In his early days in Afghanistan, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi used to go by the name of "al-Gharib", or "the Stranger". Although he has become one of the world's best-known jihadists - stealing the limelight from the earlier generation led by Osama Bin Laden - Zarqawi remains, in many ways, a stranger.
There are hardly any recent photographs of him - he would rather be filmed cutting off infidels' heads than give interviews to journalists. For years, the intelligence agencies could not decide if he had one leg or two; they claimed at first that he had lost a limb in Afghanistan, but then decided he was able-bodied after all, although not necessarily sound of mind.
Two new books attempt to bring to life the real man, away from the blood and gore in Baghdad, and the heroic myth-making of Islamist internet sites. Both rely on similar sources - mostly Arab media reports - to describe Zarqawi's early years and journey from petty thug in the Jordanian town of Zarqa. Drawn to Afghanistan in the late 1980s by the lure of jihad, he got there too late to fight the Soviets, and returned to Jordan, where he was jailed for his role in attempts to attack Israeli and Jordanian targets.
Those five years in Suwaqah Prison changed Zarqawi. He learned the Koran by heart and became the irascible leader of a group of Islamist inmates. He could be both kind and bullying, personally bathing a maimed inmate but berating another for reading a book by the "heathen" Dostoevsky. Zarqawi was released in an amnesty after the death of King Hussein in 1999, and soon left Jordan to rejoin the ranks of Arab fighters in Afghanistan, before fleeing to Iran after the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, from where he re-located to Iraq.
In Zarqawi: the new face of al-Qaeda, Jean-Charles Brisard, who helped inves-tigate the 11 September 2001 attacks on behalf of victims' families, describes Zarqawi as "an extremist exceptionally favoured by circumstance". Without the war in Iraq, Brisard argues, he would have been just another petty thug-turned-militant living in the shadow of Osama Bin Laden. What enabled Zarqawi to seize the torch of international jihad was his readiness to go to the bloodiest extremes of violence: in Iraq, his tactics include grisly executions of hostages and sectarian attacks against ordinary Shias. Brisard writes: "He follows no logic other than that of violence that almost makes the Taliban seem like a band of jokesters in turbans. Zarqawi gives lessons to hell, to use Andre Malraux's expression, and others take him as a model."
Loretta Napoleoni, the author of Insurgent Iraq, agrees that Iraq was the turning point, but she argues that the agent of Zarqawi's transformation was Colin Powell, the former US secretary of state. In his now discredited presentation to the UN Security Council in February 2003, Powell not only made the bogus claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, but also said that "Iraq today harbours a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi". Moreover, Powell said, his group was supposedly experimenting with ricin and other poisons.
Little matter that Zarqawi was operating in an enclave in Kurdistan, beyond the territory controlled by Saddam Hussein: Powell presented the Jordanian as the "sinister nexus between Iraq and the Qaeda terrorist network". "The decision to use Zarqawi to justify military intervention in Iraq," Napoleoni writes, "provided radical young Muslims with a focus for their desire to confront America. The Americans themselves transformed a minor jihadist leader into a figure of global importance."
Both books contain much that is of interest. Napoleoni provides a lucid exploration of jihadist ideological trends, while Brisard presents many fascinating documents, including court statements, family pictures and even a sentimental prison drawing sent by Zarqawi to his mother, depicting a red heart being parachuted down to a desert island. However, both books are badly flawed - not least because they presume certainty on a subject riddled with doubt. Napoleoni portrays Zarqawi as an independent militant who made alliances of convenience with al-Qaeda, while Brisard maintains that he was always intimately bound up with al-Qaeda but has latterly become more autonomous. Napoleoni says Zarqawi never wanted to take part in Bin Laden's global jihad, while Brisard quotes him as declaring "I am global", and developing networks in Europe and Arab countries. Brisard makes repeated reference to Zarqawi's links with WMDs, but Napoleoni dismisses any such suggestions.
Napoleoni's account is rushed and disjointed, arbitrarily jumping between Zarqawi's life and the July 2005 bombings in London, and digressing into topics such as the crusades, Italy's Red Brigades and even Hollywood. It is hard to find evidence in the text or footnotes that she has been to Baghdad, Kabul or even Amman to research her subject.
Brisard, for his part, says he has made ten trips to the Middle East, and his investigators made many more in search of evidence, including going through boxes of documents brought back from Afghanistan. Yet his text is a forest of names of contacts, associates and members of Zarqawi-linked cells. If Napole-oni over-theorises, Brisard is dreadfully unsophisticated in his descriptions of "terrorists" and "fundamentalists". Just how far can one trust a "leading expert on international terrorism" who makes glaring errors, such as claiming that in 1999 General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan overthrew Benazir Bhutto (it was Nawaz Sharif) and that Iran's intelligence service is still called Savak (this was the shah's secret service, abolished during the 1979 Islamic revolution)?
Anton La Guardia is diplomatic editor of the Daily Telegraph