by Loretta Napoloeoni
Seven Stories Press, New York, 2005

by Chesley Hicks

Published before Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s death, Insurgent Iraq, by Italian scholar-author Loretta Napoleoni, is an information-heavy treatise that traces the path that the iconic Islamic militant took from his childhood slum of Zarqa, Jordan, through a dense and evolving web of Muslim militancy and Middle Eastern politics, to modern-day occupied Iraq. Following al Zarqawi’s singular transformation from petty criminal to larger-than-life terrorist leader, Napoleoni demonstrates the broad ways that myth, as spun in both the East and West to suit religious ideologies and political agendas, has overwritten history to create a new, convoluted global reality.

Napoleoni’s unraveling of the myth begins in Zarqa, where al-Zarqawi was born Ahmad Fadel al-Khalayash, in 1966, to a family of Bedouin heritage. He was raised with little education in a ghetto that the author describes as being caught in a discordant clash between traditional, tribal values and rapidly developing Arab-Western consumerism. This was during the years when Jordan accepted a huge influx of Palestinian refugees from the Israeli conflict, creating a friction that, Napoleoni says, arose from the “speed with which the Palestinian diaspora tore into the Bedouin way of life.”

Against details of the larger geo-political shifts happening at the time, Napoleoni traces Zarqawi’s course as a discontent teenager; he drops out of school, joins a gang, and is imprisoned for minor crimes.

Prisons in the Middle East, Napoleoni describes, turn an already restless underclass into a captive audience that is ripe for indoctrination. “In Zarqa, as across the Arab world,” she writes, “the networks of petty crime and of revolutionary Islam constantly criss-crossed, especially in prison; both existed on the margins of Arab society, constituting a web of illegality.”

In the 1970s, the mounting Islamic rebellion questioned the legitimacy of the region’s Arab regimes. Religious leaders challenged ruling authorities, loaning general criminality against the state a religious-political dimension. “The illegitimacy of the Arab state blurred the boundaries between crime and insurrection,” Napoleoni writes.

When al-Zarqawi first entered prison he was not politicized. But in prisons, malcontents found shared purpose with political dissidents. Throughout the book, Napoleoni offers many examples of Islamist leaders who used prison time to hone their focus, study, write tomes, and issue edicts. Over the course of his various incarcerations, prison radicalized al Zarqawi and set him in pursuit of jihad as he romantically envisioned it during the early days of the Mujahedeen-Soviet war.

During his lifetime journey from Jordan to Iraq, al-Zarqawi underwent several transformations, each reflecting the times. The author describes how most Muslims grow up amid violence, a condition perpetuated by the failure of local governments, entrenched corruption, and war. In the beginning, al-Zarqawi found a religious focus for his youthful alienation and angst, but as the geopolitical backdrop changed, his religious focus adopted more political tones. He changed his name several times: from his birth name to “The Stranger”, to Abu Muhammad al Gharib, and, finally, to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. During this conversion, Zarqawi longed to join the Afghan Mujahedeen, but never made it. But he became, along with the Islam he was immersed in, ever more politicized.

Eventually Zarqawi made it to Afghanistan, but, as Napoleoni writes, “Once again, al Gharib [the named he’d taken at the time] missed the opportunity to become a warrior.” He wanted to join the Mujahedeen, but by the time he reached Afghanistan, the Soviets were long gone and battle was Muslims fighting Muslims—the Taliban versus the Northern Alliance—which was very different from fighting the Soviets, an infidel invader. Nonetheless, he offered his services to the Taliban and established training camps.

By this point, according to Naopleoni, Zarqawi had became a charismatic but small-time leader. He found fertile ground among Afghanistan’s discontent population, who were often just looking for a purpose in a repressed, violent environment. This is a familiar refrain in the book: relationships of convoluted convenience, whereby belligerents find new, nearby enemies to fight, and ideologues find new allies within nearby lost populations to convert.

Eventually Zarqawi’s parochial vision of jihad encountered the global battle against the West, which was taking figurehead shape in Osama bin Laden.

Napoleoni says that al Zarqawi was, at first, not interested in pursuing al Qaeda’s global jihad. “The nature of the modern jihad appears ambiguous. Is it a counter-Crusade, an anticolonial fight, or a revolution?” she writes. “This dilemma of definition is at the heart of modern Islam and at the core of the ideological differences that characterized the relationship between Osama bin Laden and Abu Mo’sab al Zarqawi.” Zarqawi’s interests lay largely with confronting local Muslim leadership to protect Islam. But in his pursuit of this local and limited jihad, al-Zaqawi entered into an arena where the vagaries and vastly manipulated interpretation of jihad spread both deep and wide.

“From the outset, the dilemma of the Islamist insurgency is strategic. It boils down to the question of how to fight two enemies: one near and the other remote. The former is represented by the Muslim regimes, illegitimate because they originate from military coups or because they are takfir, corrupt, and repressive. The distant enemy is the West, which is represented in the Middle East by the state of Israel, the occupying power in Palestine and the holy sites. [T]oday the distant enemy includes Coalition forces in Iraq. Western countries are equally responsible for backing infidel Arab and Muslim regimes, such as Mubarak’s Egypt, the House of Saud, and democratic Iraq.”

Naopleoni writes that this dilemma plagued the jihadist movement until 2003, when the Coalition invasion merged both the domestic and international fronts in Iraq. Before that, the author portrays a wide rift existing between the privileged, upper-class, global attack machinations of bin Laden’s al Qaeda and Zarqawi’s more local-minded jihadist pursuit.

