British people will forever associate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed on Thursday in his late 30s, with the kidnap and beheading in October 2004 of Ken Bigley. Zarqawi, the self-styled leader of "al-Qaeda in the land of the two rivers," is also believed to have personally decapitated the 26-year-old American hostage Nick Berg earlier that year.
Yet increasingly his targets were Iraqis; the number of Shia civilians that his minions have slain since 2003 grotesquely eclipses the number of foreigners he is known to have dispatched. Zarqawi's antagonism towards Shias and their beliefs -- as evidenced in a broadcast just a week ago -- belied al-Qaeda's claim to represent the interests of all Muslims.
Zarqawi also played a pivotal, if curious role, in the US decision to invade Iraq. Back in February 2003, secretary of state Colin Powell cited his presence in Baghdad as proof of ties between former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda -- ties that "justified" military intervention. The claim proved increasingly suspect, but Zarqawi's reputation soared.
Some assert that Washington inflated Zarqawi's importance but the US was not alone in feeling threatened. On Aug. 9, 2003, Jordan named him as chief suspect in a suicide attack on its Baghdad embassy. His name was then associated with a deluge of atrocities. On Aug. 19 Baghdad's UN headquarters was bombed, killing 22 people including the UN special envoy Sergio Viera de Mello. Soon afterwards a massive blast killed the Shia leader, Ayatollah Baqer al-Hakim, and 83 worshippers outside the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf.
Explosions on Feb. 1, 2004, during the Ashura festival, simultaneously slaughtered about 185 Shia celebrants in Karbala and Baghdad. Eleven days later, 102 Iraqi police recruits died in two car-bombings.
A 17-page letter intercepted in January 2004, purportedly from Zarqawi to Osama bin Laden, demanded civil war between Iraq's Sunni minority and Shia majority. Initially, Iraqis dismissed Zarqawi as an foreign interloper without local support. However, he began attracting Sunnis, downhearted after Saddam's defeat, and bigots cheered when he called Shias "a sect of treachery and betrayal ... the lurking snake, the crafty and malicious scorpion."
In March 2004, Zarqawi's Jordanian, Yemeni, Saudi and Sudanese fighters merged with an indigenous Sunni Islamist group, Salafiya al- Mujahedia. There were rumours of more cynical unions with former Baathists and kidnappers. News of the US abuses at Abu Ghraib fuelled the flames. Yet the nationalist resistance in Iraq was nauseated by Zarqawi's gruesome TV beheading of Berg. In Lebanon, the Hezbollah condemned his contempt for civilian lives. The Salvation Front ordered him to "leave Iraq or die." The Muslim Council of Britain, whose officials tried but failed to free Bigley, castigated his actions as anathema to Islam.
None of this shamed Zarqawi. Two anti-kidnapping Sunni sheikhs were murdered in September 2004. The CIA believes that he personally sawed off the heads of two kidnapped American contractors. His followers boasted of killing 35 children in Baghdad on Sept. 30 2004. Long before Zarqawi's Iraqi escapades, Jordanian agents had linked him to plots in Amman and Germany.
Despite this worldwide intelligence interest, Zarqawi's identity remains a mystery. He was probably born in Zarqa, an industrial town east of Jordan's capital, Amman. "Zarqawi" merely denoted his birthplace; his true name was likely Ahmad Fadil Nazal al-Khalayleh.