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AL-ZARQAWI IS NO RELIGIOUS SCHOLAR. A high school dropout, he memorized the Koran while in prison and acquired his religious ideas from extremist preachers and thinkers in Afghanistan and Jordan. To devout Muslims, emulation of the Prophet is considered desirable, and most believers concentrate on Muhammad's well-documented attributes, like frugality, modesty, charity and respect for elders. But al-Zarqawi, like others who subscribe to extremist schools of Islam, takes emulation literally. Among the examples Bakr cites is al-Zarqawi's tendency, modeled on the Prophet's, to "do everything from right to left: he puts on his right shoe first, washes his right hand first after a meal, talks to people sitting on his right." (Al-Zarqawi's status as a wanted man forces him to make some exceptions in his mimicking of Muhammad. While most of the literalist schools of Islam require that Muslims follow the Prophet's example and keep full beards, al-Zarqawi, who frequently alters his appearance to throw off his pursuers, sometimes shaves. For the same reason, he can't afford to dress as the Prophet did.)
Like many other literalists, al-Zarqawi favors one of the Koran's more complex chapters, known as "The Cave." It includes some metaphysical stories whose meaning has been debated by theologians for centuries. The Prophet is said to have advised his followers to read the "The Cave" before Friday prayers, and "some people mistakenly take this to mean that this surah was the Prophet's favorite," says Khaled Abou al-Fadl, an Islamic jurist at UCLA. Bakr says al-Zarqawi frequently quotes extensively from "The Cave" and encourages discussion about its stories.
For many Muslims, emulating Muhammad's sirah is a deeply spiritual exercise, designed to make believers feel closer to God. In al-Zarqawi's case, baser instincts may be at work. "People like al-Zarqawi try to portray themselves as very close to the Prophet in order to legitimize their other actions," says al-Fadl. Those who have observed al-Zarqawi at close quarters suggest that this is the logical next step in his evolution as a jihadi. Once a street thug in his hometown of Zarqa, he turned himself into a mujahid, or holy warrior, in Afghanistan, and then an emir, or military chieftain, in Iraq. "At some point, every emir wants to become a sheik," or religious leader, says the commander of an Iraqi insurgent group. "Since he was always quite religious, it is natural for him to grow in that direction." He cites Osama bin Laden as an example of another mujahid who rose gradually to the status of sheik.
A U.S. counterterrorism official says al-Zarqawi's attempts at reinvention may stem from tactical considerations that are due to the changing nature of his mission. Having fomented a sectarian conflict in Iraq--which he vowed to do as early as 2004--the Jordanian has been consciously adopting a lower profile. He went out of his way, for example, to set up a council of jihadist groups, under the leadership of Abu Abdallah Rashid al-Baghdadi, a previously unknown figure. The objective, says the official, is to put an Iraqi face on the jihad. "He's savvy enough to realize he's a foreigner in Iraq," he says. Last week's video bore the council's name, Shura al-Mujahedin, although the black flag of al-Zarqawi's group, al-Qaeda in Iraq, was occasionally visible.