Interview – Loretta Napoleoni
Read the edited transcript of Debbie Whitmont’s interview with Loretta Napoleoni, Zarqawi biographer.
Reporter: Debbie Whitmont
Q. You said you felt as though you were inside Zarqawi’s head, that you knew him really well. I mean can you describe how you see him?
A. Yes – I felt at certain point that I was getting so close to this man that I was almost inside his head and I think one of the reason is because I did a lot of work on the Italian Marxist Group that were very active in the 1960s and 70s and the origins of many of those groups were very proletarian and Zarqawi was born a proletarian, he grew up in the slums ah of you know one of the industrial cities of Jordan in a decadent economic environment so I think this is why at a certain point I felt I was inside his head because I was reliving an experience I already had.
Q. I am interested, because no one else really covers this as you do, in the first metamorphosis into the stranger when he goes to Afghanistan – how did he change then from the bully to what he became in Afghanistan?
A. Well he was a misfit ah right from the beginning, born proletarian, from a Bedouin family. He never actually saw the desert – he could not express himself um so this is why once he goes to gaol and he becomes acquainted with the idea of the Mujahadeen of this holy war in Afghanistan, he decides to join in and he changes his name, the stranger because it is a journey of discovery. It’s a journey of discovery of himself, both a journey of discovery of what really is happening in the world. So that’s why when he gets to Afghanistan, he tries to find a role which of course he doesn’t, because he gets there too late to fight the Soviets and he end up being a junior guard in the Arab Afghan Bureau. I mean the real revelation ah there, the key to his future is the meeting with Al Maqdese.
Well Al Maqdese was one of the leader of radical Salafism ah which was the most radical interpretation of the concept of Islam. What radical Salafism preached you know was the total destruction of the environment, the total destruction of this society, the Arab society in order to cleanse this society from the influence of the west. So from the ashes of this society, the new real true society will be borne, the al Tawhid as they would call it which is a society ruled according to the rule of God, according to the Shariah very very similar to the Caliphate so for a young ah guy as Al Zarqawi, who was a misfit all of his life, who actually could not understand where his place was in an environment which he perceive as extremely hostile, the idea to destroy this environment in order to build one where he would fit was tremendously appealing so this is why he embraced radical Salafism with you know all of his soul.
Q. Do you see him as still using that in Iraq now? A very black and white view to destroy in order to rebuild is that what he’s doing there now?
A. Yes absolutely. I think you know he hasn’t changed his mind at all. Ah it’s not within his personality actually to change his mind. He’s a stubborn, uneducated individual um so I think exactly um what he’s doing in Iraq is exactly the, the destruction of the environment. I mean which is not only the present environment, it’s not only what the Coalition forces have brought to Iraq but also what it was before because let’s not forget, the Saddam Hussein was very much an enemy for Al Zarqawi because he was a secular dictator and of course Al Zarqawi he wants to create this idea of society of God.
Q. Coming back to his next trip to Afghanistan, he comes at a time when Abdullah Azzam has just been killed, there’s a big debate going on there over between the al Qaeda people and the followers of Azzam. Can you explain in simple terms what’s happening and what happened to al Qaeda then?
A. Yes in 1989 Azzam was assassinated. This is a major ah moment in the history of al Qaeda. Originally al Qaeda was created by Abadallah Azzam together with Osama bin Laden who was very much only a financier. The idea was that al Qaeda would go around the world and help Muslim in trouble. In other words you know wherever the Muslim were oppressed, then you know al Qaeda would go and start the battle and then the battle would then escalate into a war, similar to the anti Soviet Jihad in Afghanistan. With the death of Azzam, the Egyptian wing of al Qaeda led by Al Zawahiri took over the administration of the Arab/Afghan Bureau but also of al Qaeda, which depended upon the Arab/Afghan Bureau. They convince also Osama bin Laden to transform al Qaeda into a terrorist organisation. Now the aim was use al Qaeda in order to start an armed struggle in Egypt. Now let’s not forget that Al Zawahiri was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. He had managed to escape Egypt after he had been in prison – he had a background in ah terrorist attacks, in terrorist activities, which of course Abdallah Azzam did not have.
