Empire of Fear: Inside the Islamic State (2015)

4

The management of savagery

2003–2005

Few cities can have suffered as much carnage and terror as Baghdad since 2003. When you are there, you try as much as possible to avoid certain mosques or markets and other public places at certain times, but of course the bombers know that as well. ‘Death can come at any time,’ one woman I met in Baghdad’s main shopping mall in the Mansour district told me.1

So you soon become used to hearing explosions from suicide bombings and car bombs. At a distance of a few streets away there is the strange almost muffled bang, followed by first the car alarms and some moments later the sirens. Then a black column of smoke and fire belches furiously into the air. Sometimes what is called ‘a secondary device’ will go off, aimed at killing the emergency services or nosey bystanders. After half an hour or so the interior ministry phones in the casualty figures like some grisly football score – how many dead and how many injured. Few people phone back later to enquire how many of the injured have perished from their injuries, although sadly many do die. By that time there are more bombings and more shootings to report and tragically the attack is soon forgotten, except of course by the many widows and widowers, orphans and grieving relatives. The victims are guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, which is what makes the horror so random, almost as if people were being incinerated in cars and cafés for sport by some casually psychopathic dragon. It all seems so crazy and pointless.

Now we know that these massacres were being carefully chronicled by bureaucrats working for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State, so an accurate annual report called Al-Naba can be presented to the world.2 This document details every car bomb, every ‘improvised explosive device’ (IED), every assassination by gun or knife. There are also the beheadings of hostages or the burning of a Jordanian pilot in a cage – all carefully choreographed and directed by IS. Caliphates don’t just happen by accident. There is a conscious attempt to manage all this savagery – a ‘method to the madness’. Behind it, there is even a textbook.

Believe it or not, The Management of Savagery is the actual title of an online book that appeared in 2004 and it eerily describes the terror strategy used by Baghdadi and his predecessors including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Essentially, it is a terror manual that will most probably never be read by Western consumers of news and current affairs. Its 268 pages detail how to bring about an ‘Islamic state’ or caliphate through the use of extreme violence and brutality.

A state of extreme savagery is still better than rule by apostates or kuffar, argues the book: ‘the most abominable of the levels of savagery is [still] less than stability under the order of disbelief by [several] degrees’.3 Strewn with historical and religious references, the writing is often puzzling and arcane, as is often the way with jihadi texts, but certain sections jump out at you with shocking clarity, particularly chapter 2, ‘The path for establishing an Islamic State’.

The book argues that the enemy should be ground down and defeated through the ‘“the power of vexation and exhaustion” by means of groups and separate cells in every region of the Islamic world’.4 Attacks by these groups would continue ‘until the anticipated chaos and savagery breaks out in several regions’.5

The US would then be drawn into conflict because of not only this strategy but also attacks directed against it. The ‘Crusader-Zionist’ enemy (the US) must then be attacked ‘in every place in the Islamic world, and even outside if possible, so as to disperse the effort of the alliance of the enemy and thus drain it to the greatest possible extent’.6 The book adds, ‘The inevitable result of this escalating sequence is the fall of American prestige among the masses and among the elites of the world in the armies of apostasy.’7

Islamic target countries would be chosen based on ‘the weakness of the ruling regime and the weakness of the centralization of its power’.8 Iraq must have gone to the top of the list. The savagery would continue relentlessly until ‘the public will see how the troops flee, heeding nothing. At this point, savagery and chaos begin and these regions will start to suffer from the absence of security.’9 This mayhem or tawahush10 would lead to the Islamic State. In many ways The Management of Savagery feels like a focused and analytical companion volume to the Seven Steps.11

For a long time no one knew who had written it until it was discovered the author was probably one Abu Bakr Naji,12 an Egyptian, who was thought to have been an important al-Qaeda strategist, possibly even its one-time ‘head of external relations’. In August 2006, al-Qaeda’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, introduced Naji as such to the world in an al-Qaeda video.13 (His real name was Muhammad Hasan Khalil al-Hakim.) Ironically in October 2008, Naji was to succumb to a rather hi-tech piece of savagery management himself when a US Predator drone struck his car as he drove through the jihadist badlands of North Waziristan in Pakistan.14

Zarqawi would follow the textbook to the bloody letter and deploy extreme savagery for the first three years of the US-led occupation of Iraq. His campaign would be devastating, not only against the US and important international agencies, but against his principal target, the Shia majority of Iraq.

