Empire of Fear: Inside the Islamic State (2015)


Seven steps


In 1996 it probably didn’t feel like a huge scoop, which is probably why the Jordanian reporter Fouad Hussein would not publish it for another decade. But his exclusive story, a blueprint for the establishment of an Islamic caliphate revealed to him in part by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, looks increasingly disturbing as time goes by.

Hussein’s journalism had got him in trouble with the Jordanian authorities and he had become a political prisoner in the al-Suwaqah jail. The reporter was imprisoned in the cell next door to Zarqawi and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi,1 who were just one year into fifteen-year sentences for the possession of bombs and mines. In addition, Zarqawi had confessed to using a forged passport.2

Hussein managed to gain the trust of both men when Zarqawi was incarcerated in solitary confinement for arguing with a guard. Maqdisi asked Hussein to join in a prison protest to get his friend released and Hussein readily agreed. ‘The protest was effective, the prison director promised to release Zarqawi. When he was released and heard what I had done for him, he warmed to me,’ Hussein said later.3

Soon Maqdisi and Zarqawi would reveal to him the Seven Steps plan, drawn up by al-Qaeda strategists sometime in the early 1990s. It is clear Zarqawi would adopt this strategy as his own, and adapt it as he and his successors believed they were eclipsing al-Qaeda. Hussein would turn this revelation first relayed to him in jail into his 2005 book, Zarqawi: Al-Qaeda’s Second Generation. To say the least, the plan looks uncannily prescient.

Step 1: ‘The Awakening’, 2000–3

This phase of the strategy would provoke the US into declaring war on the Islamic world, thereby resulting in the ‘awakening’ of Muslims. The revelation was of course five years before the September 11 attacks and the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. Hussein spoke to other al-Qaeda bosses later for his book. ‘The first phase was judged by the strategists and masterminds behind al-Qaeda as very successful,’ he wrote. ‘The battlefield was opened up and the Americans and their allies became a closer and easier target.’ The terrorist network was satisfied that its message could now be heard ‘everywhere’.

Step 2: ‘Opening Eyes’, 2003–6

In this phase, the jihadists hoped to make the West aware of the ‘Islamic community’. Hussein believed this was a phase in which al-Qaeda wanted an organization to develop into a global movement. The network hoped to recruit young men during this period. Iraq should become the centre for all global operations, with an ‘army’ set up there and bases established in other Arabic states. Again, at the time of the revelation to Hussein, the invasion of Iraq was still seven years off.

Step 3: ‘Arising and Standing Up’, 2007–10

There would be a series of attacks across Turkey and the Middle East, including Israel. ‘There will be a focus on Syria,’ prophesied Hussein, based on what his sources told him. The attacks would also help al-Qaeda’s global branding as the main jihadi franchise. Hussein further believed that countries neighbouring Iraq, such as Jordan, were also in danger.

Step 4: ‘Fall of the Regimes’, 2010–13

Hussein revealed that al-Qaeda aimed to bring about the collapse of hated Arab governments across the Middle East. The forecast was that the ‘creeping loss of the regimes’ power will lead to a steady growth in strength within al-Qaeda’. Again this seems to predict the Arab Spring of 2010 and 2011, which in truth had little to do with al-Qaeda, although Islamic State has certainly benefitted from it, particularly in Syria and later apparently in Libya. At the same time attacks would be carried out against oil suppliers and, through cyber terrorism, the US economy.

Step 5: ‘Declaration of the Caliphate’ or Islamic State, 2013–16

At this point, an Islamic state, or caliphate, could be declared. By this time, Western influence in the Islamic world would be so reduced and Israel weakened so much that resistance would not be feared. Al-Qaeda hoped that by then the Islamic state would be able to bring about a new world order.

Step 6: ‘Total Confrontation’, 2016–

As soon as the caliphate had been declared, the ‘Islamic army’ would instigate the ‘fight between the believers and the non-believers’.

