Abu Musab Zarqawi, the one-legged Jordanian behind the horrific beheading of a U.S. hostage, has emerged as one of the most dangerous terrorists in the world — and could soon eclipse Usama bin Laden in importance.
The slaughter of American Nick Berg was just the latest in a massive series of bloody and spectacular attacks on U.S. and Western interests in Iraq and Europe that have been attributed to the shadowy al-Tawhid (search) network commanded by Zarqawi.
With bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, on the run, Zarqawi, who operates separately from al Qaeda, has increasingly taken up the global jihad banner.
He has backed up his bid to become the next bin Laden with a massive string of deadly bombings in Iraq and fiendish chemical and poison plots in Europe and the Middle East.
Lately, he's been making a series of bin Laden-style statements to Arabic TV stations calling for a religious civil war and the assassination of top U.S. military and civilian leaders in Iraq.
"He is clearly the most active terrorist in the world right now, and what you are seeing is a rise in his stature as well as a rise in his ego," said Jonathan Schanzer, a terrorism analyst for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (search).
"Bin Laden and Zawahiri are hiding out in caves in Waziristan [northwestern Pakistan], so he is going for spectacular operations to seize the spotlight. This is a man who is committed to the utopian vision of the demise of the West and the rise of a radical Islamic world, and he sees Iraq as the main theater of operations to accomplish that goal."
Zarqawi has claimed credit for more than 25 terror attacks in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein, killing hundreds. They include the destruction of the Jordanian embassy and U.N. headquarters in Baghdad; the massacre outside a Shiite mosque in Najaf; and the recent bombing of an oil terminal in the Persian Gulf.
His network has also been linked to bombings of synagogues and British institutions in Istanbul, Britain's ricin poison plot in 2002 and most recently to a plot to attack Jordanian diplomatic buildings with truckload of chemicals and explosives.
Despite a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head, Zarqawi has managed to travel freely among Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria in recent months to lead a growing network.
Its tentacles now extend from Chechnya, Georgia, Iraq and Algeria all the way to Germany, say U.S. intelligence officials.
Zarqawi's real name is Ahmad Fadil Nazzal al-Khalayleh. He is a 37-year-old high school dropout who is a veteran of the Afghan war against the Soviets.
In 1999, after being released from jail in Jordan, Zarqawi formed an alliance with bin Laden allowing Zarqawi to operate a training camp in Afghanistan for Arab fighters committed to the overthrow of Jordan's moderate monarchy.
During the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Zarqawi is believed to have been badly wounded in a U.S. airstrike and fled to Iran. Later, he ended up in Baghdad, where Saddam's regime allowed him to recuperate for several months after having his leg amputated.
Months before the Iraq war, Zarqawi and his followers resumed operations in northern Iraq, merging with the Kurdish Islamic terror group Ansar al-Islam (search).
Although the United States bombed the main Ansar base in northern Iraq, Zarqawi and his followers escaped the attack and built up a network of jihad "foreign fighters" battling U.S. forces.