A Portrait of the Terrorist as a Young Man

Of all the jihadis we’ve seen in recent years, Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi must rank as one of the most violent. Nicknamed “the slaughtering sheikh” (al-shaykh al-dhabbah) by fellow militants, he is widely held responsible for killing hundreds of Shiites in Iraq and personally beheading the American hostage Nicolas Berg. It would therefore be interesting to know what went on in the mind of this man, who was killed in an American attack in 2006.

While several publications have tried to show us the man behind the myth, it would be even better if we could get a glimpse of what al-Zarqawi thought in his pre-Iraq years. Well, the time has come. About a week ago, a jihadi website posted a notebook allegedly used by al-Zarqawi while imprisoned in Jordan in the 1990s. The link on the website (the eleventh title from the top) is called Safahat min Daftar al-Shaykh Abi Mus’ab al-Zarqawi (Pages from Shaykh Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi’s Notebook) and leads to an .exe file that actually allows you to flick through the man’s writings.

Some Jihadica readers may remember that Will McCants discussed this document two years ago (on 22 June 2008 to be exact). At the time, however, only a few pages were available and the links to the rest of the document didn’t work (or at least don’t work anymore). Some readers may also be familiar with the Jordanian journalist Fu’ad Husayn and his book Al-Zarqawi: Al-Jil al-Thani li-l-Qa’ida (Al-Zarqawi: The Second Generation of al-Qa’ida, available in English here), which also only showed a few of the notebook’s pages on pp. 21-23. Now, however, the full 77-page document is available in its original form, including even the blank pages.

Authenticity and timing

The document seems to be authentic. As Will noted at the time, the notebook is dedicated to several people, including Umm Qudama and Abu Qudama, who are respectively al-Zarqawi’s sister and brother-in-law, and al-Zarqawi was indeed in prison in 1998, when the document is said to have been written. This information could, of course, easily have been known by others but there is a third reason to believe this document is indeed the real deal. As mentioned, Will discussed some of these pages before when they appeared on a jihadi forum and so did the book by Fu’ad Husayn, who told me he had received the notes directly from al-Zarqawi’s family. Now that they appear on another jihadi website, it seems unlikely that three different sources keep recycling different pages of a notebook that was never written by al-Zarqawi, although one cannot be entirely sure of course.

As to why this document was posted now, one can only guess. The notebook wasn’t written or discovered recently and, considering al-Zarqawi has been dead for four years, nothing of interest seems to have happened to him that caused the document’s publication. Moreover, if it was posted on the website to commemorate some kind of anniversary (his death, his birth, his release from prison etc.), it would presumably have been announced with quite a bit of fanfare but it wasn’t. The most likely reason it was posted a week ago is that the website it appeared on, tawhed.ws, has posted several collections of jihadi writings as e-books over the past few weeks. These include Ayman al-Zawahiri’s writings, for example, but also those of Mustafa Abu l-Yazid. The posting of al-Zarqawi’s notebook may thus be part of a general effort by the people behind the website to release collections of writings, even of those that have been in their possession for a long time.

Religious texts

In any case, and as Will noted at the time, this is a great source for academics studying the backgrounds and inner workings of terrorists. Although this blog post is not the place for an in-depth analysis of the content, we can surely take a quick glance. The document is filled with religious texts that deal with various topics. There is Qur’anic exegesis, for example on p. 8, where al-Zarqawi cites the explanation of the verse “and be not as those who say, ‘We hear,’ and they hear not” (Q. 8: 21) by the mediaeval exegete al-Qurtubi (d. 1273), and on p. 20, by Ibn Kathir (1300-1373). It also contains several texts apparently copied from books by Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (1292-1350), for example on pp. 9-11 and 15-16. Although Ibn al-Qayyim is generally a favourite among radical Muslims for his uncompromising and strict views on various issues – like his teacher Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328) – the fact that he was persecuted and imprisoned because of his ideas may also have inspired al-Zarqawi.


While the notebook does not have a single topic or message, most of the texts mentioned seem somehow related to what I would call “dedication” to the cause. The passage explained by al-Qurtubi mentioned above seems to serve as a reminder to stay pious and focused, for example. Al-Zarqawi also discusses jihad (p. 12) and cites a hadith (tradition on the life of Muhammad) about not having to fear if one trusts in God (p. 13). He continues by mentioning the various types of consolation to the believers (p. 15). Al-Zarqawi sometimes also writes short pieces that he seems to have made up himself. One of them (p. 25) mentions the close connection one should maintain with God, while one should break with the tawaghit (idols, used here probably to refer to “un-Islamic” rulers). The rest of the notebook is similarly filled with poems, religious texts and exhortations to remain patient and to keep one’s faith.

What all this adds up to is a collection of short pieces that seems to portray a man dedicated to his faith who uses religious texts to get him through the tough times he is facing. Considering the fact that he was in prison when he wrote this and would go on to become one of the world’s best-known jihadis, this makes a lot of sense, of course. I will leave it to others to decipher all of the notebook, which contains a lot of blank pages after p. 34 but also shows some nice drawings (for example on pp. 70-71). It should be clear, however, that any scholar seriously dealing with al-Zarqawi cannot afford to ignore this source.

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6 Responses

  1. Very significant…I await English translation with much anticipation..The link to the ‘Al-Zarqawi: The Second Generation of al-Qa’ida’ document doesn’t seem to be working–anyone got a working link to the full text?



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