By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
Published: July 13, 2004
AMMAN, Jordan, July 10 - Ten years ago, fellow inmates remember, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi emerged as the tough-guy captain of his cellblock. In the brutish dynamic of prison life, that meant doling out chores.
"He'd say, 'You bring the food; you clean the floor,' " recalled Khalid Abu Doma, who was jailed with Mr. Zarqawi for plotting against the Jordanian government. "He didn't have great ideas. But people listened to him because they feared him."
According to American officials, Mr. Zarqawi has come a long way from his bullying cellblock days and is now the biggest terrorist threat in Iraq, accused of orchestrating guerrilla attacks, suicide bombings, kidnappings and beheadings. [On Sunday he claimed responsibility for a mortar barrage in Samarra last Thursday that killed five American soldiers and one Iraqi soldier.]
American views of Mr. Zarqawi's relationship to Al Qaeda have varied. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has described him as a Qaeda operative, but a senior American military official said recently that sources now indicated that Mr. Zarqawi was "a separate jihadist.''
He remains a singular target: American forces are stepping up airstrikes on buildings they believe to be his safe houses in Falluja and have raised the bounty on him to $25 million, the figure offered for Osama bin Laden.
For all that, Mr. Zarqawi remains a phantom, with little known about his whereabouts or his operations.
In Jordan, where he stamped strong impressions on people as he climbed the ladder of outlaw groups, friends and associates described the making of a militant. They say he grew up in rough-and-tumble circumstances and adopted religion with the same intensity he showed for drinking and fighting, though he became far less a revolutionary mastermind than a dull-witted hothead with gruff charisma.
These people, who knew Mr. Zarqawi until he disappeared into the terrorist murk of Afghanistan four years ago, acknowledge that he may have changed. But they say that while the man they knew could be capable of great brutality, they have a hard time imagining him as the guiding light of an Iraqi insurgency.
"When we would write bad things about him in our prison magazine, he would attack us with his fists," said Yousef Rababa, who was imprisoned with Mr. Zarqawi for militant activity. "That's all he could do. He's not like bin Laden with ideas and vision. He had no vision."
Mr. Zarqawi, thought to be 37, grew up fast and hard in Zarqa, a crime-ridden industrial city north of Amman known as Jordan's Detroit.
From his two-story concrete-block house, he looked out on hills dotted with smokestacks. He came from a poor family and has seven sisters and two brothers. His father was a traditional healer. His mother struggled with leukemia. His birth name was Ahmed Fadeel al-Khalayleh.
Childhood friends say he was much like any other boy, chasing soccer balls through gravely streets, doing average work in school, not going to the mosque much. But he liked to fight. "He was not so big, but he was bold," said a cousin, Muhammad al-Zawahra.
At 17, family members say, he dropped out of school. Friends said he had started drinking heavily and getting tattoos, both discouraged under Islam. According to Jordanian intelligence reports provided to The Associated Press in Amman, Mr. Zarqawi was jailed in the 1980's for sexual assault, though no additional details were available.
By the time he cleared 20 he was adrift, his family said, and like other young Arab men looking for a cause, he looked northeast, to Afghanistan.
Saleh al-Hami, Mr. Zarqawi's brother-in-law - who, like many former guerrillas who fought in Afghanistan, has a long black beard and a plastic leg - said Mr. Zarqawi arrived in Khost, in eastern Afghanistan, in the spring of 1989 to join the jihad, or holy war, against the Russians. But he got there a little late. The Russians had just pulled out. So instead of picking up a gun, Mr. Zarqawi picked up a pen.
He became a reporter for a small jihadist magazine, Al Bonian al Marsous, whose name means "The Strong Wall.'' He was 22, with a medium build and shiny black eyes, and roamed the countryside interviewing Arab fighters about the glorious battles he had missed.
Mr. Hami was convalescing in a hospital after he stepped on a land mine when he met Mr. Zarqawi. The two grew close, and he later married Mr. Zarqawi's younger sister.
One night while they were camping in a cave, he recalled, Mr. Zarqawi shared a special dream. He said he had seen a vision of a sword falling from the sky. "Jihad" was written on its blade.
Mr. Zarqawi returned to Zarqa in 1992 and fell in with a militant Islamic group, Bayaat al Imam, or Loyalty to the Imam. He was arrested in 1993 after the Jordanian authorities discovered assault rifles and bombs stashed in his house.
His lawyer said Mr. Zarqawi lamely told investigators that he had found the weapons while walking down the street. "He never struck me as intelligent," said the lawyer, Mohammed al-Dweik.
Mr. Zarqawi was sent to Swaqa prison, on the desert's edge. He was housed with other political prisoners in a large room with iron bunk beds. Cellmates said Mr. Zarqawi turned his bunk into a cave, covering each side with blankets. He sat for hours bent over a Koran, trying to memorize all 6,236 verses.
Friends said this was typical. When he was a drinker, they said, he was an extreme drinker. When he was violent, he was extremely violent.
He strutted around in Afghan dress and a woolly Afghan hat and lived and breathed old Afghan battles. "Back then, he liked Americans," Mr. Abu Doma said. "Abu Musab used to say they were Christian and they were believers."
The Russians were his No. 1 enemy, but this, like many other beliefs, would change behind bars. In the wing where Mr. Zarqawi lived, ideologies scraped up against one other. But cellmates said he shied away from politics. Instead, he pumped iron. Cellmates remember his barbells, made from pieces of bed frame and olive oil tins filled with rocks.