Q. How did Zarqawi fit into all of this?
A. Well Zarqawi in 1989, 1990 did not know what was going on inside al Qaeda or the Arab/Afghan Bureau because you know he was not within the network of the movers and shaker of you know al Qaeda so he probably did not know that this was happening, that there was this infighting. He probably had no idea who had interests in assassinating Azzam. Um his understanding of what was going on inside al Qaeda came much later when he was in prison in the 1990s and in particular after 1998 when Osama bin Laden launched a campaign against the far away enemy, the United States. It was at that point that Al Zarqawi took a position in opposition of this new idea to take the battle, the struggle outside the Arab state. He took sides with Qataba who at that time was fighting in Chechnya and Qataba was very much supportive of the idea that the fight had to be localised, that the fight was against the near enemy, and we’re talking about the Arab regimes.
Q. Did you accept the story in your research that Zarqawi met with bin Laden in the year 2000 and said I don’t want to join with you?
A. Yes I think it is very much in line with his character. I mean he’s not impressed by money or stardom or even the role that Osama bin Laden had inside al Qaeda. Let’s not forget that the reason why he ends up in Afghanistan is not because he wants to join Osama bin Laden – it is because he wants to go to Chechnya to fight with Qataba. I think if the meeting had taken place with Qataba and Qataba had asked him to join, he would have been absolutely happy to do that and he would have been also very impressed and possibly he would have even followed um advice from Qataba but Osama bin Laden absolutely not. Now he’s also in line with the personality of the individual who doesn’t take orders from anybody, who only follows the teaching of the prophet um and is on instinct.
Q. What was it about what bin Laden was representing that he wasn’t interested in?
A. Well the fight against America. He was not interested in ah taking the Jihad um against the United States. I mean his universe his word is very much Jordan and even today, the reason why he is in Iraq is because he’s one step forward towards Jordan and this is why we have to keep watching what will happen in the future in Jordan, cause this is his final aim is to destabilise Jordan and there from Jordan destabilise the neighbouring countries in particular we’re talking about occupied territories and Syria. This is it. I mean he, he’s not interested in anything else.
Q. How do you read the bombings of the hotels in Amman?
A. Well this is very much in line with his strategy. I do not think that he was directly involved. I mean I think it’s more um that these, the sort of icon who he thinks aspiring individuals who want to bring the jihad inside Jordan and there are plenty of those individuals. Um I think he gave the, all the support, the ideological support these people needed but I doubted that he was involved in the little details. I mean the attack in Jordan cannot be compared with the attack against New York, 9/11 where Osama bin Laden planned and plotted every single detail.
Q. How is he so prescient as to go to Kurdistan? Was that a plan or an accident?
A. Well he went to Kurdistan initially because he had contacts there. I mean there are two reason why, basically why he went there. One is he was not member of al Qaeda so therefore he did not escape altogether with other members of al Qaeda to Pakistan. We don’t even know for sure if he was at Tora Bora. I mean many people say he was. Other people say he wasn’t. He probably was in Kandahar, at the battle of Kandahar because he was loyal to the Taliban who were supporting him – who were funding his camp but for sure the reason why he crossed over to Iran is because the camp he was running was at the border with Iran and also that was the entry of the route which was very much ah popular with the Mujahadeen after 1995 to enter Afghanistan. This is via Iraqi Kurdistan through the south of Iran so he uses this network in a reverse fashion so you know he goes back to Iraqi Kurdistan where he had friends and he needed friends because at that moment he needed shelter and the only place where he had friends, the closest place where he had friends was in Iraqi Kurdistan so this is why he goes there.
