Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

The mysterious man behind the beheadings.

In early 2002, when German investigators thwarted a plot to attack Jewish targets across that country, many people naturally blamed al-Qaida. It was months after 9/11, and al-Qaida was known to have operated in Germany. In fact, it doesn’t seem that al-Qaida was responsible for that plot, at least not in the commonly understood sense of the group. The man behind the German scheme, investigators believe, was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, now the United States’ No. 1 enemy in Iraq.

Zarqawi, who has been blamed for the recent beheadings of foreigners in Iraq, remains something of a mystery. The U.S. government’s wanted poster lists his height and weight as “unknown,” and the military recently concluded that despite reports to the contrary, he may still have both his legs. Zarqawi isn’t even his given name. He was born Ahmed al-Khalayleh, to a poor Palestinian family outside Amman, Jordan, in 1966.

But officials are growing certain of this much: that Zarqawi is his own man, with his own group, distinct from Osama Bin Laden. “I don’t know if I should say this or not, but I—I suppose I can—it appears that Zarqawi may very well not have sworn allegiance” to Bin Laden, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said last week. “Maybe, because he disagrees with him on something, maybe because he wants to be ‘The Man’ himself, and maybe for a reason that’s not known to me.”

The distance between Zarqawi and Bin Laden, it turns out, has been suspected for a while. They have had contacts and fought together in Afghanistan against the Soviets in the 1980s. But after the war, Zarqawi dedicated himself to overthrowing Jordan’s King Hussein, while Bin Laden eyed bigger targets. Following a stint of several years in a Jordanian jail for plotting against the regime, Zarqawi returned to Afghanistan, where he built training camps and established his group, al-Tawhid. He retained his focus on Jordan, with the added goal, as one trainee put it, “to kill Jews everywhere.” Zarqawi’s camps were hundreds of miles from Bin Laden’s, and the two reportedly competed for funds and recruits. One of Zarqawi’s fighters, a Jordanian named Shadi Abdallah, told German investigators, “He is against al-Qaida.”

Zarqawi isn’t the only jihadist leader independent of Bin Laden. In the 1990s, myriadjihadist groups in Afghanistan had their own training camps and agendas, from Uzbeks to Chechens to Pakistani fighters for Kashmir. Bin Laden and his cadre of loyalists were the most dangerous. But other, local groups have also targeted the West. Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiyah bombed the night club in Bali, Indonesia, in October 2002, and a Moroccan cell is suspected of having masterminded the Madrid, Spain, attack in March of this year.

Faced with a loose jihadi movement—a kind of Afghan-Soviet war alumni network— Israel’s intelligence agencies have reportedly shunned the term “al-Qaida” and instead refer to “World Jihad”: what one Israeli intelligence official described as “a series of dozens of small affiliated organizations that operate in different levels of co-operation.”

The White House, however, resisted that concept. For a long time, it not only portrayed al-Qaida as a single cohesive organization but boiled it down to one man—Osama—as the network personified. That kind of thinking can lead to strategic errors, namely the belief that taking out the leadership equals victory. It’s a necessary component for success but rarely a sufficient one.

With Osama still at large, the Bush administration now speaks less of the necessity of capturing him. But is it now making the same mistake over again with Zarqawi?

Zarqawi almost certainly is playing some role in Iraq, despite rebel assertions that he died back in March. CIA analysts believe that the videos of the beheadings of Kim Sun-il and Nicholas Berg show Zarqawi himself wielding the knife. But even though the United States suggests that Zarqawi is behind most large-scale attacks in Iraq, it’s suffering from a dearth of intelligence about him. “There is no direct evidence of whether he’s alive or dead at this point,” one military spokesman acknowledged recently. Some military officials even suspect that Zarqawi might not really be in control. “Not all other organizations are necessarily going to be in agreement with him,” one senior military official told the Los Angeles Times. “Nor are they going to operate necessarily under his command and control.”

Indeed, Zarqawi may be only a figurehead around whom Iraqi fighters are rallying, not someone directing operations there. “Most are not members of his group in a formal sense,” one insurgent toldTime. “But everyone, especially the foreigners in Iraq who share his ideals of jihad, considers himself part of Attawhid [as al-Tahwid is sometimes spelled].”

Most Iraqis don’t see Zarqawi as a hero. And after last week’s widespread attacks against Iraqis, even some supporters of the insurgency criticized the strikes and jihadists who seemed to be behind them. But as with Bin Laden, a feedback loop seems to have developed: The United States blames Zarqawi, increasing his street cred and thus the number of insurgents who proclaim fealty to him—giving substance to the initial charge. That might help explain one of the more curious aspects of last week’s rebel offensive. Dozens of guerrillas who captured the center of Baquba were wearing headbands showing their loyalty to Zarqawi. It was the first time his supporters have come out in public.

The Bush administration has an obvious motivation to place an Osama-connected outsider at the center of the attacks. And it’s possible that this analysis is correct. But one has to wonder: Even if Zarqawi is playing a key role in the Iraqi insurgency, is it wise for the United States to keep giving him credit for it?