In the introduction to Insurgent Iraq, Napoleoni writes, “Islamist terrorism is a weak enemy. It can be defeated by the instruments of democracy. New technology makes it difficult to suppress its propaganda, but meaningful engagement with moderate Muslims and continued commitment to the rule of law will greatly degrade the appeal of the Islamist jihad among European [Muslim] youth. To depart from these methods is to threaten our greatest achievement: societies ruled by justice and freedom.” Taking her at her word, she believes in the creed and greater practice of Western democracy. She concludes her book on a similar, hopeful note. But, first, she outlines just how badly things can go wrong with the system.

Colin Powell’s speech on February 5, 2003 changed things for al-Zarqawi. “Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network,” Napoleni quotes Powell, “headed by Abu Mos’ab al Zarqawi, an associate collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al Queda lieutenant.” Powell portrayed Zarqawi as the go-between linking Saddam and Osama, and also linked him to a supposed ricin terrorist plot in England. Napoleoni writes that all these claims have been pretty decisively disproven.

This is a central point in Insurgent Iraq. According to Napoleoni, prior to Powell’s proclamation, Zarqawi had been a minor force in Middle Eastern dissent. But in seeking a new demon to further justify its plan to attack Iraq, the Bush administration conjured a fulcrum for connecting Iraq to terrorism, and alighted upon Zarqawi. The media attention subsequently paid him gave al-Zarqawi more clout than he’d ever had.

And as al-Zarqawi really did find his way into Iraq, the Western-conjured grandeur around him provided a rallying point that galvanized legions searching for a leader. Even though he wasn’t yet an al-Qaeda chief, this attention, Napoleoni writes, “helped keep al Queda in the limelight.”

Zarqawi and bin Laden maybe did or maybe did not meet, but Zarqawi in any case harnessed the mantle of al-Qaeda’s leader in Iraq—despite the fact that his original agenda had so greatly differed from al-Qaeda’s.

In ghettos roiling with neglect and lawless discontent, any predisposition toward secularism broke down in post-shock-and-awe Iraq. Napoleoni offers a solid synthesis of just how, just as the democratic-leaning Shi’ite majority lost its faith in the Coalition, al-Zarqawi and his imported jihadists played a pivotal role in keeping Iraq’s Sunnis from uniting with the Shi’ites in a national front against the occupation.

This is where Zaqarwi, with the help of the American myth-making machine, achieved his real power. Maintaining localized fundamentalism as his core aim, Zarqawi’s fear was that “the jihadists would be cut out [of the Iraq insurgency] because they were foreigners and the insurgency would become secular.” So he fervently endeavored to prevent Sunni-Shi’ite unity. According to history so far, he succeeded.

Writes Napoleoni: “Thus the myth of al Zarqawi could mark the future of Iraq. Even if he is caught and killed. The insurgency will not stop. On the contrary, his capture or death would enlarge his myth and strengthen his legacy.”

Napoleoni is a scholar not an investigative, frontline journalist. Her assertions in Insurgent Iraq are based more on second-hand info, quotes, and sometimes conjecture. But given the outcomes as we now know them, these assertions are convincing.

Readers will occasionally get lost in the author’s assertions. Napoleoni sometimes attributes quotes to sources who have not been identified beyond name, and certain arguments—particularly where she tries to proffer evidence of the early Zarqawi’s non-terrorist nature—fall into a void. But with its lengthy appendix, including extensive sourcing, glossary, chronology, and brisk wording, Insurgent Iraq is an excellent and prescient resource.

“The more the United states demonize him, the more he is singled out as the supervillain of terror,” Napoleoni writes, “the more the media broadcast that he has been arrested or cornered by Coalition forces, is injured or even dead, the greater his supernatural myth grows. He is the Arab Zorro…”

She describes the current Iraq insurgency as a Hydra with new heads at the ready. Indeed, following the recent slaying of al Zarqawi, CNN reported that “US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice authorized up to a $5 million reward Friday for information leading to the capture of Abu Ayyub al-Masri, believed to be the replacement for the late leader of al Qaeda in Iraq—Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.”

In chapter seven, illustrating the hyperbole growing around the myth of al Zarqawi, Napoleoni writes, “As the myth took shape, the life of the man faded into its own legend. He was a chemical engineer, an expert on explosives, a legendary mujahed, a close associate of Osama bin Laden. He lost a leg in battle defending al Queda from US raids, he had been operating in Iraq under the protection of Saddam, and at the same time he had been seen in the Pankisi gorge… It is unreasonable to believe that al Zarqawi had the time or means to build such a global network, or to travel to so many places, whether with one leg or two.”

In its July 3-10, 2006 issue, Newsweek magazine reported: “If you hoped his June 7 death might be the end of the line for Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, you really don’t want to see the newest recruitment videos for the Taliban. Although they never mention the Jordanian-born terrorist by name, the echoes of his Internet videos—and his sheer viciousness—are unmistakable and chilling. The star is Mullah Dadullah Akhund, a one-legged guerrilla commander in southern Afghanistan who now seems bent on matching or exceeding Zarqawi’s ugly reputation.”

The very same article goes on to say that “US commanders downplay the importance of individual enemy leaders. They say the way to win the war is to focus on the big picture, not on personalities.”

Has the government learned from its mistakes, even as the media carry on with the myth-making?

So begins another gruesome chapter…


From our weblog:

“Abu Ayyub al-Masri: kinder, gentler jihad?” June 17, 2006


Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, July 1, 2006

Reprinting permissible with attribution