Step 7: ‘Definitive Victory’

The ultimate victory by the Islamic state is certain because the rest of the world will be so beaten down by the ‘one and a half billion Muslims’. Hussein writes that, in the terrorists’ eyes, the caliphate will undoubtedly succeed. This phase should be completed by 2020, although the war shouldn’t last longer than two years.4

The last two steps appear ‘somewhat fanciful’5 to many experts now but that is probably little comfort. Back in 1996, the whole blueprint would have struck any rational person as utterly implausible. It could not have been possible then to foresee the approaching tumult. But it leads to a central question: is Islamic State an offshoot of al-Qaeda, as is commonly believed, or was it always something separate and even more sinister from the beginning? The groups have been loosely affiliated in the past, but from the beginning they would argue bitterly over methods and ideology. In 2004, Zarqawi took on the al-Qaeda brand in Iraq largely for pragmatic reasons but the evidence strongly suggests that both groups had different priorities and strategies. Both believed in the caliphate but they always had different aims, particularly around who to kill. That is why the story of Zarqawi is important to our understanding of IS now.

According to experts, the caliphate was always a distant hope for al-Qaeda, something bin Laden hoped he could help bring about by creating the necessary conditions. Professor John Esposito, one of the world’s leading Islamic studies scholars, based at Georgetown University in Washington, said, ‘Inspirationally al-Qaeda was sort of saying, “We’re going to take over the world, and we’re going to take back everything, including Spain.” But it was a case of Insha’Allah, in other words, God willing and God knows. Only God knows when it’s going to happen.’6

Al-Qaeda saw itself very much as the special ‘vanguard’ of Muslims that the influential Islamist scholar Sayyid Qutb said was necessary for the revival of Islam, and for the return of God’s sovereignty on earth. Both communism and capitalism were but ‘a corollary of rebellion against God’s authority and the denial of dignity of man given to him by God’.7 Qutb called on this vanguard to wage ‘Islamic Jihad’, in order to establish an ‘Islamic state’ where ‘Sharia is the authority and God’s limits are observed’.8 The rest of the world was ‘the home of hostility’ and there were only two possible relations with it, peace by treaty or war.9 Qutb did not use the word ‘caliphate’, although his call for an ‘Islamic state’ resonated with many groups such as al-Qaeda that regarded the abolition of the Ottoman caliphate as evidence of Islam’s decline, and even harboured nostalgic sentiments for the Ottoman caliphs who would send their fleets and armies ‘to defend any threatened Muslim areas’.10

The Seven Steps plan shows that Zarqawi and at least some senior strategists in al-Qaeda had a timetable as well as a desire to bring about the caliphate through savagery and chaos. Step 6 is emphatic about the wider aims beyond the caliphate. Once established the caliphate would then go to war with the non-Muslim world; as the leading terrorism expert David Kilcullen once said, ‘it is clear that the Takfiri aim is first to overthrow and control power structures in the Muslim world, and only then turn against the West’.11 Zarqawi announced to the world his obsession with a caliphate in Iraq in 2004 after the US-led invasion had toppled Saddam Hussein. ‘There will be a caliphate that follows the guidance of Prophethood remaining with you for as long as God wills it to remain,’ he declared in his vainglorious speech of October 2004.12 Zarqawi and his successors did not just want to wage jihad and destroy their enemies; they wanted to conquer territory and hold it.

Zarqawi and Maqdisi would serve only four years of their sentence in prison before being released through a general amnesty in 1999, but it was during this period that Zarqawi moulded further his terrifying character, recruited followers and prepared for a life of jihad. In retrospect, it seems astonishing that the Jordanian authorities placed all the Islamists in one block, creating something of an ‘emirate behind bars’.13 If this really was the case then Zarqawi was considered the ‘emir’ of the prison. His allure rested mainly on his reputation as one of the Mujahidin, the victorious Arab warriors in Afghanistan. For years, some commentators believed that Zarqawi’s reputation as a war-hardened mujahid was a little threadbare, as it seemed probable that he had neither ‘participated in any battle nor killed any single individual’.14

