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Tracing The Origins Of The Islamic State


We are going to hear now about a radical Islamist. The man who could be said to have launched the Islamic State. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed nine years ago in an American airstrike. At the time, he was the much wanted head of the predecessor to ISIS, that was a group called al-Qaida in Iraq. In a new book, Washington Post correspondent Joby Warrick argues that Zarqawi was unique and he was compelling enough that his group shoved aside Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida. The book describes the roots of Zarqawi's pursuit of an ultraconservative Islamic caliphate, which was born when he was in a Jordanian prison. And this alert - our conversation contains descriptions of extreme violence.

You quote a doctor in this prison describing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. And his eyes, according to this doctor, were very scary.

JOBY WARRICK: He has a cold intelligence. He's someone who's - can look at you and shake you just buy his eye contact, sort of this reptilian sense of someone who's not judging, not hateful, but just absolutely cold and indifferent and powerful.

MONTAGNE: Now, he started out as a ruffian, a thug, a drinker, went to Afghanistan in the '80s to fight with the Mujahideen, came back radicalized.

WARRICK: So going off to fight battle, not as Egyptians or as Syrians, but as Arab Muslims fighting the communist, he becomes part of this brotherhood. And this was a moment when which they felt empowered. They felt that Allah was with them because they won. They managed to defeat this incredible superpower and drive it out of Afghanistan. So after that experience, coming back to tiny, sleepy Jordan, they felt like, well, we could take over the world. Allah's on our side. It's time to make some bold actions. And that's what he did.

MONTAGNE: There is a chilling story in the book about an ugly scar on his arm that suggests the kind of person he was and maybe the kind of people that are in ISIS now. Tell that story.

WARRICK: So as we mentioned, Zarqawi, as a young man, was a bit of a thug and not at all religious. And one of the things he did when he was a young man was to get tattoos, but they really bothered him. After he got religion, he looked at them and said these are wrong. These are forbidden. I shouldn't have them. And so there was a struggle by Zarqawi to try to get rid of them as he tried bleaching them, he tried various ways to get rid of a tattoo. And, finally, he had a relative come into prison with a razor blade and actually cut the tattoo off, without any anesthesia, sutured it up roughly, and this becomes a scar that he keeps for the rest of his life. But the doctor that examined him for the first time and got the story about this horrible, crude operation said, well, why did you do it? And he just said, well, it's forbidden. You're not supposed to have tattoos. And so he cut it off, hacked off this piece of skin just as routinely or randomly as you would just squash a cockroach because that's what he thought Allah wanted him to do.

MONTAGNE: And he - that sensibility, he also turned to the outside world.

WARRICK: Yes, and so that idea that without pity, without remorse you follow Allah's command no matter where it leads you, in his mind it means destroying those that he sees as enemies of Islam. They're all enemies of God who deserve to be killed. And he had no remorse about it. He reveled in this idea of extreme violence. And he said at one point repulsive is exactly what we want. We want to shake people up, and just by being as vicious as we can be, we're going to attract the people that we want to attract. And we're going to intimidate everybody else and so the opposition essentially goes away.

MONTAGNE: So he is, in a sense, a small time operator. In 1999, an amnesty in Jordan sprung him from prison, and he's unleashed upon the world, but he's still not that known. You argue in your book that him becoming a hero of these fundamentalist militants is a good deal thanks to the United States. How so?

WARRICK: Yeah, absolutely. So Zarqawi was lucky in a number of ways and we certainly - we as the United States - helped him in that regard. No one would have heard of Zarqawi very likely because he was just a nobody. He was a - one of many two-bit terrorists around the world. But the United States - particularly the Bush administration in 2003 - was looking to make their case to go to war in Iraq. And they were looking for this connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida. And so they actually - Colin Powell in his speech to the U.N. in 2003 put Zarqawi's picture on the big bulletin board on the screen and says this is the danger that we've been talking about. And by doing that, they essentially create this celebrity overnight. Here's Zarqawi. No one had heard of him before. Suddenly he's an international hero among jihadists. He's getting recruits. He's getting money from people. And on top of it all, the U.S. gives him the perfect war that he wanted, which was Iraq. He said my big fight against a superpower is going to be in Iraq, and that's exactly where it was.

MONTAGNE: And he started doing things that really hadn't been seen before, things like cutting off heads publicly.

WARRICK: Yeah. He was an early believer - as uneducated as he was, he grasped the idea that the Internet was this powerful tool for getting his message across. There had been beheadings and there had been suicide bombings. But he sort of had this idea that you can have mass terrorism. You can do all these terrible things and it'll be on the nightly news. But there's nothing that chills you more than seeing a human being in the face as he's getting his head cut off. And, of course, ISIS, years later, seizes on this and does it on an even grander scale. But the really - the one that brought that notion home and made it kind of an Internet phenomenon was Zarqawi. He took a young American man - a guy named Nick Berg from Philadelphia, a businessman who he happened to capture almost randomly - and put him in their orange jumpsuit and personally, with his own knife, cuts off this young man's head. And then broadcasts the image around the world, horrifies everybody, but at the same time, among this radical fringe - among his base - he did a really big thing. And he made himself even more of a hero.

MONTAGNE: So charisma of a terrible kind and a vision - in a sort of terrible way, you're talking about the founder of a nation.

WARRICK: Absolutely.

MONTAGNE: The Islamic State.

WARRICK: And the current generation still looks back at Zarqawi as the founder. And they talk about his prophetic messages, his apocalyptic messages, of igniting this conflict that was going to sweep the Arab world and bring Muslims together. And the reason that he could do this was because he was charismatic. He is somebody that even to this day, you know, people listen to his tapes. They - he's sort of the anti-Osama bin Laden, who was this old man sitting behind a desk in his videotapes with his robe and his dyed beard and was quite boring to be honest. Zarqawi's a man of action. Zarqawi's a guy that got things done. And to this day, his message, his image remains very popular within ISIS and among all the people that are coming and sort of attracted to the cause now.

MONTAGNE: Joby Warrick is the author of "Black Flags: The Rise Of ISIS." Thank you very much.

WARRICK: I really enjoyed it. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
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