By the summer of 2003, Zarqawi was preparing his onslaught on his enemies. He would have extraordinary success in Baghdad but his stronghold from where he would draw his support and strength and where he would make his car bombs would be in the so-called ‘Sunni Triangle’, the densely populated and predominantly Sunni area of central Iraq. Roughly speaking, the base of the triangle stretches some 120 miles from the east of Baghdad westwards to a point just past the city of Ramadi in Iraq’s vast Anbar province, with the apex just north of the city of Tikrit. The city of Fallujah, an important future base for Zarqawi and his successors, lies just above the base almost halfway between Ramadi and Baghdad.15 The ‘Sunni Triangle’ and the towns and cities within it would play a key role in the Sunni insurgency and in the later success of Islamic State in 2014.

In 2003, Zarqawi and his group of jihadis in Tawhid wa’l Jihad was one of a plethora of terrorist groups emerging in Iraq at the time, although it was markedly different in its objectives to all the others. In truth, Zarqawi was never part of the real Sunni insurgency against the US-led occupation and the Americans’ Iraqi allies. Zarqawi would of course target Americans and their allies but above all he wanted to wage his genocidal war against the Shia and drag them into a conflict with the Sunni, and so bring about the collapse of the state necessary for the caliphate.

The alien and sinister nature of Zarqawi’s war took time to emerge in the chaos and violence of post-invasion Iraq. His group would stand out for its sheer savagery but even other insurgents were slow to realize that Zarqawi, who was after all a Jordanian, was using their revolt as cover for his own brutal jihad. An Iraqi insurgent sheikh, Osama al-Jadaan, later murdered on Zarqawi’s orders, would sum it up shortly before his death:16 ‘We realised that these foreign terrorists were hiding behind the veil of the noble Iraqi resistance. They claim to be striking at the US occupation, but the reality is they are killing innocent Iraqis in the markets, in mosques, in churches, and in our schools.’17

The other groups were mainly true insurgents, for example, those ex-Ba’athist soldiers and leaders who were determined to defeat the occupying forces and restore what they saw as the true order of things, in other words, the old order with Sunnis like them in charge. Perhaps the most prominent Ba’athist group formed in 2003 was the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order. At the head of the Naqshbandi Order in 2015 was the extraordinary figure of Field Marshal Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, Saddam’s former vice president and the deputy chairman of his ruling Revolutionary Command Council. At the time of the invasion, US troops were given packs of playing cards showing the fifty-two most wanted Iraqi leaders so they could identify and arrest them. Saddam was the ace of spades; Douri was the king of clubs.18 Known as ‘the Hidden Sheikh’,19 the red-haired field marshal would elude capture for more than a decade. Douri would go on to fight alongside Baghdadi in June 2014, and played a critical role in supporting his capture of Iraq’s second-biggest city, Mosul.20 When Saddam was executed at the end of 2006, former Iraqi Ba’ath functionaries appointed Douri as head of the Ba’ath Party.21 Douri was at large for twelve years until he was reportedly killed near Tikrit in April 2015.22