However, fellow jihadis later claimed that Zarqawi was in Afghanistan between 1989 and 1993 before returning to Jordan. Apparently at first, the Jordanian worked as a reporter for a small jihadist magazine called Al-Bonian al-Marsous. Huthaifa Azzam, the son of an important Mujahidin leader, got to know Zarqawi well after greeting him at Peshawar airport in Pakistan in 1989. ‘He was an ordinary guy, an ordinary fighter, and didn’t really distinguish himself,’ Azzam would say later, adding that Zarqawi fought in the war waged by the Mujahidin against the communist Kabul government, formerly supported by Moscow, following the withdrawal of Soviet forces. ‘Zarqawi doesn’t know the meaning of fear,’15 Azzam said, also claiming that Zarqawi was injured several times in battle and witnessed the bloody capture of Kabul by the Mujahidin in 1992. He may even have witnessed the gruesome end of the Communist president Mohammad Najibullah, whose bloody body was hanged from a traffic control box after he was castrated and dragged to his death on the streets behind a truck driven by a mujahid.16

Fouad Hussein later described the Zarqawi of al-Suwaqah prison to fellow journalist Abdel Bari Atwan as a ‘a cool, self-contained person who would speak only when addressed’.17 But Zarqawi also menaced the authorities and individual prisoners. On several occasions he tried to organize uprisings18 and on another he threatened a prisoner he caught reading Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky. Zarqawi asked the prisoner, Abu Doma, ‘Why are you reading this book by a heathen?’ Later Doma received a letter from Zarqawi in poor Arabic ordering him to stop reading ‘Doseefsky’.19

Zarqawi is likely to have been further brutalized by his prison experience. He probably suffered torture during his incarceration; fellow prisoners reported that all the Jordanian’s toenails were removed and at one stage he was placed in solitary confinement for eight and a half months.20 He seemed to require little company and his aloofness and strangeness soon earned him the nickname al-Gharib, ‘the Stranger’.21

‘Zarqawi was the muscle, and al-Maqdisi the thinker,’ said fellow prisoner Abdullah Abu Rumman, a journalist and editor.22 ‘Through sheer force of personality, Zarqawi controlled the prison ward, Abu Rahman went on, ‘He decided who would cook, who would do the laundry, who would lead the readings of the Koran. He was extremely protective of his followers and extremely tough with prisoners outside his group. He didn’t trust them. He considered them infidels.’23

During this time, other inmates noticed the friction between Zarqawi and his ideological master, Maqdisi, possibly due to the recognition afforded the dangerous theologian.24 Later, during Zarqawi’s killing rampage in Iraq, Maqdisi would repeatedly condemn the extremism and violence of his former disciple. In particular, he would emphatically reject Zarqawi’s assertion that Shia Muslims were apostates and even non-Muslims. He would also criticize the use of violence against civilians and mosques.25 It is highly likely these differences started to play out during the long tedious months behind bars. Maqdisi must have seen the possible threat to the whole concept of jihad that was being posed by Zarqawi’s genocidal approach to the so-called kuffar, or unbelievers. The scholar made his feelings bitterly clear in 2004 and 2005 when he strongly criticized Zarqawi’s targeting of the Shia,26 and much later with his repeated condemnations of the excesses of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his ‘deviant organization’.27 At that time, long before Zarqawi’s war on the world, Maqdisi may not have believed himself to be a Dr Frankenstein but he may well have felt uneasy about the conclusions the Jordanian had drawn from his teachings.

When not arguing with Maqdisi or memorizing the 6,000-plus verses of the Koran,28 Zarqawi spent time developing the body of the fighter he wanted to become by lifting makeshift weights made from cans or buckets of rocks.29In 1997 he was moved to the prison of al-Salt before being finally transferred to a high security jail at Jafar, evidence of the danger he still posed.30 But he would be released within months, despite the deep concerns harboured by the Jordanian security services.

In February 1999 King Hussein of Jordan died and the Muslim Brotherhood and various other Islamist organizations prevailed on his successor, King Abdullah II, to announce a general pardon for three thousand prisoners. The royal decree was approved by the Jordanian parliament on 18 March 1999. The amnesty was supposed to exclude prisoners convicted of crimes such as rape, murder and terrorism, which should have kept Zarqawi and Maqdisi behind bars. However, several Islamist groups in the Jordanian parliament lobbied hard for the release of the ‘Afghans’ and Zarqawi was discharged on 29 March 1999.31 Within five years he would become the world’s deadliest terrorist.

