(2 of 4)
Al-Zarqawi has shaped the Iraqi insurgency into the war he felt the Muslim world needed, elevating it from a ragtag nationalist movement into a holy war fought with the methods of the true believer. U.S. troops combing through ruins after their assault on Fallujah in November discovered evidence of the jihadists' ghoulish designs: safe houses littered with bombmaking materials, bloodied knives and cages in which the group's prisoners were held before they were executed.
While his notoriety grows with each atrocity, al-Zarqawi remains an enigma. Unlike bin Laden, he has never granted an interview to Western journalists or appeared in public. In the May videotape in which he personally carried out the beheading of American Nick Berg, al-Zarqawi's face is hidden behind a black mask. "The stories about him are almost like he's a ghost," says a U.S. general in Iraq. Military commanders believe al-Zarqawi made Fallujah a base of operations, but associates say he and his aides fled long before the U.S. moved on the city. He may have relocated to Mosul or Baghdad, or slipped out of the country. The few who claim to have met him say al-Zarqawi projects an air of humility, casting himself as a reluctant leader thrust into the spotlight by events. On an al-Tawhid website, a man named Maysarra al-Gharib who belongs to the group's religious council gives an account of a conversation with al-Zarqawi in which the leader spoke of his celebrity. "I am not a hero," al-Gharib quotes al-Zarqawi as saying. "But I have to show up."
Al-Zarqawi was not born into privilege. He grew up in Zarqa, Jordan, a bleak factory town that is home to several Palestinian refugee camps and the country's major breweries. By some accounts, al-Zarqawi was a thug and boozer, a high school dropout who liked getting into scrapes. In the late 1980s, he joined a mosque that introduced him to Salafism, a stringent brand of Islam that exhorts followers to model their behavior after the life of the Prophet Mohammed. He soon headed to Afghanistan but arrived too late to taste combat in the jihad against the Soviets. "I wish I would have been killed in Khost in Afghanistan in 1990," he told al-Gharib, according to the account posted on the website. "My heart was more tender and my soul was purer than now."
In 1994, after returning to Jordan, al-Zarqawi was arrested for possessing explosives, which he purportedly intended to smuggle into the West Bank. In prison he devoted himself to memorizing the Koran and became the leader of his cellblock of 20 political prisoners. "They were all bearded, they all wore the same Afghan clothes and shared the same thinking," says Youssef Rababa'a, 35, who spent three years in various Jordanian prisons with al-Zarqawi. "He stayed in the background, but the members of the group would do nothing without his approval." Al-Zarqawi railed against Jordan's secular rulers, plotting their overthrow. His gang recruited jailmates to join their struggle and denounced those who didn't as un-Muslim. "Either you were with them or you were an enemy," says Rababa'a. "There was no gray area."