ISIS, perhaps the most feared terrorist group in the world, traces its short history to a man who was a prison gang leader, a high school dropout and an alleged teenage pimp. His name: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Zarqawi was “Hitler-like” and “incredibly brutal,” said Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, a retired former director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency.
“He was a dictator with a plan,” Flynn said on CNN’s TV series “Declassified.” “His plan was to kill as many people that did not see life the way he saw it, and to change the face and the nature of the Middle East — and frankly the Islamic world.”
In the 10 years since Zarqawi’s violent death, ISIS — or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — has gathered enough support and weapons to seize territory stretching from northern Syria to central Iraq. It also controls areas of other nations, and has claimed responsibility for recent terror attacks that have killed hundreds of people in the Middle East and Europe. ISIS destroys priceless antiquities, holds slaves and uses the Internet to lure young women and jihadists from around the world. And it all traces back to Zarqawi, the man who took his name from the town where he was born in 1966: Zarqa, Jordan.
Pimp, bootlegger, thug
Zarqawi reportedly dropped out of high school and gained a reputation as a local pimp, bootlegger and thug, according to more than one biographer. At age 23, he spent time in Afghanistan and then returned to Jordan, where he was thrown in prison in 1993 for subverting the government and possessing illegal weapons.
Prison life took Zarqawi to another level. There, he learned the Koran and used his charisma to recruit prisoners for Islamic jihad. A royal amnesty in 1999 freed Zarqawi and allowed him to return to Afghanistan to meet Osama bin Laden. The two terrorists reportedly disliked each other from the start.
By 2003, he was in Iraq. Zarqawi led a ruthless three-year campaign of coordinated attacks against Iraqi and U.S. targets. He called his group Al Qaeda in Iraq. A targeted U.S. airstrike killed Zarqawi in 2006. After that, terrorists who went on to lead ISIS took up where Zarqawi left.
Here are five Zarqawi claims to infamy tied to today’s ISIS:
1. He’s widely acknowledged as the father of ISIS
2. Zarqawi’s tactics were extreme — even for bin Laden
3. Zarqawi almost single-handedly changed the course of the Iraq War
4. Like ISIS, he beheaded captives and posted video
5. The U.S. made Zarqawi a worldwide celebrity