Zarqawi and His Role Model

By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Richard Miniter
Weekly Standard Online
June 9, 2006

The lessons of two parallel jihadist lives.

HISTORY NEVER REPEATS ITSELF precisely, but it often rhymes. Coalition forces killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in a safe house just outside Baghdad. More than 800 years earlier, the life of Zarqawi’s role model, Nur ad-Din Zanki (1118-1174), came to an end in Damascus, another power center of the ancient Islamic world. The long overlooked connection between the two men should provide a note of instruction for the future in dealing with the Iraq insurgency.

Most tyrants and terrorists are inspired by a charismatic figure who triumphed in a heroic past. Hitler looked back to Napoleon and Frederick the Great. Lenin measured his achievements against the record of the Paris Commune of 1870.

Zarqawi’s role model was twelfth century Arab fighting king Nur ad-Din Zanki. Zanki had two missions in life: to drive the Crusaders from Arab lands and to crush Shiite rulers. Few understood the importance that Zarqawi placed on him. In interviews with Iraq and Zarqawi specialists at the State Department, Defense Department and West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, we found no one who understood the importance that Zarqawi placed on Zanki.

A survey of the available literature on Zarqawi in English shows virtually no reference to Zarqawi’s relationship to Zanki. In the Arab world, though, there has been a fair amount of discussion about the two men.

We recently acquired a new, never-before-translated Arabic-language book on Zarqawi, Al Qaeda’s Second Generation, by Jordanian journalist Fouad Hussein, who has been linked to Hezbollah’s al-Manar television network. An independent translation that we commissioned reveals that Zanki was in fact Zarqawi’s ideological guiding star. Hussein’s book reprints a long personal communication from Saif al-Adel, who heads the military wing of al Qaeda, about Zarqawi. Hussein and al-Adel put great emphasis on the fact that Zanki is Zarqawi’s role model.

“One cannot understand Zarqawi and cannot attempt to predict the future of his organization and the next steps that it will take without being familiar with Nur ad-Din Zanki. Zarqawi was simply fascinated by Nur ad-Din,” al-Adel told Hussein. “Regardless of where he was, Zarqawi would always look for books about Nur ad-Din. The best presents he ever got from his acquaintances were history books that would lengthily describe the jihad that Nur ad-Din Zanki waged against the crusaders and the triumphs that he led his followers to.”

Hussein, who is well-acquainted with al Qaeda leaders, contends that Zarqawi made strategic decisions based on his devotion to Zanki: “This fact enables us to answer the proverbial question of why Zarqawi, of al Qaeda leaders, specifically chose to settle in Iraq after the American military occupied Afghanistan. Perhaps he wants to begin liberating Iraq from Mosul and to spread the tawheed [Islamic monotheism] in Syria, Northern Iraq and Egypt as a preliminary step before liberating Jerusalem. Perhaps it is possible for us to adopt the theory that says that those who closely study history sometimes take on their heroes’ roles and follow their footsteps in order to reshape the course of history.”

“By reading Nur ad-Din [Zanki]‘s biography we can understand why Zarqawi chose to trust Syrians from Humaa, Allazeekia, Halab and the Jazeera area of northern Syria first. After reading Nur ad-Din’s story we finally realize why he chose northern Iraq that lies on the banks of the Euphrates as a first stronghold from which to attack the American occupiers of Iraq,” Hussein writes.

Saif al-Adel told Hussein, “I believe that what Abu Musab [Zarqawi] had read about Nur ad-Din [Zanki] and the fact that he started off in Mosul, Iraq greatly influenced his decision to move to Iraq after the Islamic regime in Afghanistan had collapsed.”

ZANKI’S FATHER governed both Aleppo and Mosul. Zanki himself ranged over northern Iraq and Syria (as did Zarqawi). Shortly after his father was assassinated, Zanki devoted himself to vanquishing the Crusaders, a bloody goal he accomplished in Syria through a series of daring raids. After a few reverses in battle, Zanki became reflective and more religious. He was soon noted for his piety and those who praised him received large sums to build new mosques and schools.

Zanki’s newfound religiosity also led him to a new enemy–the Shiites. Zanki’s wars against the Shiites are legendary, culminating in the toppling of the Fatimid caliphate.

When Zanki captured Egypt, he found an extensive bureaucratic state run by Shiites. He took little time destroying it. He began systematically replacing Shiite officials with Sunni appointees. The Shiite form of the call to prayer and Isma’ili lectures at al-Azhar University and elsewhere were eliminated. Sunni jurists replaced Shiite ones throughout the country. When, two years later, Zanki’s viceroy had the sermon read in Cairo in the name of the Sunni caliph, denouncing the Fatimids as infidels, two centuries of Shiite rule officially ended.

Zanki’s belief, summed up by British Arab historians David Luscombe and Jonathan Riley-Smith, that “the jihad against heresy must be pursued as vigorously as the jihad against the crusaders,” has an obvious resonance with the language of heresy that was mobilized by Zarqawi against the Shiites in Iraq.

To be sure, Zarqawi, like most jihadists, also derived inspiration from Saladin, who battled Richard the Lionhearted and recaptured Jerusalem for the Muslims. But this was likely complicated for Zarqawi, given Zanki’s relationship with Saladin.

Saladin served as Zanki’s general in his military campaigns against the Fatimids, before robbing Zanki of his opportunity to be remembered as the man who reconquered Jerusalem–an honor that Saladin wanted for himself. When Zanki tried to organize a campaign against Jerusalem, Saladin offered a camel train of excuses, waiting until Zanki eventually died. Then Saladin struck.

Zanki’s death, and the subsequent defection of many of his allies to Saladin’s side, helped paper over the differences between Zanki and his more illustrious successor, giving the anti-Crusader struggle an exaggerated sense of continuity.

LIKE ZANKI, Zarqawi was a fighter first, and became religious only after personal reversals. In his Jordanian hometown of Zarqa, Zarqawi was known as a thug, a brawler, a gang enforcer. He was frequently arrested for petty crimes. He was fired from the only job he ever had after a few weeks, leaving him destitute and unmarriageable. The post-Soviet feuds in Afghanistan drew him there in 1993, where he immersed himself in radical Islam.

THE CONNECTION BETWEEN Zanki and Zarqawi should have been viewed as more than a historical footnote: It could have opened a new window into our fight in Iraq.

One aspect of Zarqawi’s jihad that would have been illuminated was his selection of northern Iraq as a central stage for his fight against the Americans. Zanki’s prominence in Zarqawi’s imagination may also have provided clues about where he intended to strike next–such as trying to emulate his idol’s expansion into Syria and Egypt.

And realizing this connection could have opened further opportunities for the United States. Since Zarqawi was doubtless aware of why his role model failed in retaking Jerusalem, the U.S. military and intelligence community might have embarked on a “Project Saladin” psy-ops mission to make Zarqawi suspect that his closest lieutenants’ ambitions would produce similar betrayal. Zanki’s legendary hatred of the Shiites and eradication of that sect’s influence from the Fatimid caliphate might also have been used to drive a wedge between Zarqawi and his Iranian Shiite allies.

Killing Zarqawi does not end the war against al Qaeda in Iraq. A successor will emerge, even if he is not of Zarqawi’s caliber. Hopefully, American intelligence will learn about the historical role models of his successor, and use it to their advantage.

Richard Miniter is the author of two New York Times bestsellers, Losing bin Laden and Shadow War. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a Washington, D.C.-based counterterrorism consultant whose first book, My Year Inside Radical Islam, will be published in Winter 2007 by Tarcher/Penguin.

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