Zarqawi: An October Surprise

This article provides a complete view of how the Zarqawi icon built up by the miltiary reframed the 2004 presidential election, complete with Cheney's hedged statements and inserting fear of imminent death into the brains of Americans.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
The New York Times
October 10, 2004 Sunday
Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section 4; Column 1; Week in Review Desk; The World: Heart of Darkness; Pg. 1

LENGTH: 1782 words
HEADLINE: Who Is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi?
BYLINE: By DON VAN NATTA Jr.
DATELINE: LONDON

FROM a safe house in Falluja last January, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi wrote a rambling, 17-page letter to Osama bin Laden. The letter asked Mr. bin Laden to send Al Qaeda operatives to Iraq to help Mr. Zarqawi continue the guerrilla war against the American occupiers and their allies.

In the letter, Mr. Zarqawi, a 38-year-old Jordanian, had a weary, desperate tone that contradicts the nearly mythic invulnerability ascribed to him by President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, who have described him as one of the world's most dangerous terrorists. Mr. Zarqawi is, they say, the clearest link between Saddam Hussein's deposed regime and the Qaeda terror network.

In his letter, Mr. Zarqawi hardly sounded emboldened by his guerrilla campaign. Instead he ticked off a lengthy list of obstacles to victory -- a shortage of manpower, the wobbly will of some insurgents and peril lurking around every street corner.

''Our backs are exposed and our movements compromised,'' he wrote in the letter, which American forces seized in February from a courier in northern Iraq and later released to the public. ''Eyes are everywhere. The enemy is before us and the sea is behind us.''

Without question, Mr. Zarqawi is the most hunted man in Iraq. Nearly every week, coalition forces attack suspected safe houses where he may be hiding. Since writing his plea, Mr. Zarqawi has been portrayed by American officials as the world's most prolific terrorist, preaching jihad and practicing it, often while the world watches in horror -- most recently in the beheading of a 62-year-old British engineer, Kenneth Bigley, that was confirmed on Friday.

Who is Mr. Zarqawi? Is he Al Qaeda's point man in Iraq, as the Bush administration has repeatedly argued since weeks before the invasion of Iraq? Or, as some European and Middle East intelligence officials argue, is he a staunch rival of Mr. bin Laden's network whose importance has been exaggerated by the United States in an attempt to dramatize a link between Al Qaeda and the deposed regime of Saddam Hussein?

There is no dispute that Mr. Zarqawi has brazenly led a campaign of car bombings, mortar attacks, kidnappings and beheadings in Iraq, asserting his responsibility for the devastating attack in August 2003 on the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad.

But is Mr. Zarqawi responsible for ''most of the major car bombings that have killed or maimed thousands of people,'' as Mr. Cheney charged at the vice-presidential debate on Tuesday?

He may not be quite the prolific terrorist mastermind that the Bush administration claims. Just as little is known about the Iraq insurgency, there is little known about his organization, the Tawhid and Jihad movement. Estimates vary on the size of his group, anywhere from 50 to 100 ''foreign fighters'' and former Saddam Hussein loyalists to as many as 1,000.

Many intelligence officials in Europe doubt that the man jailed 13 years ago for sexual assault in Jordan possesses the organizational skills or manpower muscle to launch even a small percentage of the nearly 100 insurgents' attacks that occur across Iraq daily.

''I do not think that anyone in Europe or the Middle East honestly believes that he is responsible for everything that the United States says he has done in Iraq,'' said a senior European intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. ''The guy is on the run. He is hiding from the U.S. forces, and he is probably changing houses every night. It would be almost impossible for him to calmly plan and execute the operations all over Iraq that some people believe he has done.''

In fact, in the months following the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Zarqawi was virtually unknown to anyone other than Jordanian intelligence officials, who saw him as a dangerous militant with a strong desire to turn Jordan into an Islamic state.

Mr. Zarqawi was literally introduced to the world in February 2003 when Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told the United Nations that Mr. Zarqawi was a ''collaborator and associate'' of Mr. bin Laden's. Mr. Powell also described him as a Qaeda chemical weapons expert who had relocated to Baghdad with Saddam Hussein's blessing and organized a cell of 20 operatives there.

Since then, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney have repeatedly portrayed Mr. Zarqawi as the clearest link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's deposed regime. Mr. Zarqawi's presence in Iraq before the war, and his emergence since then, they say, justifies portraying Iraq as a centerpiece of the war against terrorism. During a recent campaign speech in Ohio, President Bush said: ''Zarqawi is the best evidence of connection to Al Qaeda affiliates and Al Qaeda. He's the person who is still killing.''

However, fresh doubts about Mr. Zarqawi's ties to Iraq were raised by American intelligence officials last week in a report prepared for Mr. Cheney. The Central Intelligence Agency determined that there is no conclusive evidence Saddam Hussein's regime provided safe haven to Mr. Zarqawi in the months leading up to the American invasion of Iraq. This assessment follows a similar finding in June by the Sept. 11 Commission, which concluded that there was no ''collaborative relationship'' between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's regime.