Other groups would play an important role in the Sunni insurgency in the years to come. They included the 1920 Revolution Brigades, essentially a hotchpotch of nationalists and Salafis. They were founded in July 2003 and organized themselves into several combat brigades. Their name refers to the failed 1920 Iraqi uprising against British colonial rule. They were also closely associated with Sunni political parties and groups involved in the faltering political process in Baghdad.23 The Revolution Brigades targeted mainly US troops with bombings, shootings and kidnappings, although they would later join the US in a war against Islamic State of Iraq, a precursor to ISIS and Islamic State.24 Jamaat Ansar al-Sunna (Assembly of the Helpers of the Sunni People) was another important insurgent group, primarily made up of Sunni Kurds, determined to establish a Salafi Islamic state governed by Sharia.25 Its members were also exponents of deadly roadside IEDs, mainly against coalition troops. Like Zarqawi, Jamaat Ansar al-Sunna would kidnap and behead hostages, but neither it nor the 1920 Brigades targeted fellow Muslims, Sunni or Shia, in the way Zarqawi and his successors did, or used anything like the remorseless mass casualty violence they used.

To many in the West these groups would always remain obscure. The Ba’athists and nationalists fought the occupation by targeting US forces in particular. Almost at the start, and in no small way thanks to Colin Powell’s pre-invasion speech to the United Nations, Zarqawi became the face of the Sunni insurgency and that’s how he wanted it. For the Jordanian, the insurgency was always the cover for the destruction of the Shia and the ultimate creation of the caliphate. His notoriety also helped attract recruits and funding. By the end of the summer of 2003, Zarqawi had destabilized Iraq with a string of devastating attacks on a range of high-profile targets.

The Zarqawi terror

Zarqawi opened his account of death with a car bomb attack on the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad on 7 August 2003. At least a dozen people were killed and another fifty were injured. Many of the victims were found in burning cars in front of the building. According to some eyewitness reports, a mob of Iraqis then stormed the building. One man emerged with a photo of King Hussein of Jordan that he then smashed to ‘loud cheers’ from the assembled mob. It would be another half an hour before US troops turned up to restore order.26 The following day, ‘Jerry’ Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) issued a press release, ‘Results in Iraq: 100 Days toward Security and Freedom’, in which it claimed, ‘Most of Iraq is calm and progress on the road to democracy and freedom not experienced in decades continues. Only in isolated areas are there still attacks.’27 Much worse was to follow.

On 19 August, a suicide cement truck loaded with high explosives slammed into the headquarters of the United Nations, killing twenty-two people and injuring another seventy. Sergio de Mello, the head of the UN mission to Iraq, survived the initial blast but died several hours later after being trapped upside down in the rubble.28 Nesri Tehayneh, once a close associate of Zarqawi’s, said later in a TV interview, ‘Zarqawi told me he needed to hit a big target to recruit followers. Zarqawi said that the UN was a nest for secret services and American spies. He said he needed to attack the UN and kill that criminal Sergio.’29 A month later, the UN suffered another bomb attack. The attacks were brutal but extremely effective. Eight hundred UN personnel pulled out, leaving behind only a skeleton staff of fifteen. Other international agencies including the charity Oxfam were already pulling out people30 by the time another Zarqawi suicide bomber attacked the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

On 27 October, approximately thirty-four people were killed in the ICRC bombing and other attacks, which included the bombing of a police station. At the time, one US spokesman said the attacks bore hallmarks of ‘foreign fighters’ while others started to mention al-Qaeda.31 For the first time, someone was practising what was preached in The Management of Savagery.

These attacks stunned the world and many ordinary Iraqis. On 19 August 2003, a 24-year-old woman blogger going by the name Riverbend wrote:

The UN explosion is horrible…terrifying and saddening. No one can believe it has happened…no one understands why it has happened. For God’s sake these people are supposed to be here to help. I’m so angry and frustrated. Nothing is moving forward – here is no progress and this is just an example. The media is claiming al-Qaeda. God damn we never had al-Qaeda before this occupation.32

In an opinion poll taken in Baghdad in early autumn of 2003, ninety-four percent of people said their capital was a more dangerous place than before the invasion.33

Before Zarqawi’s campaign began, there had been a brief flickering false dawn of hope, remembered Caroline Hawley, the Baghdad correspondent for the BBC at this time. She said:

It became a frightening place. In the very early days [of the occupation] it was amazing because you could speak to people for the first time and they could answer openly, and all the mass graves were being discovered and people could tell you about that. It all felt like this huge cathartic moment for a country because all this repressed torment was bursting into the open. In the early days you could do anything and go anywhere.