Q. So he wasn’t reading the Neocons and seeing Iraq as the next target?
A. Now we’re talking about the end of you know 2001, 2002 – I think by the time he reaches Iraqi Kurdistan which is January 2003 then yes, I think by then he, he was reading the Neocons as was most of the people around the world um but I think it’s something that happened once he got there and that again is interesting because to a certain extent it, it was luck but also it was his destiny. See this is another thing. This is a man who has been trying to fight one of the super powers, one of the heretics as they call you know the westerner, the non Muslim all of this life and he missed in Afghanistan and then here he is. He arrives in Iraqi Kurdistan and the Americans are about to invade so this is it, this is his opportunity. He has waited all of his life.
Q. And he seizes it.
A. He seizes it and he does very cleverly.
Q. We’ve been told that this time from 2002 on this is when he’s built up this extensive European network of funding of recruitment, money coming from Saudi Arabia. I mean how extensive is that network in your view?
A. Well I don’t think that Al Zarqawi built a network anywhere um in particularly in Europe cause geographically speaking he doesn’t even know where Europe is. I think what has happened is that the day which Colin Powell went to the Security Council ah we’re talking about February 5th 2003, presented Al Zarqawi as the link between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. The man on the ground in Iraq ready to fight, the reason why the US had to go into Iraq with a pre-emptive strike, the entire world believed him. I mean not only in the west but also in the east. Now we’re in a moment in which al Qaeda’s been destroyed. There’s a moment of ah I would say almost a political void inside the jihadist movement. I mean nobody knows where Osama bin Laden is. Nobody knows if he’s alive so people are disorientated and then suddenly they are presented with this new icon and it doesn’t matter if they know him or not, immediately they want to be part of this net work so it is true that all of a sudden money started flowing towards Al Zarqawi because there was no other place where this money could go. Osama bin Laden was out of the picture but is also true that a spontaneous network there was created in Europe of sympathisers of people who wanted to be part of al Qaeda, of al Qaedism more than al Qaeda, this new anti imperialist ideology and here was the new icon so everybody wanted to be part of this network and everybody said he was part of this network. In the meantime of course Al Zarqawi was very weak on the ground in Iraq and this is why he does not enter the insurgency until almost 2003.
Q. What did putting the face and, or the name Zarqawi in that speech mean for the West? I mean why was it necessary to have a person?
A. It was necessary to find a reason to go into Iraq. Now this was a pre-emptive strike. In other words you know the pre emptive strike doctrine says that you are allowed to attack a country to prevent this country from attacking you. Now there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or at least we didn’t find them. The inspector wanted more time in order to find them. They could not find a problem of weapons of mass destruction either so the only possible way to justify a pre-emptive strike was to find a connection between Saddam Hussein and international terrorism and that connection was Al Zarqawi.
Q. What was the role of the Kurdish and Jordanian intelligence in all of this, do you think?
A. It was very important. For a start the Kurdish Secret Service is the first organisation who alerted the Americans about Al Zarqawi. Now we’re talking about January 2003. Now the Americans didn’t even know who Al Zarqawi was so being Jordanian, America immediately went to the Jordan authorities and asked who is Al Zarqawi. Now the Kurds presented Al Zarqawi as al Qaeda’s man in Iraqi Kurdistan ready to move on to Iraq in order to link up with Saddam Hussein so the Jordanians to a certain extent did sustain this thesis because they were desperate to find the um the person who had masterminded a series of assassinations including Lawrence Foley who was a US Diplomat in Jordan but also the millennium plot which was foiled, it was supposed to take place during the millennium celebration in Jordan. So they needed a sort of bogey man I would say who was behind all of this activity which is clearly was a terrorist activity and, and they decided that Al Zarqawi was their man. So they immediately said to the Americans yes of course we know who he is. I mean he is actually the guy who was masterminding all these attacks so at that point the Americans had the reason to go to war because the individual fit the profile that they wanted to present and if you think about it, it was very convenient for the three groups. I mean the Kurds really wanted the Americans to intervene in Iraqi Kurdistan because they could not manage to defeat a group of Jihadists among which of course Ansar al Sunnah which is progressively conquering more and more territory. The Jordanians needed somebody to blame for these attacks and of course somebody linked to al Qaeda. The American’s needed a reason to go to Iraq so he was perfect for all those people.
