At 6:12 p.m. on June 7, 2006, a 500-pound, laser-guided GBU-12 bomb was released from a U.S. Air Force F-16 over a box-like two-story house near the town of Hibhib about 30 miles north of Baghdad. At his Iraqi headquarters, Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), and members of his staff watched on a video feed from a reconnaissance drone as the bomb smashed through the roof and exploded. One minute and 36 seconds later an insurance GBU-38 exploded in the same location. Less than 30 minutes later, a special operations team arrived by helicopter. As members began gathering intelligence, the team’s medic began treating a Jordanian man dressed in black that Iraqi police had pulled from the ruins. At 7:04 p.m. the medic made an announcement. Ahmad Fadhil Nazzal al-Khalaylah, infamously known as Abu Musab al-Zarkawi, was dead. After almost a year of hard effort, JSOC had killed the man many regarded as the second most dangerous terrorist in the world after Osama bin Laden.
Born in October 1966 into a large Bedouin family in Jordan, Zarqawi grew up in the industrial city of Zarqa (from which he took his nom de guerre). He gained a reputation as a thug whose passions were drinking, drugs, and getting into trouble. In 1989 he traveled to Afghanistan to help the mujahedeen fight the Red Army. It was there that he became a radical militant and follower of the Salafi cleric Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Mazdisi.
In 1994, a year after he had returned to Jordan, Zarqawi was jailed for revolutionary activity. He was freed in 1999 as part of a general amnesty granted by King Abdullah II when he succeeded his father to the Jordanian throne. Zarqawi then left for Pakistan and later Afghanistan. In Kandahar he met al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Though reports would link Zarqawi and his followers with al Qaeda, the reality was that the connection was never strong. The two men didn’t like each other. More importantly, they had different agendas. Bin Laden’s primary enemy was the United States. Zarqawi’s enemies were the government of Jordan (which he wanted to overthrow) and Shiites (whom he wanted to eradicate). Though he used al Qaeda seed money to organize a militant organization and briefly fought with al Qaeda and the Taliban against American forces in 2001, Zarqawi refused for years to take an oath of allegiance to bin Laden, finally doing so in 2004, though apparently more for appearances sake than anything else. In December 2001, together with 300 fighters, Zarqawi left Afghanistan for Iran. Supported by the Iranian government, Zarqawi began building and expanding his network in Iraq’s Sunni Triangle.
In August 2003 Zarqawi literally exploded onto the world news. His operations began with a car-bomb attack of the Jordanian embassy on August 7. On August 19, the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad was bombed, killing 22 people. Then on August 29, a car bomb exploded near the Shiite holy shrine in Najaf, killing the revered cleric Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim and over a hundred people, the deadliest terrorist attack in Iraq at the time. Zarqawi had just begun.
In 2002 he plotted the successful assassination of U.S. diplomat Lawrence Foley in Jordan and a failed 2004 plot to bomb the headquarters of Jordanian intelligence services and release a huge cloud of toxic chemicals that, had it succeeded, could have resulted in the death of an estimated 80,000 people. But it was in Iraq where Zarqawi had the most success, targeting and killing thousands of Shiites with the goal of turning Iraq into a failed state battleground of polarized sectarian violence between the Shiite majority and Sunni minority.
“Zarqawi wanted Iraq to be contested by extremists, not forged by moderates.”
— JSOC commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal
What set Zarqawi apart from the rest of the terrorists, and made him truly infamous, were his beheadings. Videotaped and initially aired on jihadist websites, a hostage, blindfolded and wearing an orange jumpsuit was recorded kneeling or sitting in front of a group of masked men. After a short speech, a long knife is drawn by one of the masked men who then decapitates the hostage. Zarqawi’s first victim was Nicholas Berg, killed on May 7, 2004. On Sept. 16, 2004, Eugene “Jack” Armstrong was beheaded.
On June 29, 2005, Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal entered the White House Situation Room to meet President George Bush and his National Security Team. The purpose of the meeting was al-Zarqawi and what was being done to find him. After McChrystal finished his brief, the president asked, “Are you going to get him?”
McChrystal replied, “We will, Mr. President. There is no doubt in my mind.” But he knew it wouldn’t be easy.