People could speak for the first time, which was incredible to be able to be there and to listen to all that. Then there were bombs and then everybody started to feel afraid because you felt you could be unlucky and be hit [by a bomb attack or shooting] anytime.34

Over the next three years, Zarqawi would continue to target the Iraqi government and US troops and anyone who supported them. He would personally behead hostages and post the footage on the web. Within a year, Zarqawi would be the most wanted terrorist on earth with a $25 million reward on offer from the US government.35 To put that in context, the US offered the same bounty for information leading to the arrest or conviction of Osama bin Laden.36However, the US state department never offered more than $10 million for the Islamic State ‘caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Zarqawi’s main target remained Iraq’s majority Shia Muslims. In this campaign of slaughter he would stop at nothing; he would even turn a Shia youth with Down’s syndrome into a walking bomb to use against his own people. Not even his associates in al-Qaeda like Osama bin Laden could prevent Zarqawi from his genocide against the Shia. Zarqawi’s jihad against Iraq’s Shia majority was always a complete departure from the true jihad for al-Qaeda, whose main targets remained the ‘far enemy’ (the US) and the ‘near enemy’ (the interim Iraqi governing institutions). The differing objectives and strategies of Zarqawi and al-Qaeda provided the source of continuing friction between the two groups for years to come.

Zarqawi had nothing but contempt for the ‘Crusader’ Americans. ‘We consider it a certainty that the armed forces of these Crusaders will disappear in short order,’ he wrote in 2004. ‘These, as you know, are the most cowardly of God’s creatures. They are easy prey, God be praised. We ask that God allow us to kill and capture them, so we can sow panic among those who support them.’37

In a letter,38 apparently sent to Osama bin Laden39 in January 2004,40 Zarqawi was clear in his main aim: to bring about a civil war between the Shia and the minority Sunni Muslims. To Zarqawi, Shia Muslims, or Shiites, were ‘the insurmountable obstacle, the prowling serpent, the crafty evil scorpion, the enemy lying in wait, and biting poison’.41

He said, ‘Our fight against the Shi’ites is the way to draw the nation [of Muslims] into battle…our only option is to strike at the Shi’ites, attacking their religious, military and other personnel, coming at them relentlessly until they yield to the Sunnis.’ Zarqawi also extended his genocidal wrath to Iraq’s more than five million Kurds, around fifteen to twenty percent of the population,42 saying they ‘are a foreign body that is strangling us and a wound of which we have yet to rid ourselves. They are the last on the list, even if we did everything we could to get at some of their figureheads, with God’s help.’

On 29 August 2003, just ten days after his lethal attack on the UN, Zarqawi struck at the very heart of Shia Islam and killed one of its most senior religious leaders and politicians. Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim was leaving Friday prayers43 at the revered shrine of Shia’s first Imam, Ali, in, the holy city of Najaf when a suicide car bomber detonated his device, killing Hakim and more than ninety others. The bomber was said to be one Yasin Jarad, Zarqawi’s own father-in-law.44

Hakim was not only a cleric of great significance but also the religious leader of the main Shia political party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI. Hakim had returned from exile a little more than three months earlier45 and for the US he was probably the most important Iraqi ally. On hearing the news, Paul Bremer, the administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority, almost broke down.46

For Zarqawi this was a huge coup, but it was just the start. Over the following years he continued to pound relentlessly on the sectarian divide between Shia and Sunni Muslims. On 2 March 2004, Zarqawi’s suicide bombers attacked Shias in Baghdad and the second holy city of Karbala. The attacks took place among crowds of worshippers taking part in the so-called Ashura religious ceremonies.

