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Featured Excerpt

The Boy from Zarqa

It was in the mosque that al-Zarqawi first discovered Salafism, a doctrine that in its contemporary form advocates a return to theological purity and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad.

The following is an excerpt from ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan.

The scruffy burg of Zarqa lies about twenty-five miles to the northeast of Amman, Jordan. Before its most notorious native son adopted the name of the town for his nom de guerre, it had two main associations, one liturgical and the other humanitarian. Zarqa was the biblical staging ground of Jacob’s famous struggle with God and is today the location of al-Ruseifah, the oldest Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan. Ahmad Fadhil Nazzal al-Khalaylah, as al-Zarqawi was born, hailed not from a nationless people but from the Bani Hassan tribe, a confederation of Bedouins who resided on the East Bank of the ­Jordan River and were known for their loyalty to the Hashemite Kingdom. Al-Zarqawi’s father was a mukhtar, a village elder, municipally empowered to arbitrate local disputes, although his son was more fond of getting into them. Al-Zarqawi was an unpromising student who wrote Arabic at a semiliterate level, dropped out of school in 1984, the same year his father died, and resorted immediately to a life of crime. “He was not so big, but he was bold,” one of al-Zarqawi’s cousins later recounted to the New York Times. He drank and bootlegged alcohol; some contemporaries also say that he was a pimp. His first stint in prison was for drug possession and sexual assault.

Worried that her son was descending into an underworld from which he’d never escape, al-Zarqawi’s mother, Um Sayel, enrolled him in religious courses at the Al-Husayn Ben Ali Mosque in Amman. The experience was transformative. Faith had the intended effect of supplanting the lawlessness, but not in the way Um Sayel might have hoped.

It was in the mosque that al-Zarqawi first discovered Salafism, a doctrine that in its contemporary form advocates a return to theological purity and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. Salafists deem Western-style democracy and modernity not only ­fundamentally irreconcilable with Islam, but the main pollutants of the Arab civilization, which after World War I stagnated under the illegitimate and “apostate” regimes in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. At the most extreme end of their continuum, the Salafists are also adherents of jihad, a word that denotes “struggle” in Arabic and contains a multitude of definitions. When the Soviets invaded ­Afghanistan in 1979, however, its primary definition meant “armed resistance.”

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