Q. You say he had a strategy to get the support of Osama bin Laden – how did the Berg killing fit into that?
A. What Al Zarqawi really wants to do is to get the backing of Osama bin Laden and this is because he’s weak on the ground. That’s very important because while outside Iraq everybody thinks he’s this incredibly clever, international terrorist was plotting the Madrid bombing, was plotting the Istanbul bombing and so on, in reality he’s the leader of a very small group of foreigners in Iraq. He does not have the religious authority to rally around the population plus he’s a Jordanian so people look at him with great suspicion. The only way for Al Zarqawi to rally the Sunni population around himself in order to fight the Shiite is with the backing of Osama bin Laden, you know the icon of the jihadist movement and this is why he starts engaging himself in this conversation through letters with Osama bin Laden, trying to convince him you know basically this is the only way forward. Within the strategy, he actually follows ah certain kind of tactics and one of his tactics is the beheading of Nicholas Berg – it’s symbolic ah because you know of course its very much related to ah what some of the anti Soviet Mujahadeen did in the anti Soviet Jihad to the Soviets because the beheading is not at all a new phenomenon but also it’s symbolic because it shows that he will have no mercy for the Americans, for the foreigners so it relaunched to a certain extent that idea that you know the front is very much also against Coalition forces and finally he says to Osama bin Laden, if you follow me, if you back me that will be fine but even if you don’t back me, this is my path and I will do it by myself.
Q. How significant is it that he has brought Osama bin Laden on board – what does that mean for the new generation of terrorists?
A. Well he won that battle because of us, because of the myth that we created. He didn’t win that battle on a basis of his argument being convincing for Osama bin Laden. I still believe that Osama bin Laden considers Al Zarqawi not one of his peers and we prove that in the recent tape of Osama bin Laden whereby he offered truce to America in Iraq without consulting or without you know the backing of Al Zarqawi. So I don’t think that Osama bin Laden was convinced, I think Osama bin Laden was forced to welcome Al Zarqawi into al Qaeda after the battle Falluja, after the second battle of Falluja for several reasons, the most important one Al Zarqawi’s international status had almost surpassed the one of Osama bin Laden. He was presented as the hero of the battle of Falluja while in reality he was not in Falluja at all. He was outside Falluja and thirdly Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, for al Qaeda I mean you know the old al Qaeda, the pre 99 al Qaeda had not a presence in Iraq so the only possible way to relaunch the concept of al Qaeda and of course to relaunch the role of Osama bin Laden in the most important fighting ground in the world between east and west was to welcome Al Zarqawi into al Qaeda so it was not out of choice, it was I think out of weakness that Osama bin Laden decided yes, let’s bring him in.
Q. Has a similar think happened with the Sunni insurgents – how do you describe his relationship with them now and how do you think that will play out in the future?
A. He clearly does not have ah any good relationship with the Baathist’s or the former Baathist’s members and this is because they are secular and of course you know he’s a jihadist. I think the only group whereby he can get some support is the Islamic nationalists ah which is a group which was created in the 1990s in the Sunni triangle and these are people that are very much close ah to the radical views.
Q. Is there a marriage of convenience?
A. I think it’s very much a marriage of convenience because they’re fighting a common enemy so this is why they are aligned – I think his status is after the declaration of Osama bin Laden his status has increased tremendously among people that were originally very close to the concept of al Qaeda and al Qaedism but you know he hasn’t done anything of course for, the members of the Baath party or even people who are secular who have their own militia cause let’s not forget that the situation in Iraq is extremely fragmented so he’s not as powerful as we are led to believe he is. The only instrument that he has in his hands which of course shocks the world constantly is the suicide missions.