At the Imam Musa al-Khadim shrine in Baghdad’s Kadhimiya district, three bombers struck. The first blew himself up in the crowds outside the mosque while the second detonated his device among the pilgrims inside the shrine. As people ran screaming through a pair of big doors a third suicide bomber standing at the doorway struck. ‘Streaks of blood and bits of flesh clung to the tiled walls and floors of the Imam Musa al-Khadim shrine,’ a newspaper correspondent described later.47 The total death toll was estimated conservatively at more than 140. In December 2004, Zarqawi’s bombers hit both Karbala and Najaf once again, killing more than sixty.48 Zarqawi and his successors would attack these holy cities again and again over the years.

Zarqawi and the Iraqi Sunni insurgents quickly shattered US hopes of a quick victory followed by a flower-strewn victory march through Baghdad or a ticker-tape parade down Wall Street. Instead another Vietnam-type fiasco started to loom large and there was confusion about how to deal with this new and unexpected stage of the war. A young Iraqi American called Ali Khedery was an important front-row witness to the events in Iraq over a decade. From the invasion of 2003 onwards, Khedery acted as personal adviser to five successive US ambassadors to Iraq as well as three successive US army commanders. He is very critical about the way the US military tried to deal with the insurgency at first. He said:

Some of us learned the hard way that you were never going to crush this thing by force. So we went into Iraq in 2003, and Baghdad, and the regime crumbled.

The fourth infantry division tried to kill their way out of the insurgency when in fact all they did was make it worse. The divisional commander, General Ray Odierno, who was then a two-star general, was based in Tikrit and he had virtually the entire Sunni central area of the country; he was in charge of it and all he did was make it much worse – he hid behind his tactics.

Folks like General David Petraeus, who was also then a two-star commander in Mosul at the time in charge of the 101st Airborne Division, adopted a ‘counter-insurgency approach’, as [General George] Patton did in Germany after World War Two, in that he was willing to let Ba’athists continue [in] various civil servant positions, to keep the power going and to keep security going and that’s why Mosul in the first year was totally pacified. Petraeus embraced the Ba’athists like Patton did with the Nazis as Germany was falling.

So the insurgency got worse across most of the country thanks to Ambassador Bremer’s various ridiculous edicts like suspending the military and then putting the de-Ba’athification commission under the control of sectarian Shia politicians. By 2005 myself and a couple of other colleagues were convinced we had to reach out to the Sunnis and to see if we could broker a deal with them.49

The US general David Petraeus, whose actions so impressed Khedery in Mosul, would be the man to take on Zarqawi’s organization in 2007 and 2008 and almost destroy it.

Two attacks in 2004 and 2005 revealed just how far Zarqawi was prepared to go in his war on the Shia. On 30 September 2004 crowds had gathered for a government-sponsored celebration to inaugurate a new sewage plant in the predominantly Shia western Baghdad neighbourhood of al-Amel. US troops were handing out candy to children when three bombs exploded nearby. A BBC TV crew was on the way to the scene after news of the first bomb at the sewage works ceremony, but Zarqawi had made some stories too dangerous to report. Patrick Howse, the BBC producer with the crew, remembers, ‘We were on our way when the second bomb went off. When we heard the bang, it was clearly quite close. Immediately, our security adviser made a circular motion with his finger and we decided to turn back after without getting out of the car.’50 Among the forty-two dead were thirty-five children. There were pitiful scenes according to one reporter: ‘Grief-stricken mothers wailed over their children’s corpses, as relatives collected body parts from the street for burial and a boy picked up the damaged bicycle of his dead brother.’51The bombing had not only been about punishing families and children for daring to fraternize with the US, it was also aimed at the coalition’s attempt to rebuild Iraq, to get the country the infrastructure it desperately needed. For Zarqawi, the al-Amel attack had all the perfect ingredients, slaughtering Shia children and US troops while they were celebrating, of all things, a new sewage plant that would have helped make their difficult and dangerous lives just a little more tolerable. Above all the attack was text book management of savagery, striking at the foundations of a still fragile state and security infrastructure, and destroying people’s faith in the protection offered by the new order.