As the years passed, Mr. Zarqawi's arms and chest grew - and so did his role. He mapped out shifts for cleaning, bringing meals to cells and visiting the doctor. He did not talk much. When asked to describe him during this period, almost everyone interviewed began with the word "jad," which means serious.
His firmness was his attraction, fellow inmates said, his remoteness his power. By 1998, when a prison doctor, Basil Abu Sabha, met him, Mr. Zarqawi was clearly in charge.
"He could order his followers to do things just by moving his eyes," Dr. Abu Sabha said.
His religious views became increasingly severe. They had been marinating in a stew of militant beliefs served up by the imams and sheiks in the iron bunks next to him. He lashed out at cellmates if they read anything but the Koran.
Mr. Abu Doma said he got a threatening note for reading "Crime and Punishment."
"He spelled Dostoyevsky 'Doseefski,' Mr. Abu Doma said, laughing. "The note was full of bad Arabic, like a child wrote it."
Fellow inmates said that around that time, 1998, just as Al Qaeda was emerging as a serious threat blamed for the two bombings of United States Embassies in Africa, Mr. Zarqawi started talking about killing Americans.
In March 1999, Mr. Zarqawi was released under an amnesty for political prisoners. His associates said they expected him to return to jail.
"Because of his views, there was no place for him in Jordan," said Mr. Rababa, explaining that the country, tempered and mostly secular, was no place for an extremist. As for himself, Mr. Rababa said he had found a place in Jordan because his views had matured.
But for Mr. Zarqawi, Mr. Rababa said, "everyone was the enemy."
Mr. Zarqawi also had hopes for a normal life, according to Mr. Hami, who said he had at least two children and had thought of buying a pickup truck and opening a vegetable stand.
"You could tell he was confused," Mr. Hami said.
In early 2000, Mr. Zarqawi went to Peshawar, Pakistan, at the Afghan border. It was a deeply religious city, which made it attractive to him. He even took his aging mother.
But at the doorstep to jihad, he hesitated.
"He said it was Muslims fighting Muslims in Afghanistan and he didn't believe in the cause," Mr. Hami said. "And he liked the air in Peshawar and thought it was a good place for his mother."
Mr. Zarqawi's family said he was especially close to her, kissing her forehead every time he walked in the door.
While he was deciding what to do, his Pakistani visa expired. Around the same time, Jordan declared Mr. Zarqawi a suspect in a foiled terror plot against a Christian pilgrimage site.
"At that point, he had nowhere else to go," Mr. Hami said.
In June 2000, Mr. Hami said, Mr. Zarqawi crossed into Afghanistan, alone. His mother died of leukemia in February of this year at age 62. Mr. Hami said her last wish was for her son to be killed in battle, not captured.
American intelligence officials said Mr. Zarqawi opened a weapons camp connected to Al Qaeda in late 2000 in western Afghanistan. There he took up his nom de guerre, with Zarqawi a reference to his hometown of Zarqa.
United States officials said he was wounded in a missile strike after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks when American forces went after the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Intelligence officials say he then left Afghanistan, where he had taken a second wife, and made his way to a corner of northern Iraq controlled by a Kurdish separatist Islamic group called Ansar al-Islam.
The next sighting of Mr. Zarqawi was on Sept. 9, 2002, when Jordanian agents said he illegally entered Jordan from Syria.
A month later Laurence Foley, a senior American diplomat, was fatally shot outside his home in Amman. Jordanian agents arrested three men who, the agents said, told them that they had been recruited, armed and paid by Mr. Zarqawi. He was sentenced to death in absentia.
On Feb. 5, 2003, Secretary of State Powell made his assertions about Mr. Zarqawi at the United Nations.
Mr. Powell stands by his statement, a spokesman said this month, even though other parts of that speech have been discredited and Mr. Powell mistakenly identified Mr. Zarqawi as Palestinian. He actually is of the Beni Hassan tribe, with roots deep in the Jordanian desert.
Other American information about Mr. Zarqawi has also been incorrect. At first it was said that he had a leg amputated during a Baghdad hospital visit, but now, a senior United States military official said in an e-mail message, "we believe Zarqawi has both legs, and reporting of the missing limb was disinformation."
At the beginning of the war in Iraq, Mr. Zarqawi and the Ansar fighters were driven out of the country. In August a car bomb blew up the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad, the first in a deadly wave of bombings. Mr. Zarqawi, because of his history as an anti-Jordan militant, was immediately a suspect.
In February, American officials in Baghdad released a 6,700-word letter - outlining a terror strategy to drag Iraq into civil war - that they said had been found on a CD from Mr. Zarqawi to Al Qaeda's leadership. But people who know Mr. Zarqawi wonder if he was the author. They said the lengthy political analysis, the references to seventh-century kings and embroidered phrases like "crafty and malicious scorpion" do not sound like him.
"The man was basically illiterate," Mr. Abu Doma said, though he acknowledged that a learned acolyte could be helping him.
Americans officials stand by their identification. They said the letter had been seized from a courier working for Mr. Zarqawi, who calls his group the Tawid and Jihad Movement.
The mystery remains. On May 11, a video appeared, titled "Sheik Abu Musab Zarqawi Slaughters an American Infidel." It showed the beheading of Nicholas Berg, the young Pennsylvania businessman. American officials believe that Mr. Zarqawi may have been the killer.
Back in Amman, there are questions. The killer on the video cuts with his right hand. While Mr. Hami said he thought Mr. Zarqawi was right-handed, Mr. Rababa and Mr. Abu Doma, who shared the same room with him for several years, insisted that he used his right hand only for eating and shaking hands.
Abdallah Abu Romman contributed reporting for this article.