There was a time not too long ago when two top terrorist organizations of the world—Al Qaeda and Daesh—were both headquartered in Pakistan. Al Qaeda even claimed the assassination of twice-prime minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007 through Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud, while terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s legacy lives on in the form of the Islamic State, or Daesh.
Al-Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. bombing in Iraq on June 8, 2006, with his terrorist outfit—the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant/Shaam (ISIS)—eventually mutating into “Islamic State” once it had captured parts of Syria and Iraq roughly a decade later. The historic Islamic term ‘Shaam’ in Daesh is the name given by Al Qaeda to Syria, which the Syrians don’t like because it means “left hand” and “shame.” They prefer to use the pagan term Suriya, based on the correct pronunciation of the Greek letter “y” in Syria.
Daesh is a Sunni terrorist organization that was linked to Al Qaeda prior to becoming an independent entity circa 2003 under the leadership of al-Zarqawi. After Zarqawi’s death, it was led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, also known as Caliph Ibrahim. Baghdadi was supposed to have gone to Afghanistan in the late 1990s with Zarqawi, a Jordanian street fighter who died with a $25 million on his head.
Advent in Afghanistan
Zarqawi went for jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s, establishing a training camp there to prepare guerrillas against Jordan. He was jailed for seven years in Amman on his return but was soon back in Afghanistan, training jihadists in Herat. He was also in Tora Bora with Osama bin Laden in 2001. He got injured in Kandahar during the American invasion and was evacuated through Iran by Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who had good contacts in Tehran.
The militant leader moved to Iraq after that, well in time to see Americans invade the country, and joined the Kurd-led jihadi militia Ansarul Islam, a then-recently revived terror group founded by Mullah Krekar, who lectured at the International Islamic University of Islamabad in the 1980s before joining the jihad in Peshawar.
Zarqawi traveled to Pakistan at 23 to find that the Soviet Union had already pulled out of neighboring Afghanistan. Undeterred, he began to frequent the inner circles of then-recently founded Al Qaeda. He lived in Hayatabad, Peshawar, and met such jihadi leaders as the Palestinian intellectual Abdullah Azzam at the Islamic University of Islamabad; Pashtun warlord Hekmatyar; and Tajik clerical leader Burhanuddin Rabbani. He also met, for the first time, another personality who had arrived there from Jordan: Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi.
Maqdisi was violent, targeting Western modernism, in particular its liberal democracy. Eighteen of his articles were found in the personal effects of Muhammad Atta, the leader of the Hamburg Cell, who attacked the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. He was also close to Abdullah Azzam, with the two seen sharing meals at restaurants in Islamabad. Maqdisi’s second close friend in Pakistan was Khaled Sheikh Muhammad, the man who planned the 9/11 strikes.
Zarqawi remained in Peshawar and Afghanistan till 1993. While working at a magazine—that had announced the founding of Al Qaeda under Azzam—run by Khaled Sheikh Muhammad’s brother in Peshawar, he got his three sisters married off to jihadists. During this time, Zarqawi also made his way to the Sada camp of Wahhabi Afghan warlord Abdur Rasul Sayyaf in Afghanistan was reportedly in the regular company of Ramzi Yousef, Al Qaeda’s first bomber, and Khaled Sheikh Muhammad.
In Hayatabad, Zarqawi was welcomed by the Pakistani Wafa Organization, later banned by the U.N., which provided Al Qaeda with funds and false passports for jihadists. Finally, many of the important Al Qaeda terrorists, including Khalfan Ghailani—the man who had planned the attack on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998—were arrested from Hayatabad in 2004.
Connected through marriage
One of Zarqawi’s sisters was already living in Peshawar after having wed a religious scholar. She was joined by Zarqawi’s mother, who came up to the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa capital to see her son in 1999 and stayed there for a month. Shortly thereafter, his wife and children also joined him. The year 1999 was marked by the international community becoming increasing impatient with Pakistan, reacting to the nearly 100,000 Pakistanis that had been trained in camps operated by Al Qaeda in Afghanistan from 1994 to 1999. Those years were also marked by many clerics of Pakistan sensing monetary and military advantage in aligning themselves with Osama bin Laden.