Zarqawi on the loose

In the summer of 1999, Zarqawi returned to Peshawar in Pakistan and towards the end of the year crossed the border into Afghanistan, then largely controlled by the Taliban. Later he met Osama bin Laden at the Government Guest House in the southern city of Kandahar. According to later reports, the two men did not get on.32 Apparently bin Laden was highly suspicious of the reasons behind Zarqawi’s release and believed that he might have been an agent for Jordanian intelligence. Like Maqdisi, bin Laden was also said to be disturbed by Zarqawi’s professed hatred of the Shia Muslims.33 Bin Laden’s mother, Alia Hamida al-Attas, was said to be a Shiite, from Syria. Certainly, the issue of the Shia would cause friction between Zarqawi and al-Qaeda over the following years. For Zarqawi and those who followed him, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Shia Muslims became the main target of their violence. This continued to be the case even when Zarqawi finally agreed to take on the al-Qaeda franchise in Iraq in 2004.

Zarqawi wanted to build a jihadi army he could lead anywhere but he needed the help and support of al-Qaeda. Ultimately, he was given £5,000 by al-Qaeda and allowed to set up his desert training camp near Herat, Afghanistan’s third-biggest city. It was called Tawhid wa’l Jihad, the Organization of Monotheism and Jihad. This would be the formal name of Zarqawi’s murder machine in Iraq from 2003 onwards, the forerunner to ISIS and Islamic State. According to a former bodyguard of bin Laden, Tawhid’s initial mission statement included the overthrow of the government of Jordan as well as the annihilation of Jews all over the world.34

Al-Qaeda appointed one of its senior commanders, Saif al-Adel, to keep an eye on Zarqawi. Adel was a former colonel in the Egyptian army and believed to have been one of the masterminds behind the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in October 1981.35 He is also listed by the FBI as one of its ‘most wanted terrorists’ for his alleged part in the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.36 The Egyptian was impressed by how Zarqawi had built his militia from the dozen or so who were with him at the start to hundreds over the following year. By the time of the attacks of 11 September 2001 the number of fighters and their families was estimated to be between two and three thousand.37

Zarqawi demanded that his recruits pledge an oath of allegiance, or bay’ah, to him personally, a requirement of jihadi commanders including Baghdadi and bin Laden.38 Although Zarqawi kept in contact with al-Qaeda he did not pledge his allegiance to bin Laden.39 This may have been down to the alleged antagonism between the pair but it is more likely Zarqawi wanted to be his own man.

Increasingly during 2001, bin Laden became focused not only on the forthcoming attacks of September 11th but also on the inevitable consequences. He knew the US would strike back. With this in mind bin Laden looked at Iraqi Kurdistan, now an autonomous region, as a possible bolthole for jihadis in the event of the anticipated US attack on Afghanistan. It seemed perfect for the job. As an autonomous region of northern Iraq since the first Gulf War, it was out of the reach of Saddam Hussein, then still president of Iraq. At the time of bin Laden’s intervention, it was under the control of an important nationalist Kurd political party called the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK.

Zarqawi’s first caliphate

Under Saddam, it would have been impossible for Islamist militants to take over towns and villages within Iraq itself, but small groups of Salafi militants had established themselves in autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan long before bin Laden saw this area as a possible safe haven for jihadis in the wake of September 11th. It is not known how much Zarqawi knew about 9/11 prior to the attack. Probably not much, according to some sources that say he was dismayed with bin Laden’s decision to attack the US because it destroyed the security the jihadis had enjoyed in Afghanistan,40 the closest they had at the time to their own ‘Islamic State’. But without 9/11 there would have been no invasion of Iraq and no Zarqawi legend.

On 1 September 2001, under the auspices of bin Laden and Zarqawi, two Kurdish jihadi groups merged to form a new jihadi group called Jund al-Islam, ‘Soldiers of the Levant’. This was soon renamed Ansar al-Islam fi Kurdistan, or ‘Partisans of Islam in Kurdistan’. Soon the group’s enclave of ten or so villages began to receive and host Zarqawi’s fighters. It was later claimed that bin Laden gave the group $300,000.41 Violence and murder would follow in the jihadis’ wake.