Q. The suicide missions, what role they play in the debate inside the Muslim world now, and to what extent is he responsible for introducing them?
A. Well the introduction of the suicide missions as an instrument of the jihad is a concept which was elaborated in the 1990s. We have no examples of suicide missions during the anti Soviet jihad although the Mujahadeen were happy to die in battle they would never have conceived the idea to commit suicide in order to kill the enemy. So it goes back to Egypt and then it was embraced by groups in the occupied territories.
Q. They’d been to Lebanon…
A. Exactly so this is where suicide missions started really to become a sort of common tactics used in, in the jihad um but it was a different type of suicide mission. I mean people were compensated for the attack. Families were compensated because of you know the loss of the member of the family. The man who masterminded the transformation of suicide mission as a simple weapon is actually Al Zarqawi and he did it in the camp in Herat. In the camp in Herat he trained predominantly people that will go back to their own country and carry out suicide missions. These people did it without the knowledge of their family, basically almost um not exposing his idea to the members of their family so there is no compensation. I mean the cost is zero. On the contrary actually you know often these people travel to the destination are paying themselves the travelling expenses. So he transformed the suicide mission from a very isolated phenomenon religiously wrapped to a certain extent whereby you know people were martyrs and had this special treatment into simple weapons and this is why today in Iraq, we see suicide attacks continuously. I mean so much that we don’t even pay attention to it.
Q. You talk about al Qaedism; what do you mean by that?
A. Al Qaedism is the anti imperialist ideology which was created from the ashes of al Qaeda, the transnational arm of the organisation. Now al Qaeda carried out several transnational attacks. The most important one are the bombing of the US embassies in Africa, the attack against the USS Cole and of course 9/11. Now 9/11 was the last transnational attack whereby you know the movement of funds and movement of people from one country to another country. After that, all the attacks have been carried out and funded by home grown groups. The only attack whereby you have transfer of money from one country to another is the Bali bombing but it took place before 9/11. Now al Qaeda was a very small organisation, which of course had this transnational nature. Now that organisation was destroyed by the fall of the Taliban regime. It’s leadership survived but it was forced into hiding. Most of the network was destroyed because you know they were present in Afghanistan so from the ashes of al Qaeda, what has happened is the creation of a new movement thanks to the invasion of Iraq, thanks to the presence in the Arab country of a foreign army and the role of Al Zarqawi as the sort of jihadist Zorro – this man that everybody wants to find and nobody can catch has become the new icon of al Qaedism – this international movement which is you know self created, spontaneous movement whereby you know small groups of sympathisers who you know before 9/11 had probably had travelled to the camps in Afghanistan and become a part of al Qaeda network, they actually didn’t travel to the camps but decided by themselves to reproduce 9/11 or what became sort of blue print of the terrorist activities of which the London bombing is one of the better examples of that.
Q. This is how you read you know Madrid, Istanbul, London?
A. Yes if you look at the dynamic of the attacks, they’re all very much like 9/11, you know simultaneous attacks, suicide missions but they’re all done on a much m smaller scale because of course the financing is much smaller than the financing available to al Qaeda you know for 9/11.
Q. But we’re not talking about a world wide network, we’re talking about imitation, inspiration?
A. Oh absolutely there is not a master plan. There is not, this is not a pyramidal organisation whereby we have a top Al Zarqawi was telling people you know this week we’re going to attack Madrid and then in five months we’re going to attack London. Absolutely not. We have an ideology which is al Qaeda’s which is based upon the original message of al Qaeda, the west is a hegemonic power and therefore we have to rebel in order to free our countries and then we have this message spread around the world through of course icons such as Al Zarqawi and through you know real situations of conflict which is the war in Iraq.
