Roots Al-Zarqawi is born Ahmed Fadil Nazal al Khalayleh in October 1966. His father is a minor municipal official in the Jordanian town of Zarqa. The family is well respected but poor.
Street Thug Dropping out of high school in the ninth grade, al-Zarqawi becomes a local bully, with a fondness for tattoos and no interest in religion. He is briefly jailed for drug possession and shoplifting.
Joining the Jihad In 1989 he leaves Jordan to join the Islamic holy war in Afghanistan. He arrives too late to fight the Soviet occupying forces but gets his first taste of the mujahedin lifestyle.
Unwelcome Home Returning to Jordan in 1993, al-Zarqawi helps set up an extremist Islamic group but is jailed for possession of explosives. In prison, he memorizes the Koran and immerses himself in an extremist brand of Islam known as Salafism.
Terror Base Released in a general amnesty in 1999, al-Zarqawi returns to Afghanistan and the jihad. He meets Osama bin Laden in 2000 but doesn’t join al-Qaeda. He runs a terrorist-training camp in western Afghanistan.
New Frontier After the fall of the Taliban, al-Zarqawi slips out through Iran to northern Iraq, linking up with local terrorism groups. He achieves global notoriety when Colin Powell names him in his February 2003 U.N. speech laying out the U.S.’s case for invading Iraq.
Blow by Blow In the summer of 2003, al-Zarqawi’s group, al-Tawhid wal-Jihad launches a deadly suicide-bombing campaign in Iraq, including attacks on the U.N. compound in Baghdad, killing 22, and the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, killing about 100.
Narrow Escape Al-Zarqawi personally decapitates U.S. contractor Nicholas Berg on videotape. In the fall of 2004, a massive U.S.-led operation in jihadi-infested Fallujah fails to nab al-Zarqawi. Some reports suggest he was wounded in the fighting and escaped to Iran.
Chief Spoiler In 2005, as an elected Iraqi government struggles to maintain stability, al-Zarqawi intensifies his bombing campaign, focusing on Shi‘ite targets, with a view to starting a civil war.
Ready for His Close-Up Amid reports of clashes between al-Zarqawi’s fighters and local insurgents, new images of al-Qaeda’s leader appear for the first time in years, in a videotape posted on the Internet last week. In it al-Zarqawi urges all Muslims to defend Islam from Western "crusaders."