On Jordan’s request, Zarqawi was arrested in Pakistan and sent to jail. He was released after just a week despite remaining listed as a terrorist in his native Jordan. With an exit permit in hand, he left Peshawar for Karachi, then onto Kabul, where he would become a trainers of terrorists. In the Afghan capital, he was given a house and sent onto Herat as a trainer. Eventually, he called his family to join him, but not before he had married a young girl of 13 in Kabul after falling in love with her. Before his death in 2006, he was to marry another girl of 16 in Iraq.
Treated in Karachi
By 2000, Zarqawi had succeeded in becoming an important mid-level leader of Al Qaeda, with documents found in Jalalabad after 2001 referring to him. Later letters sent by Al Qaeda officials to Abu Qatada, the militants’ leader in the U.K., speak well of Zarqawi as a leader in charge of camps in Herat. Post-invasion, Zarqawi returned to the battlefield in Kandahar where he was wounded and sent to Karachi for treatment by two Al Qaeda Pakistani doctors who later fled to North Waziristan. Subsequently, he decided to fight the Americans in Iraq and made his way to Kurdistan through the tribal areas of Pakistan.
Ironically, Iran helped him pass through its territory on the request of Hekmatyar, unaware that he would give birth to the most effective Shia-killing machine in the annals of sectarian history. Iran’s favors also included safe haven for the son of Osama bin Laden, Saad, through the intercession of the same Hekmatyar. Zarqawi was in Iraq in 2001, two years before the Americans invaded it after then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s public statement about Saddam Hussain’s terrorist connection. Powell also named Zarqawi, wrongly, as a Palestinian terrorist. Zarqawi struck back in April 2004, when he captured and personally beheaded American hostage Nicholas Berg.
Blessing the ‘terrorist-martyr’
Leaning on the sectarian writings of the great 18th century Indian scholar Shah Abdul Aziz, Zarqawi killed Shias in Nasiriyeh, Baghdad and Karbala, culminating in his murder of 50 Iraqi National Guards at a training camp in Kirkuk. His most decisive act, which unleashed a sectarian war in Iraq, was the 2006 destruction of the tomb of Imam Askari in Samarra. Al Qaeda tried to ditch him but couldn’t because of the support and funding he was receiving from the Muslims of the U.K. His killing in an American bombing raid likely put pad to indications that Daesh was ready for reconciliation with Al Qaeda—despite years spent at odds—that would’ve seen al-Zawahiri taking a backseat to ISIS chief al-Baghdadi.
As reported in daily Jang on June 10, 2006, Jamaatud Dawa—whose Hafiz Saeed is currently in jail thanks to conditions imposed by the Financial Action Task Force—carried out funeral prayers in absentia for Zarqawi in Lahore and condemned the Foreign Office for saying his killing was an achievement in the war against terrorism. The congregation that blessed Zarqawi reportedly kept weeping loudly for the great ‘shaheed,’ whose death was even discussed in the National Assembly, where clerical alliance MMA demanded fateha prayers but were denied by the then-speaker.
Noted in history
In its July/August 2006 issue, The Atlantic noted Zarqawi as follows: “He was from Saudi Arabia and had just turned 13. He was seen in the crowd at a recruiting center near the Syrian-Iraqi frontier. People would come and register in the morning, then cross the border in the afternoon by bus. He was seen at the registration desk. The recruiters refused to take him because he was so young, and he started to cry. He then sneaked aboard the bus. When they discovered him, he started to shout Allahu Akhbar!—God is most great! They carried him off. He had $12,000 in his pocket—expense money his family had given him before he set off. ‘Take it all,’ he pleaded. ‘Please, just let me do jihad.’
“Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, barely 40 and barely literate, a Bedouin from the Bani Hassan tribe, was until recently almost unknown outside his native Jordan. Then, on Feb. 5, 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell catapulted him onto the world stage. In his address to the United Nations making the case for war in Iraq, Powell identified al-Zarqawi—mistakenly, as it turned out—as the crucial link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s regime. Subsequently, al-Zarqawi became a leading figure in the insurgency in Iraq—he also brought his jihadist revolution back home, as the architect of three lethal hotel bombings in Amman. His notoriety grew with every atrocity he perpetrated, yet Western and Middle Eastern intelligence officials remained bedeviled by a simple question: Who was he?”