On 1 February 2005, a nineteen-year-old youth called Amar Ahmed Mohammed approached a polling booth in the al-Askan district of Baghdad. The bomb strapped to his body was supposed to kill his fellow Shias as they took part in Iraq’s first election. He detonated the device some distance away from his target, killing only himself. Amar had Down’s syndrome and apparently had the mental age of a four-year-old. He had been abducted by Zarqawi’s men, who turned him into a human bomb by strapping him into a suicide belt.52 His cousin said of young Amar later, ‘He was mindless, but he was mostly happy, laughing and playing with the children in the street. Now, his father is inconsolable; his mother cries all the time.’53 It would not be the last time that the group would use wholly innocent people with Down’s syndrome as bombs.

Amar Ahmed was murdered around the time Zarqawi’s child bride, fourteen-year-old Israa, gave birth to their baby boy Abdul Rahman. They had been married the previous year when Zarqawi was thirty-seven and Israa was only thirteen. It was reportedly Israa’s father, Yasin Jarad, who was the suicide bomber in the deadly attack in Najaf in August 2003. Her marriage would end up killing her and her son. Zarqawi was said to have had two wives and four children during his short life.54

Whenever there was a huge mass-casualty attack in Iraq, Zarqawi was always at the top of the list of suspects. On 28 February 2005, one of his suicide bombers, a fellow Jordanian, Raed Mansour al-Banna, drove a car packed full of explosives into a crowded bazaar at a recruitment centre in the predominantly Shia town of al-Hillah around sixty miles south of Baghdad. Banna detonated his bomb, killing at least 166 people and injuring another 146.55 Many of the victims were Shia men hoping to be recruited as policemen. It was the biggest mass casualty suicide attack since the invasion. The attacker, Banna, was a law graduate who had lived in the US and loved ‘motorcycles, women and partying’, an American friend said later, until he returned from a long trip to his native Jordan seemingly ‘indoctrinated’.56

On 17 October 2004, Zarqawi and his Tawhid wa’l Jihad group issued an online statement in the usual flowery language of the jihad pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda and its commander Osama bin Laden. Tawhid wa’l Jihad was no more; henceforth Zarqawi’s group would be called al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers, or al-Qaeda in Iraq for short, or shorter still, AQI. ‘Praise be to God who has untied the ranks of Mujahideen and disperses the forces of the infidels,’ Zarqawi announced, ‘and praise be to God who said, “Hold fast to the rope of God and you shall not be divided.”’

It was a marriage of convenience for both groups. In hiding from the US following the 9/11 attacks, bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri would suddenly appear horribly relevant as a force in global jihad; for Zarqawi, it was a chance to boast possession of the most famous terrorist franchise in the world as well as access to private donors and logistical and recruitment networks.57 Zarqawi and his successors would be referred to as ‘al-Qaeda in Iraq’ long after they had dropped the title; often it was used as a shorthand to describe what was an even more sinister and dangerous movement. For the next ten years, the association with Zarqawi and his successors would cause al-Qaeda much embarrassment as well as angst over the harm they did to the image of jihad. The final break-up, after years of bickering, would be brutal and final.

Richard Barrett was a former British diplomat as well as a senior intelligence officer with the agencies MI5 and MI6 in the UK. For almost a decade, he headed the United Nations’ monitoring team concerning al-Qaeda and the Taliban. He is now senior vice-president of a respected US-based think-tank, the Soufan Group. He said:

From the very start, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was not really a follower of Osama bin Laden. Certainly he took his money. Sure, overall they were sharing objectives but even then Zarqawi thought doing stuff in the broader Levant [this area includes Jordan, Syria and Lebanon] was much more important than worrying about what the Americans were doing in Iraq. So they had a difference of opinion there.

