ZARQA, Jordan—The town that would give Abu Musab Zarqawi his notorious moniker is a hard place -- treeless and tough, cinder-block apartment houses punctuated by drab mosques. They say you have to be a thug to make it in the streets here, and the young Zarqawi had all the credentials: He ran with a fast crowd, fought easily and covered his skin with tattoos.
That was back in the 1980s, before he turned to religion. Before the call to jihad rang through the Arab world, sweeping away young men who could discern no more-promising prospects. Before U.S. leaders labeled Zarqawi as the mastermind behind some of the bloodiest mayhem in postwar Iraq.
Back then, his name was Ahmed Khalayleh.
In truth, Abu Musab Zarqawi is not a name, but rather a collection of personal details: It means father of Musab, native of Zarqa. To his neighbors and friends, he is still Ahmed, a man they struggle to reconcile with the American description.
They say Zarqawi may be a troublemaker, a terrorist leader more militant than Osama bin Laden. But even his mother, before she died of cancer here a few months ago, told a visitor that her son was not smart enough to be a logistical and ideological linchpin.
One of his neighbors, a bespectacled sales clerk a few years younger than Zarqawi, who is believed to be 38, grinned at the memory of the younger, secular Ahmed. "He was so far away from religion," said the neighbor, who insisted that he'd be in danger if he gave his name.
"He went out with a gang that liked to drink," he said. "We even called him the Green Man because he had so many tattoos. He was drunk once and he had a fight with his cousin. He had a knife in his hand and he cut his cousin. After that he quit drinking, and he started praying."
Zarqawi's tribe, the Bani Hassan, is one of the largest in Jordan, boasting members of parliament, generals and ministers. But Zarqawi's own family was poor and pious. His father was a traditional healer and the tribal chief of his hardscrabble neighborhood. The second of five children, Zarqawi was born in an apartment that sits low over a mechanics shop, across the street from a graveyard.
A good student, Zarqawi maintained a B average until, abruptly and inexplicably, he dropped out of high school one semester shy of graduation. He married his cousin, and took a job as a maintenance man for the Zarqa municipality, but soon grew listless and quit.
By the late 1980s, the jihad in Afghanistan against Soviet occupation was in full swing. Young Muslim men from all over the world were making their way to the Afghan battlefields to seek their destiny. Zarqawi joined the wave even though, by most accounts, he still wasn't particularly religious.
On that first trip to Afghanistan, Zarqawi seemed to be looking for himself, associates say. He huddled over the Koran at the edge of battle and by campfires at night; he drifted between fighting and writing about the battles as an aspiring war correspondent for an Islamic newspaper in the Pakistani city of Peshawar.
"He spent all night reading the Koran and praying," said Saleh Ilhami, a Jordanian fighter who met Zarqawi in Afghanistan and later married his sister. "He was feeling how the Islamic nation was suffering. At that time, he could recite the Koran without reading because he was spending so much time studying."
The young men fancied themselves as figures in an epic battle etched in glory against the rugged mountains of Afghanistan. Those years changed them forever, and left much of the Arab world struggling to tamp down the fevered fighters who came trooping home again.
"It was a great thing, a great life, the best thing I ever saw in my life," Ilhami said. "I felt I was born when I went there. That was the real life."
Ilhami had earned a degree in journalism from the University of Jordan; he said he traveled to Afghanistan in 1989 to work as a war correspondent. A year later, he was roaming the mountains near Khowst, snapping photographs, when he stepped on a land mine. His leg was blown off, and he was taken over the Khyber Pass to Peshawar for treatment.
Zarqawi had seen his fellow Jordanian evacuated, and admired his bravery. When Ilhami had healed, Zarqawi introduced himself, and asked him to show him how to write stories. The two became friends.
When Zarqawi heard that Ilhami wanted to get married, he suggested his younger sister. Ilhami accepted, and the young woman was flown to Peshawar, where the two married in 1991. "After that, I respected him a lot and loved him a lot," Ilhami said. "He was paying tribute to me."
By 1992, the scene in Afghanistan was souring. The Soviets were long gone, and the mujahedin were beginning to turn on each other. Zarqawi went home to Jordan, worldly and a little hardened, but not yet radicalized, say those who knew him.
"This was the beginning of the troubles between Zarqawi and the regime here," said Ilhami. "You know, he who spends a lot of time in jihad, it becomes like oxygen for the human being. It becomes very hard to leave it."
Many of the returning warriors had a hard time fitting back into their homelands, he said. Zarqawi struggled with disorientation. At the same time, Jordanian intelligence agents were keeping a close watch on the Afghan veterans.
Zarqawi's ideas hardened when he fell under the sway of a cleric named Issam Barqawi, commonly known as Abu Mohammed Maqdisi. The Palestinian figurehead of the militant Bayat al Imam network in Jordan, Maqdisi was a white-hot radical, a man described by Islamists here as too extreme for Bin Laden.
Maqdisi's writings allegedly helped inspire the truck bombing of Saudi Arabia's Khobar Towers in 1996 that killed 19 U.S. servicemen.
Maqdisi has spent his life in and out of prison; he remains locked up in Jordan, convicted of trying to overthrow the government to establish an Islamic caliphate.
"Ahmed had the same ideas as Maqdisi," said Mohammed Dweek, a Jordanian lawyer who defended both men in the 1990s. "Even he admitted that he was a copy of Maqdisi. But Maqdisi is dangerous 1,000 times more than Zarqawi. He has this charm, this charisma, and he can convince anybody."
Along with Maqdisi and most of his followers, Zarqawi was arrested in the early 1990s for obtaining explosives. Members of the network were put away as political prisoners in Jordan's Swaqa prison.
