Ahmad Fadhil was eighteen when his father died in 1984. Photographs
suggest that he was relatively short, chubby, and wore large glasses. He
wasn’t a particularly poor student—he received a B grade in junior
high—but he decided to leave school. There was work in the garment and
leather factories in his home city of Zarqa, Jordan, but he chose
instead to work in a video store, and earned enough money to pay for
some tattoos. He also drank alcohol, took drugs, and got into trouble
with the police. So his mother sent him to an Islamic self-help class.
This sobered him up and put him on a different path. By the time Ahmad
Fadhil died in 2006 he had laid the foundations of an independent
Islamic state of eight million people that controlled a territory larger
than Jordan itself.
The rise of Ahmad Fadhil—or as he was later known in the jihad, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—and ISIS,
the movement of which he was the founder, remains almost inexplicable.
The year 2003, in which he began his operations in Iraq, seemed to many
part of a mundane and unheroic age of Internet start-ups and a slowly
expanding system of global trade. Despite the US-led invasion of Iraq
that year, the borders of Syria and Iraq were stable. Secular Arab
nationalism appeared to have triumphed over the older forces of tribe
and religion. Different religious communities—Yezidis, Shabaks,
Christians, Kaka’is, Shias, and Sunnis—continued to live alongside one
another, as they had for a millennium or more. Iraqis and Syrians had
better incomes, education, health systems, and infrastructure, and an
apparently more positive future, than most citizens of the developing
world. Who then could have imagined that a movement founded by a man
from a video store in provincial Jordan would tear off a third of the
territory of Syria and Iraq, shatter all these historical institutions,
and—defeating the combined militaries of a dozen of the wealthiest
countries on earth—create a mini empire?
from “The Mystery of ISIS,” NYRB review essay by Anonymous