And then when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was so successful from 2003 in Iraq, Zawahiri [then deputy leader of al-Qaeda] in particular thought, ‘Well, this is a bit poor; here’s the biggest battle ever in our lifetimes going on against the West and we’re not even represented.’ So he was eager to sign up Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as an al-Qaeda person and Zarqawi was prepared to accept that deal on the basis they wouldn’t interfere with him too much and by having a label he would get more money and recruits and more prestige and prominence.58

The two groups would soon fall out, not over the strategy of savagery for a caliphate, but over Zarqawi’s ‘methods’, particularly the Jordanian’s war on the Shia.

Zarqawi introduced various innovations still being used a decade later by Islamic State. He established a ‘media department’ to issue press releases and speeches as well as to post online the macabre snuff movies in which hostages were dressed up in Guantanamo-style orange jumpsuits and beheaded with a knife.59 The same style of jumpsuit would be used by Islamic State for its hostage victims. For Zarqawi, as with ISIS/Islamic State, the media battle was an essential part of the jihad and it was important the jihad had a face. He once said, ‘Our fight must have a face or every battle we win will be lost in obscurity.’60

On 11 May 2004, a video was posted online entitled ‘Abu Musab al-Zarqawi Slaughters an American’. Nick Berg, a 26-year-old radio tower repairman, could be seen in his orange jumpsuit seated in front of five masked men. Following a statement, two men held a screaming Berg down while Zarqawi cut off his head.61 The head was then placed on the body just the way Islamic State does now after a decapitation, whether the murder takes place in its stronghold of Raqqa or on a beach in Libya. Zarqawi had personally threatened contractors, or ‘betrayers’, that if they continued working for US forces ‘you will be dead and this is a final warning to you from the leader of al Qaida in Mesopotamia, if you ever enter an American base or work with them anymore, you and all with you will be killed’.62 Other beheading victims were to follow, including the British civil engineer Kenneth Bigley and his fellow captives, Jack Hensley and Eugene Armstrong, both US contractors.

Caroline Hawley, the BBC’s Baghdad correspondent, said:

It was already bad when the hostage takings began. Then it became a whole different proposition to be working there. It became so dangerous. It wasn’t just the danger that you might face by going out and about, which our security people worried about, but it’s the danger you put people [Iraqis] in by associating with you. It was then a problem of how to get into someone’s house without anyone seeing a foreigner visiting them.63

By the summer of 2005, it was clear that even al-Qaeda Central had tired of Zarqawi’s excesses of ultra-violence, his mismanagement of savagery. They had become convinced that he was harming the image of jihad as well as the overriding objective of creating a caliphate in Iraq. On 9 July 2005, Ayman Zawahiri, who would be bin Laden’s eventual successor, wrote to Zarqawi reminding him of the first three stages of the strategy: ‘expel the Americans from Iraq; establish an Islamic authority or emirate, then develop it and support it until it achieves the level of a caliphate…the third stage: extend the jihad to the secular countries neighbouring Iraq’.

Zawahiri warned Zarqawi that his war against the Shia had appalled ordinary Muslims: ‘My opinion is that this matter won’t be acceptable to the Muslim populace however much you have tried to explain it, and aversion to this will continue.’64

The al-Qaeda deputy leader also raised the thorny issue of the hostages. ‘Among the things which the feelings of the Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable also are the scenes of slaughtering the hostages. You shouldn’t be deceived by the praise of some of the zealous young men and their description of you as the sheikh of the slaughterers, etc.’65

For Richard Barrett, this falling out was inevitable. By then it was obvious that Zarqawi was out of control and would not even listen to his supposed al-Qaeda paymasters. ‘By 2005, we have these letters which are very instructive,’ said Barrett. ‘You can see both in the tone of the letters and what they’ve said where the fault lines were.’66

By this time it was clear that al-Qaeda in Iraq was al-Qaeda in name only; Zarqawi would manage savagery in his own way and he would have his terrible civil war between Sunni and Shia.