It was there that a soft-spoken Islamic scholar named Youssef Rababa met Zarqawi and Maqdisi. Rababa was the head of a small cell called Ajlun Minds. Jordanian authorities had arrested the members on charges of planning a bombing.
It was the mid-1990s, and in the scrappy universe of the Jordanian prison yard, Islamist organizations functioned as a species of jailhouse gangs. They provided protection, distraction and a sense of spiritual brotherhood. The members shared religious tracts, gathered for Friday prayers and stuck together when fights broke out.
Rababa remembers Zarqawi as a hothead, saddled with a violent temper that sometimes blotted out common sense. Zarqawi earned a reputation for ferocity in the face of authority; he would unabashedly tell prison guards that they were nonbelievers. He inspired respect, if not admiration, and when he felt threatened, he'd fight.
"He was a leader with a very strong personality. The other prisoners, they were afraid of him," Rababa said. "He likes to be a leader, and he likes to have his authority between his hands."
Zarqawi took to preaching after Friday prayers, lecturing the network on the dangers of nonbelievers and the injustice of secular Arab regimes. He gained strength and gradually shed his role as Maqdisi's eager disciple.
"The last year in prison, there was a big change in their relationship," Rababa said of Maqdisi and Zarqawi.
"It seemed they had a big disagreement. The last month in prison, Maqdisi was alone. Zarqawi took his group."
In 1999, shortly before his release, Jordanian authorities grew worried about Zarqawi's power over other prisoners and transferred him to a smaller jail.
Even in the realm of armed Islamists, Zarqawi is a hard-line radical, Rababa said. U.S. and Jordanian officials have identified him as a member of Al Qaeda, but his acquaintances here said his relationship with the organization was ambiguous. Zarqawi knew Bin Laden in Afghanistan, but there was a doctrinal split between them, they said.
"Osama bin Laden, he's in the middle, he's not so fanatical. He's against the Americans and the Jews, the foreigners on the Arabian Peninsula and the Jews in Palestine," Rababa said.
"Zarqawi," he continued, "is against anybody who's kafir [a nonbeliever]. He is much more extreme than Bin Laden. His idea was very clear -- we have Muslims, and we have kafir."
Zarqawi told Rababa that it was a duty to attack nonbelievers wherever they could be found -- Europeans were fair game, and so were fellow Arabs, particularly Shiite Muslims.
Still, looking back now, searching for traces of the terrorist described in news reports from Iraq -- and beyond, with anti-terror investigators linking him to plots and attacks from Western Europe to Jordan -- Rababa was bemused. He didn't believe Zarqawi had the intellectual ability to pen an oft-quoted letter intercepted by American officials, who claim it was meant for Bin Laden. In it, U.S. officials say, Zarqawi claims responsibility for 25 suicide attacks in Iraq and lays out a blueprint for plunging that country into sectarian chaos.
"I don't believe it," Rababa said. "Even if he's still alive in Iraq, I don't think he's running operations. He's a simple man. He's simple in his capabilities. He's smart, but he's not high-level."
When Jordan's King Abdullah II took the throne in 1999, he pardoned political prisoners and Zarqawi was set free. He spent a month with his wife and children at home here, but couldn't find work. He grew restless and returned to Pakistan on a six-month visa.
In 2000, Zarqawi's visa expired, and, according to his brother-in-law Ilhami, the Pakistani government refused to extend it.
Zarqawi found himself adrift and isolated. Detained by Pakistan's immigration authorities after Friday prayers, he was asked to leave the country, but he didn't have anyplace to go. He had sworn off Jordan, where he felt penalized and harassed.
"He didn't know where to go," Ilhami said. "He didn't know what to do."
Zarqawi moved over the border to Afghanistan, before the U.S.-led war to topple the Taliban regime began.
His alliances there are hazy. According to U.S. and European intelligence agencies, Zarqawi set up a camp in Herat that specialized in the use of chemical and biological weapons. At least one militant has confessed to meeting Zarqawi at an Al Qaeda camp.
But Zarqawi's relationship with Al Qaeda remained contentious, according to a source who was in Afghanistan at the time.
Al Qaeda suspected he had become a Jordanian agent while he was in prison, and many in the network kept their distance. Tensions grew so pronounced that they even shot him in the leg, the source said.
Like the man himself, Zarqawi's leg is at the center of a tangle of conflicting reports.
There are various accounts of the injury, which may have been suffered during the 2001 war with the Americans, and may have forced him to flee Afghanistan. Some reports indicate that the leg was so mangled that it was amputated in Iraq.
What seems certain is that Zarqawi fled once again, this time moving overland through Iran, and settling into the mountains of the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. He had compatriots there; Jordanians from his hometown and from prison had set up camp with members of the militant group Ansar al Islam. Zarqawi is believed to have stayed there at least until the U.S. invasion of Iraq began.
Since then, Zarqawi seems to have vanished into a whirl of conflicting reports, and potential propaganda.
Back in Jordan, where Zarqawi has been sentenced to death in absentia, his increasing notoriety is met with equanimity. His first wife, his four children and his tribesmen still live here. At some point, Zarqawi took a second wife; she went to Afghanistan with him and never came back.
The family doesn't speak much to the media.
Some sources say Zarqawi has been in touch with them from Iraq, but his brother-in-law denied that he had heard from the fugitive.
His old acquaintances have watched while the price on his head climbed to $10 million, then to $25 million.
Many people here say the same thing: The Americans were looking for a boogeyman, for somebody to blame.
"I don't think he's a leader worth this money," said Dweek, the lawyer. "Anyway, if they get Zarqawi, so what? They'll have 1,000 more Zarqawis after him."
Special correspondent Ranya Kadri contributed to this report.