In mid September 2001 it was reported that some fifty-seven ‘Arab-Afghan’ fighters of various nationalities, almost certainly belonging to Zarqawi, had entered Iraqi Kurdistan via Iran earlier in the month, around the time of the 9/11 attacks.42 All the evidence suggests that Zarqawi remained in Afghanistan as it came under attack by the US-led coalition but that he later escaped to Iraqi Kurdistan via Iran around April 2002. By then the influence of bin Laden and Zarqawi’s fighters from al-Tawhid wa’l Jihad had had a profound impact on both Ansar al-Islam and Iraqi Kurdistan.

I unearthed an old report by the charity Human Rights Watch published in February 2003 about what Ansar al-Islam got up to in Iraqi Kurdistan under the influence of Zarqawi and the backing of al-Qaeda and it makes sobering reading. Essentially Ansar al-Islam declared war on the ruling Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, and sought to inflict its own rigid and extreme version of Islam on the people in the territory it sought to control. A caliphate was declared in these territories and what happened next sounds eerily similar to life under Islamic State more than a decade later in Iraq and Syria.

In its 2003 report, Human Rights Watch said that on 8 September 2001, three days before the 9/11 attacks, Ansar al-Islam

issued decrees including the obligatory closure of offices and businesses during prayer time and enforced attendance by workers and proprietors at the mosque during those times; the veiling of women by wearing the traditional ‘abaya’ [loose over-garment or robe]; obligatory beards for men; segregation of the sexes; barring women from education and employment; the removal of any photographs of women on packaged goods brought into the region; the confiscation of musical instruments and the banning of music both in public and private; and the banning of satellite receivers and televisions.

Some villagers had witnessed the fate of PUK fighters captured by Ansar:

Some prisoners’ throats had been slit, while others had been beheaded; some of the bodies were mutilated, including by having their sexual organs severed. They were apparently found with their hands tied behind their back. Photographs taken by the PUK of the victims’ bodies were shown on the party’s satellite television channel, KurdSat, on September 26.

The group also announced that it would apply Islamic punishments of amputation, flogging and stoning to death for offences such as ‘theft, the consumption of alcohol and adultery’.43

The alleged atrocities followed the declaration of a caliphate in the Kurdish towns of Biara and Tawela44 by Ansar al-Islam’s religious guru or emir; the ebullient Kurdish Salafi Mullah Krekar would be the caliph, but increasingly Zarqawi became the strong man. Krekar would later turn up in Norway claiming asylum.45

At this time Zarqawi also began his campaign to destabilize neighbouring Jordan. On 28 October 2002 Laurence Foley, a sixty-year-old American diplomat, was shot dead outside his home in the Jordanian capital, Amman.46Zarqawi was determined to oversee the planning and preparation of the murder, and supplied Foley’s two killers47 with more than $50,000 in funds and the murder weapon, a 7-millimetre pistol.48

Zarqawi established another training camp near the town of Khurmal in the north-eastern province of Halabja. Here, allegedly, he also established a laboratory for the manufacture of chemical and biological weapons. Later the US would claim Zarqawi’s camp and presence in Iraqi Kurdistan as evidence of Saddam Hussein’s complicity in the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction.

Zarqawi was named no fewer than twenty-one times by US secretary of state Colin Powell as he outlined to the United Nations the case for war against Saddam on 5 February 2003. In his now notorious speech,49 Powell said, ‘Iraq today harbours a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda lieutenants,’ and claimed that Saddam had placed an agent in ‘the most senior levels of the radical organisation, Ansar al-Islam’.50 Powell also showed aerial photographs of the camp at Khurmal. He added that Zarqawi’s network was ‘teaching its operatives how to produce ricin and other poisons. Let me remind you how ricin works. Less than a pinch – imagine a pinch of salt – less than a pinch of ricin, eating just this amount in your food, would cause shock followed by circulatory failure. Death comes within seventy-two hours and there is no antidote, there is no cure. It is fatal.’

Six weeks later another US-led coalition would be at war with Iraq. That war would be over quickly with the fall of Baghdad and Saddam Hussein. Other wars would then follow, starting with the long insurgency waged by the deposed Sunni Muslim minority. The most terrible conflict would be Zarqawi’s campaign of ultra-violence, a war of savagery to cleanse Iraq of the non-believers and apostates and prepare the way for the caliphate. That war would start in the summer of 2003 and still rages today.