wearing the shalwar kameez like him, you could see that he was building a charisma for himself and his group,’’ says Roman.
Al-Zarqawi was released a few years later and travelled in Afghanistan, where he met with Muhammad al-Bahray, a Yemeni who was Bin Laden’s chief bodyguard in Afghanistan. He established his own training camp with the aim of toppling Arab governments. “From the beginning ... he wanted to train Jordanians and Syrians and use them to topple these governments. He disagreed with the al-Qaeda strategy and Bin Laden, and insisted that they should start fighting the closer enemy.’‘
In a Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Amman, I sat with another jihadi who had just returned from Iraq. Abu Hanin described how he once went with al-Zarqawi to see insurgents in Anbar province in the insurgent west of Iraq.
“He left a big impact on them. His words would stay hanging in the air even after he left. He was like the prophet when he went to people and talked to them ... He speaks with authority and wisdom.’‘
He added: “When I first met him, I didn’t think that this would be a man who would change history. He says things you and I can say, but he moves people. He captures their hearts.’’—Â