Face Of Terror

How Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi transformed the Iraq insurgency into a holy war and became America's newest nightmare

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    When al-Zarqawi was released in 1999, he returned to Afghanistan. There he is believed to have met bin Laden and set up an al-Qaeda--allied training camp in the western city of Herat. While bin Laden was willing to tolerate Muslims who didn't share his extremism, al-Zarqawi viewed moderate Muslims as enemies of the faith. But he also proved to be a valuable asset for al-Qaeda, a tireless networker with a particular interest in attaining weapons of mass destruction. To al-Zarqawi, the U.S. invasion of Iraq presented the ideal conditions for waging jihad, as well as his chance to make up for missing the Afghan war in the 1980s. He spent the months leading up to the war moving through Iran and northern Iraq, where he attached himself to the Kurdish Islamist group Ansar al-Islam. A confidential al-Tawhid document obtained by TIME describes a fighter killed in Fallujah last April as having joined al-Zarqawi in Baghdad "just before the fall of the previous regime"--a claim that backs up the Bush Administration's disputed assertions that al-Zarqawi passed through the Iraqi capital while Saddam Hussein was in power.

    Al-Zarqawi has built his network in Iraq by exploiting the furies unleashed by the fall of Saddam. Insurgents familiar with the inner workings of the al-Zarqawi network say he is less a military commander than a mafioso godfather, maintaining control over the flow of money from gulf states and Islamic charities and using it to influence the activities of the insurgent groups that make up his network. He imposes discipline through an unsparing code of loyalty: those whose devotion wavers are executed before they have the chance to desert. "There are only two ways to leave that organization," says a midranking Iraqi insurgent leader. "You die in battle, or they kill you." This insurgent says he considered merging his group's operations with al-Tawhid, but reconsidered after meeting al-Zarqawi's top aides. "It's as though they're from another planet," he says. "You don't know what they're thinking one minute to the next."

    The excesses of the al-Zarqawi--led jihadists--in particular, their indiscriminate targeting of Shi'ite civilians--have alienated nationalist groups that condemn attacks on innocents. In recent statements, al-Zarqawi has expressed frustration at the failure of his supposed Sunni allies to stop the U.S. onslaught into Fallujah. In a letter to bin Laden intercepted by U.S. intelligence in January, al-Zarqawi writes that if he should fail in his effort to defeat democracy in Iraq, he and his followers will "pack our bags and search for another land, as is the sad, recurrent story in the arenas of jihad." The sentiment is echoed in a tape of a "seminar" for jihadist recruits given to TIME, in which he refers repeatedly to Iraq's place in a larger quest to restore Muslim pride. "It is shameful," he says, "to see shame on us."

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