The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) has now controlled much of Iraq for over a month. The group has been prolific in its abuses even during this brief reign of cruelty: In recent weeks it’s crucified its opponents in Syria, executed scores of of police officers in northern Iraq, threatened archaeological sites, and even destroyed hookah tobacco.
This over-the-top brutality is a reflection of ISIS’s founder: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, once one of the world’s most notorious terrorists. As the founder and leader of the ISIS precedessor al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the Jordanian-born Zarqawi managed to take over vast swaths of the country during the U.S. military presence of the mid-2000s. He bombed Iraq’s UN headquarters, and was head of an organization that killed thousands. He led one of the most violent jihadist campaigns in history against U.S. troops, their suspected collaborators, and Iraq’s Shi’ite majority.
“As a teenager al-Zarqawi had been a bully and a thug, a bootlegger and a heavy drinker, and even, allegedly, a pimp,” journalist Mary Anne Weaver wrote in a July 2006 profile of Zarqawi for The Atlantic. The terrorist leader was killed in a U.S. airstrike that June. But today, the long-dead and gangster-like Zarqawi is one of the driving influences behind ISIS’s frightening rise — a figure whose brief and violent career presaged the next decade of developments within the global jihadist movement, and explains much of the current chaos in Iraq.
Journalist Michael Totten was embedded in Iraq during some of the conflict’s crucial years, including the period prior to the U.S.-led surge when AQI controlled much of the country’s Sunni areas. He recalls a veritable reign of terror — a power trip under which nearly everyone suffered.