Who Was the Founder of ISIS?


May 17, 2016

Before there was ISIS, there was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. A onetime video-store clerk turned radical jihadist, Zarqawi was the mastermind behind the sectarian warfare that tore Iraq apart after the U.S. invasion, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths.

It was a brutal strategy in pursuit of a singular goal — the creation of an Islamic state. Today, 10 years after his death, Zarqawi’s followers claim to have fulfilled that vision through the creation of the self-described Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

But who was Zarqawi? Could his rise have been prevented? Here are six things about his life you might not have known.

His nickname was once “The Green Man”

Zarqawi grew up in Zarqa, Jordan, an industrial city of some 850,000. He worked as a video-store clerk for a time, but was fired from the job. He belonged to local gangs, had a reputation for using drugs and was even rumored to have worked as a pimp.

Zarqawi was also into tattoos — so much so that he earned the nickname “The Green Man” for the amount of ink that covered his body.

Eventually, Zarqawi would land in prison on weapons charges. Behind bars, he would undergo a transformation. He took his faith more and more seriously, even memorizing all 6,236 verses of the Quran.

As a young man growing up in Jordan, Zarqawi belonged to local gangs, had a reputation for using drugs and was even rumored to have worked as a pimp.
As a young man growing up in Jordan, Zarqawi belonged to local gangs, had a reputation for using drugs and was even rumored to have worked as a pimp.

As he became more religious, he knew his tattoos would be viewed as sinful. A razor blade was smuggled into the prison, which Zarqawi then used to peel off his skin. As Craig Whitlock of The Washington Post described it in an interview for the FRONTLINE documentary The Secret History of ISIS:

It’s like he’s shedding his old life. And this tattoo was a reminder of who he was, and he had to get rid of that, to almost purify himself.

Osama bin Laden was initially unimpressed by him

After he was released from prison in 1999, Zarqawi traveled to Afghanistan, where he hoped to meet Osama bin Laden.

“When he does go to Kandahar to try to meet with bin Laden, he’s rejected,” according to Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst who spoke to FRONTLINE. “At this point, Zarqawi is so low on the totem pole, as to something that was just beneath him.”

Begrudgingly or not, bin Laden would eventually forge closer ties to Zarqawi as his profile began to rise in Iraq. “Zarqawi is the new start-up, and bin Laden wants to invest,” explained Bakos.  “He wants Zarqawi to use the Al Qaeda brand.  So since Al Qaeda hadn’t done anything since 9/11, this was a perfect opportunity for bin Laden to get back in the game.”

In 2004, Zarqawi pledged obedience to bin Laden and renamed his group Al Qaeda in the Land of Two Rivers. It would come to be known as Al Qaeda in Iraq.

The CIA had a plan to kill him before the U.S. invaded Iraq

In 2002, Zarqawi made his way to a terrorist camp in northern Iraq, which in the run-up to the U.S. invasion was being monitored by the CIA.

“We literally had guys that were working for us that were inside the camp,” Sam Faddis, who ran a CIA kill/capture team, told FRONTLINE in the below excerpt from The Secret History of ISIS. “They were working on chemical and biological weapons. They were doing a lot of work with cyanide-based things.”

An attack plan was fast tracked to the White House, but with the U.S. just months away from a full-scale invasion of Iraq, the CIA plan was shot down.

“There was nobody on that team who felt like Washington had made the right decision,” Faddis told FRONTLINE. “There’s another country getting up, ready to go up in flames. We’re giving them time and space. This will turn out very badly.”

The U.S. had a role in raising his profile

Prior to the Iraq invasion, the CIA was given the job of investigating whether Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein had conspired to stage the 9/11 attacks. Officials in the Bush administration believed Zarqawi may have been the link between the two, but as Faddis told FRONTLINE, “We never found any indication that Zarqawi was in Baghdad working for Saddam or linked up with Saddam.”

Despite that assessment, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, in a February 2003 speech to the United Nations outlining the administration’s rationale for war, used Zarqawi to make the connection between bin Laden and Iraq.

“Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda associates,” Powell said in the address.

In all, Zarqawi’s name was mentioned 21 times in the speech.

“I can’t even imagine what that did for Zarqawi’s ego,” Bakos told FRONTLINE. “Now he’s showing bin Laden and Al Qaeda who he really is, right? He’s become this iconic person without ever really doing anything.”

