The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has mutated into the Islamic State after capturing parts of Syria and Iraq. The historic Islamic term “Sham” is the name given by al-Qaeda to Syria, which the Syrians don’t like because it means “left hand” and “shame”, and instead use the pagan term, Suriya, based on the correct pronunciation of the Greek letter “y” in Syria.
The Islamic State is a Sunni terrorist organisation, linked to al-Qaeda in the past but now on its own. First formed by Abu Musaab al Zarqawi in 2003, it is led today by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, also known as Caliph Ibrahim. Baghdadi is supposed to have gone to Afghanistan in the late 1990s with Zarqawi, a Jordanian street fighter who died in Baghdad in June 2006 as an international terrorist with $25 million on his head.
Zarqawi went for jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s. He established a training camp there to prepare guerrillas against Jordan. He was jailed for seven years in Amman on his return but was soon back in Afghanistan training jihadists in Herat, and was also in Tora Bora with Osama bin Laden in 2001. He got injured in Kandahar during the American invasion and was evacuated through Iran by Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who had good contacts in Tehran. He moved to Iraq after that, well in time to see the Americans invade the country, and joined the Kurd-led jihadi militia, Ansar al-Islam, there. Ansar al-Islam, recently revived, was founded as a terrorist group by one Mullah Krekar, who went to the International Islamic University (IIU) of Islamabad as a lecturer in the 1980s and later joined the jihad in Peshawar.
At the age of 23, Zarqawi went to Pakistan, only to find that the Soviet Union had already pulled out of Afghanistan. He began to frequent the inner circles of al-Qaeda, which had just been founded. He lived in Hayatabad, Peshawar, and met such jihadi leaders as the Palestinian intellectual Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, Pashtun warlord Hekmatyar and Tajik clerical leader Burhanuddin Rabbani. He also met for the first time another personality who had arrived there from Jordan, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi.
Maqdisi was violent, attacking Western modernism, particularly its liberal democracy. Eighteen of his articles were found in the personal effects of Mohamed Atta, the leader of the Hamburg Cell, who attacked the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001. He was close to Azzam, who taught at the IIU. The two were seen eating at restaurants in Islamabad. Maqdisi’s second close friend in Pakistan was Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the man who planned the 9/11 strikes.
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Zarqawi remained in Peshawar and Afghanistan till 1993. While working at a magazine run by Khalid Sheikh Muhammad’s brother in Peshawar — which first announced the founding of al-Qaeda under Azzam — he got his three sisters married off to the jihadists. While at the magazine, Zarqawi made his way to the Sada camp of the Wahhabi Afghan warlord Abdul Rasul Sayyaf in Afghanistan, to be in the company of Ramzi Yousef, al-Qaeda’s first bomber who is now in an American prison, and Khalid Sheikh Muhammad.
In Hayatabad, Zarqawi was welcomed by the Pakistani Wafa Humanitarian Organisation, later banned by the UN, which provided funds for al-Qaeda and false passports for jihadists. Finally, many of the important al-Qaeda terrorists, including Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the man who had planned the attack on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, were arrested from Hayatabad in 2004.
One of Zarqawi’s sisters was already living in Peshawar, married to a religious scholar. Zarqawi’s mother came up to Peshawar to see her son in 1999 and stayed there for a month. Soon his wife and children too joined him. That year, the international community became impatient with Pakistan. From 1994 to 1999, almost 1,00,000 Pakistanis had been trained in the Afghan camps run by al-Qaeda, and the clerics of Pakistan had begun to sense monetary and military advantage in aligning themselves with Osama bin Laden.
On Jordan’s request, Zarqawi was arrested and sent to jail. He was released after a week although he was listed as a terrorist in Jordan. With an exit permit in his hand, Zarqawi left for Karachi first, then went to Kabul to be one of the trainers of terrorists. In Kabul, he was given a house before being sent to Herat as a trainer. He called his family over from Hayatabad, but not before he had married a young girl, aged about 13, in Kabul after falling in love with her. He was to marry yet another girl of 16 in Iraq.
By 2000, Zarqawi had succeeded in becoming an important mid-level leader in al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda papers found in Jalalabad after 2001 refer to him. Later letters sent by al-Qaeda to Abu Qatada, the radical cleric in the United Kingdom, speak well of Zarqawi as a leader in charge of the camps in Herat. Then Zarqawi returned to the battlefield in Kandahar, where he was wounded, and was treated in Karachi — by two Pakistani al-Qaeda doctors who later fled to North Waziristan. After this he decided to fight the Americans in Iraq and made his way to Kurdistan in northern Iraq through the tribal areas of Pakistan.
Ironically, Iran helped him pass through its territory on the request of Hekmatyar, not knowing that he would give birth to the most effective Shia-killing machine in the annals of sectarian history. Iran’s favours also included safe haven for Osama bin Laden’s son, Saad, through the intercession of the same Hekmatyar.
Zarqawi was in Iraq in 2001, two years before the Americans invaded it after then US secretary of state Colin Powell’s public statement about Saddam Hussein’s terrorist connections. Powell also named Zarqawi, wrongly, as a Palestinian terrorist. Zarqawi struck back in April 2004, when he captured and personally beheaded the American hostage, Nicholas Berg.
Leaning on the sectarian writings of the great 18th century Indian scholar, Shah Abdul Aziz, he killed Shias in Nasiriyah, Baghdad and Karbala, which culminated in his murder of 50 Iraqi National Guards at a training camp in Kirkuk. His most decisive act, which unleashed the sectarian war in Iraq, was the 2006 destruction of the tomb of Imam Askari in Samarra.
Al-Qaeda tried to ditch Zarqawi but couldn’t because of the support and funding he was receiving from Muslims in UK. He was killed in an American bombing raid in Baghdad in 2006. Today, ISIS is once again at odds with al-Qaeda. But, once again, all auguries point to a reconciliation which may see Ayman al-Zawahiri taking a backseat to al-Baghdadi.
As reported in the Daily Jang (June 10, 2006), Jamaat-ud-Dawa (the old Lashkar-e-Toiba) carried out a funeral prayer in absentia for Zarqawi in Lahore and condemned the foreign office for saying that the death of the Shia-killer in Iraq was an achievement in the war against terrorism. The congregation that blessed Zarqawi kept weeping loudly for the great shaheed. In the Pakistan National Assembly, the clerical alliance, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, demanded fateha prayers for Zarqawi but was denied by the speaker.
The writer is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’