But at the vice-presidential debate on Tuesday night, Mr. Cheney said the C.I.A. ''had not yet reached the bottom line, and there is still debate over this question of the relationship between Zarqawi and Saddam Hussein.'' Mr. Cheney also said that the C.I.A. assessment reported that several of Mr. Zarqawi's associates had been arrested, and that Mr. Hussein ''personally intervened to have them released, supposedly at the request of Zarqawi.''

Mr. Cheney added that prior to Sept. 11, Mr. Zarqawi had operated a Qaeda training camp in western Afghanistan, near the Iran border. After Sept. 11, he ''migrated to Baghdad,'' Mr. Cheney said. ''He set up shop in Baghdad, where he oversaw the poisons facility up at Kermal, where the terrorists were developing ricin and other deadly substances to use.''

After Sept. 11, Mr. Zarqawi was believed by senior American officials to be working closely with Ansar al-Islam, the Kurdish group based in northern Iraq that was formed to attempt to overthrow Saddam Hussein. This represents a fundamental contradiction about Mr. Zarqawi's apparent alliances, some terrorism experts say.

''I have always been quite puzzled by the story that Zarqawi was allegedly closely linked to Ansar al-Islam but also allegedly linked with Saddam Hussein's regime, the very regime that Ansar al-Islam aimed to destroy,'' said Jessica Stern, who lectures on terrorism at Harvard. ''I have been genuinely confused by that.''

Some terrorism analysts and European-based intelligence officials say captured associates of Mr. Zarqawi have said he had forged stronger ties with Iran and Syria than Iraq.

''Zarqawi spent more time in Iran than anywhere else after Sept. 11,'' said Peter Bergen, a fellow at the New America Foundation and an adjunct professor of international studies at Johns Hopkins University. ''Zarqawi called Saddam a devil on one of his Web site postings this year.''

It's not only the Bush administration that suspects Mr. Zarqawi has played a dominant role in other terrorist attacks and plots. Some officials in Jordan and several European countries have suspected that Mr. Zarqawi's network played a role in a host of terror attacks, and disrupted plots, over the past two years.

Some say that his burgeoning network assisted in the Madrid train bombings last March, as well as helping to organize a plot to carry out ricin attacks in Britain and France in January 2002 and a disrupted plot last spring to launch a massive chemical attack in Amman, Jordan.

However, further investigation into all three plots has raised substantial doubts that Mr. Zarqawi played any role, several senior European officials said.

''It defies common sense to believe Mr. Zarqawi has managed, from a hideout in Iraq, to build a worldwide terror network that has attacked so often,'' one European-based counterterrorism official said.

While much about Mr. Zarqawi's operations remain unknown, some senior intelligence officials in Europe and the Middle East, as well as some terror experts, argue that the United States has purposely overstated Mr. Zarqawi's importance, turning him into an almost mythic figure. This portrayal may have enhanced his aura with young recruits, helping his organization entice new jihadists in Europe and the Middle East to join his group's ranks, they say.

Mr. Zarqawi sees himself not as a disciple of Mr. bin Laden but as a rival, some officials and analysts said. Mr. Zarqawi's group often competes for recruits with Al Qaeda, particularly in Europe, they say.

''Zarqawi was never part of the leadership of Al Qaeda -- he has never sworn allegiance to bin Laden,'' said a senior German intelligence official, who refused to be identified. ''He has been an independent agent, with his own network and ways of doing things that are distinct from Al Qaeda's way of doing things.''

Shadi Abdullah, a Tawhid member apprehended in Germany in 2002, told investigators that Mr. Zarqawi's group saw itself to be ''in rivalry'' with Al Qaeda, according to several senior German officials.

Unlike Mr. bin Laden, who has remained in hiding since the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Zarqawi relies on high-profile kidnappings combined with sweeping demands, like calling for the release of all women prisoners held by coalition forces in Iraq. And he does many of the beheadings himself, officials believe. On May 11, a video titled ''Sheik Abu Musab Zarqawi Slaughters an American Infidel'' appeared on an Islamic militants' Web site that showed the beheading of Nicholas Berg, the young communications engineer from Pennsylvania. American intelligence officials say they believe that Mr. Zarqawi used a kitchen knife to slit Mr. Berg's throat.

Mr. Zarqawi, who has never sworn fealty to Mr. bin Laden, does not regard himself as one of Al Qaeda's lieutenants, some officials and analysts said, but rather as an equal fighting for a similar cause.

For example, in his January plea to Mr. bin Laden, Mr. Zarqawi referred to a divide between his group and the Qaeda network. He approached the Qaeda chief as a fellow terror network leader with a proposal that might be mutually beneficial. Mr. Zarqawi told Mr. bin Laden that any Qaeda recruits sent to Iraq to fight would ''work under your banner.'' Mr. Zarqawi concluded by saying he would not harbor ill will if Mr. bin Laden refused to provide additional men.

''We are brothers,'' Mr. Zarqawi wrote, ''and the disagreement will not spoil friendship.''

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GRAPHIC: Photos: Without question, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is the most hunted man in Iraq. (Photo by John Moore/Associated Press)
There is disagreement over whether Abu Musab al-Zarqawi played a part in the Madrid train bombings last March. (Photo by Paul White/Associated Press)(pg. 7)
(Photograph from Petra via Reuters)(pg. 1)Drawing (Illustrations by Jonathon Rosen)(pg. 1)

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