Q. To what extent has Zarqawi disguised the true nature of the insurgency and what’s been the impact of that?
A. Oh I think it has been deliberate by the west. Initially the west presented Al Zarqawi as the only active leader of a group who was fighting Coalition forces. So this is very similar to what the Soviets did in Afghanistan, they said to the world that the Mujahadeen were actually you know the real opposition against them while the Afghans were very happy to have been invaded by the Soviets. In reality the Mujahadeen were very few people. I mean you know the people that fought the Soviets were the Afghans and that’s the same thing that is happening in Iraq now of course this is a message that was not put through initially for fear to destroy this image whereby the Coalition forces were the liberators of the Iraqis. Now today the situation has changed because of course we have degenerated into civil war which was created by Al Zarqawi very cleverly in order to carve space for his group of foreigners inside this arena where everybody’s fighting against everybody else.
Q. The real Iraqi insurgency, how widely supported is it in your view?
A. The real insurgency is very difficult really to say which insurgency, I think we are in a civil war therefore the support for the various groups involved in the insurgency is very high because people are fighting for their own survival and that’s the concept of a civil war basically. Initially I think the support for the Al Zarqawi group was really, really small. I think the support for the Shiite insurgency, for Moqtada al Sadr was very strong and this was the initial insurgency. Cleverly Moqtada al Sadr was brought back into the political arena by the Shia but his militia was never demilitarised. In other words you know they kept their, their arms and this is another problem of Iraq. There are so many arms and ammunition. It’s very difficult to pacify a country like that.
Q. Without Al Zarqawi having been there, do you think this, there could have been room for negotiation?
A. Oh yes I think there was room for negotiation initially, definitely I don’t think without Al Zarqawi being there um would have made any difference without Al Zarqawi being presented to the world as this mega leader of the insurgency yes absolutely. But you see it was the policy, the politics was all wrong basically. The Americans did not realise that to a certain extent they were manipulated by the Shiite and let’s not forget that behind many of the Shiite leaders there is Iran because many of those people have spent the last twenty years in exile in Iran. So I think the US was very much manipulated because they were told to prevent the United front of Shiite and Sunni insurgency – this is very much what also Al Zarqawi did not want to happen – because in the 1930s what defeated the British in Iraq was the secular nationalistic united front of the Shiite and the Sunni so because of that, the Americans went along with the view of the Shiite leaders that al Sadr should have brought back into the political arena and he should not be considered at the same level of Al Zarqawi so while Al Zarqawi and the Sunni insurgency was criminalised, the Shiite insurgency to a certain extent was tolerated. Now that was a tremendous mistake because had this front being formed today, the American could sit down and negotiate with one group while of course they can’t sit down and negotiate with hundreds and hundreds of militias.
Q. So the Americans, what did they do that because they saw the Iranian, the Shiite as being the majority and we’re talking about democracy, or because they had the old advisers who were mostly exiles who were giving them bad information? Why did they make that mistake do you think?
A. Well the Americans were not the mastermind of all of this. The Americans went along with whatever the Shiite leaders with whom they had forged alliances and we’re talking about Chalabi also who is backed by the Iranians basically told them to do. They, Americans went into that war initially without any knowledge of that was the situation in Iraq, militarily speaking, they did not know that the social economic infrastructures were collapsing. They had no idea about any of those logistical important issues and even less did they know about the politics of Iraq. They had no idea that you know people had spent the 1990s and part of the 2000 in Iraq were the people that were running prison camps for Iraqi’s during you know the war, the 1980s war and these people today are back into Iraq and they are the leaders of the militias, of the Shiite militias. They had no idea about that.
Q. So who do you see as being the winners and the losers from all of this?
A. I think the winners so far is Iran because you know here we have, we have a country which has been trying to extend its influence from you know Iran into Iraq for a long time in order to control the Gulf because of course you know the north side of the Gulf is you know all Shiite and now the Americans very nicely handed over the possibility to achieve that.
Q. Thank you very much.
[End of transcript]