The mastermind behind the Iraqi insurgency, he was nicknamed “The Sheikh of the Slaughterers”

On Aug. 7, 2003, Zarqawi announced the insurgency with a car bombing at the Jordanian embassy. Less than two weeks later, he struck again with an attack against United Nations headquarters in Baghdad — a bombing that would spur the exodus of the U.N. and other nongovernmental organizations from Iraq.

“Zarqawi had a strategy,” explained Bruce Hoffman, a former U.S. military adviser. “He’s just trying to leave it so that it’s only the United States military left, and it’s a black-and-white conflict. And this will enable him to rally considerably more support to himself and to his cause.”

But that was just one part of Zarqawi’s strategy. The second part of his plan was to foment a civil war. To do this, he would attack Shia Muslims, causing them to retaliate against Sunnis, who would then have no choice but to turn to jihadists for protection. In a letter to bin Laden, Zarqawi outlined his strategy, writing, “If we succeed in dragging them into the arena of sectarian war, it will become possible to awaken the inattentive Sunnis.”

But senior Al Qaeda leadership disagreed with the strategy. In a July 2005 letter to Zarqawi, bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri wrote:

Many of your Muslim admirers are wondering about your attacks on the Shia. The sharpness of this questioning increases when the attacks are on one of their mosques … My opinion is this matter won’t be acceptable to the Muslim populace, however much you try to explain it, and aversion to this will continue.

But the warning didn’t dissuade Zarqawi. The following February, he responded with a symbolic attack on the Golden Dome in Samarra, an important Shia shrine. The attack unleashed an all-out civil war in which tens of thousands would die.

“And immediately, it was within 12 hours that everything in Iraq changed … It went from horrible to unbelievably horrible,” according to Patrick Skinner, a former CIA case officer.

He pushed for an Islamic state before bin Laden did

As the civil war raged in April 2006, Zarqawi did something bold: For the first time ever, he revealed his face on camera. In a 34-minute propaganda video, Zarqawi is shown meeting with his lieutenants, firing an American machine gun, and describing himself as “the brains of Al Qaeda in Iraq.”

Zarqawi would also use the video to make a surprising proclamation: He would create an Islamic state, the first step toward a global caliphate. It was something that bin Laden himself had yet to push for.

“Al Qaeda saw that time as a long way off, and Zarqawi was very, very much more impatient and said, ‘This we can do now,'” according to Richard Barrett, a former United Nations counter-terror official.

Less than two months later, Zarqawi was dead, killed in a U.S. airstrike north of Baghdad — what was left of his tattoos would be among the distinguishing marks U.S. forces would initially use to identify him. Yet his legacy would carry on.

By the end of 2011, U.S. troops were out of Iraq, and the remnants of Zarqawi’s group began to rebuild. His eventual successor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, would copy Zarqawi’s playbook, and use it to not only reconstitute strength in Iraq, but to expand the fight into neighboring Syria. By the middle of 2014, Baghdadi’s army had captured whole sections of Syria, and major cities in Iraq, allowing Baghdadi to make a declaration that was the fulfillment of Zarqawi’s dream — the creation of an Islamic state and the beginning of a new caliphate.

Jason M. Breslow

Jason M. Breslow, Former Digital Editor



In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.

blog comments powered by Disqus

More Stories

‘Say to the Whole World, They Don’t Let Us Talk’: Women Held for ‘Immoral Behavior’ at a Taliban Prison Speak Out
In the FRONTLINE documentary ‘Afghanistan Undercover,’ Ramita Navai reports the Taliban has jailed women for ‘immoral behavior’ and held them without trial. Watch an excerpt.
August 9, 2022
The Disconnect: Power, Politics and the Texas Blackout
In February 2021, days-long blackouts in Texas left millions shivering in the dark. Hundreds died. How has the Texas grid changed since then? And how has it changed how people think?
August 8, 2022
'You Feel Safe One Second and Then Boom': A Conversation With the Filmmakers of 'Ukraine: Life Under Russia's Attack'
The filmmakers of "Ukraine: Life Under Russia's Attack" spoke about documenting life under bombardment and why they felt it was important to bring this story to an American audience.
August 2, 2022
Life Underground: Inside a Kharkiv Metro Station, Home to Hundreds Amid Russia’s Attack on Ukraine
‘We understand there’s a war. But we don’t understand why it has started,’ said one 10-year-old living underground. An excerpt from the new documentary "Ukraine: Life Under Russia’s Attack."
August 2, 2022