Project on Defense Alternatives

The al-Zarqawi Assessment:

Another Instance of 'Cooked' Intelligence?

A collection of articles compiled by the Project on Defense Alternatives

05 October 2004


Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has figured centrally in the Bush administration's framing of the Iraq conflict, beginning with Secretary of State Colin Powell's February 2003 speech before the United Nation's Security Council. Before the war, Zarqawi was proffered as a living link between Al-Qaeda and the Hussein regime, which helped justify the war. Today, he serves to link the post-war turmoil in Iraq to the broader war on terror and, implicitly, to the public fears and concerns that were born on 11 September 2001.

But the central role afforded Zarqawi, both in 2003 and now, is as tendentious as many of the other suppositions that undergird the administration's Iraq policy. The evidence offered to support the administration's assessment of Zarqawi as a driver of the Iraqi insurgency and top lieutenant of bin-Laden is reminiscent, in form and substance, of the spurious evidence regarding Iraq weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, some of the sources may be the same.

When judging the administration's portrayal of Zarqawi's role and importance, and the evidence supposed to support it, we might usefully recall the prevarication, manipulation, and distortions that brought us to war, among them: the fostering of forged documents purporting to show Iraqi efforts to procure uranium from Niger, the promotion of unfounded stories of portable Iraqi bio-weapons labs, the assertions that aluminum tubing was part of an uranium enrichment machinery, the assertions that Iraq's low-tech RPVs were bio-weapon capable and constituted a strategic threat, and Secretary Powell's misleading presentation of photographic intelligence as well as his fevered reading of inconclusive radio communications between Iraqi officials. (See, What Colin Powell Showed Us: The End of Arms Control and the Normalization of War, PDA Briefing Report 14, 5 May 2003;

As a matter of course during the run-up to the war, the administration selectively promoted weak, raw, and unreliable intelligence on Iraqi WMD capabilities, while steadfastly ignoring strong disconfirming evidence, on-site inspections, and well-founded but contrary analyses. Similarly, they favored speculative interpretations of the available evidence over more likely ones. Most seriously, they swung open the door to manufactured evidence by failing to treat with due scepticism intelligence coming from interested (and perhaps overly obliging) sources, such as the Iraqi National Congress and the Kurdish parties.

Now, the administration attributes to Zarqawi a ubiquitous, virtually demonic role in the new Iraqi disorder. But the adjectives often used to describe him and his cohort - "elusive" and "mysterious" - might as well be applied to the evidence offered by the administration to support its view of his influence. Besides historical data, what evidence we have of al-Zarqawi and his al-Tawhid organization in Iraq are crude, poorly-synchronized video tapes of masked men as well as audio tapes and cryptic communiques that crop up periodically on equally cryptic web sites. This wisp of information leaves too much to interpretation, which has not proved to be the administration's strong suit. Nevertheless, the news media continues, by and large, to breathlessly transmit whatever the administration has to say about Zarqawi. The scandal regarding Iraq's non-existent weapons of mass destruction has barely dented the pipeline. The material that follows has been compiled to help balance the prevailing official view of Zarqawi's role in postwar Iraq.

The material that follows has been compiled to help balance the prevailing official view of Zarqawi's role in postwar Iraq.


1. Adrian Blomfield, "Doubt over Zarqawi's role as ringleader," The Telegraph, 2 October 2004.

2. Fiona Symon (Financial Times), "The devil America knows," NYT, 24 September 2004.

3. Greg Weiher, "He's Everywhere; He's Nowhere: The Zarqawi Gambit, Part 2," Counterpoint, 9 March 2004.

4. Greg Weiher, "A Purloined Letter: The Zarqawi Gambit, Part I," Counterpoint, 26 February 2004.

5. Lee Keath, "Alleged leaflet by Iraqi militants claims al-Zarqawi is dead.," Associated Press, 4 March 2004.

6. Warren P. Strobel, Jonathan S. Landay and John Walcott, "Doubts cast on efforts to link Saddam, al-Qaida.," Knight Ridder Newspapers, 2 March 2004.

7. Rod Nordland, "Is Zarqawi Really the Culprit? Evidence tying an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist to the latest Iraqi bombings is murkier than US officials are letting on," Newsweek, web exclusive, 7 March 2004.

8. Sebastian Rotella, "US Casts Fugitive as a Super-Villain Critics say an accused terrorist's role in Iraq attacks is exaggerated, noting weak evidence," Los Angeles Times, 7 March 2004.

9. Christopher Dickey, "A (Terrorist's) Letter from Iraq: The so-called Zarqawi Memo may or may not be genuine, but it's a revealing picture of Iraq right now," Newsweek, web exclusive, 17 Feb. 2004.

10. Jim Lobe, "Iraq: Captured 'Al-Qaeda Letter' Poses More Questions than Answers," IPS-Inter Press Service, 16 February 2004.

11. Michael Isikoff, "Distorted Intelligence?", Newsweek, 25 June 2003.

12. Alon Ben-David, "Jordanian indictment reveals operations of Jund al-Shams terror network," Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, 16 June 2003.

"Doubt over Zarqawi's role as ringleader." Adrian Blomfield, The Telegraph, 2 October 2004.

American intelligence obtained through bribery may have seriously overstated the insurgency role of the most wanted fugitive in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

US agents in Baghdad and Fallujah have revealed a series of botched and often tawdry dealings with unreliable sources who, in the words of one, "told us what we wanted to hear". "We were basically paying up to $US10,000 ($A13,700) a time to opportunists, criminals and chancers who passed off fiction and supposition about Zarqawi as cast-iron fact, making him out as the linchpin of just about every attack in Iraq," one agent said. "Back home this stuff was gratefully received and formed the basis of policy decisions. We needed a villain, someone identifiable for the public to latch on to, and we got one."

Officials in Washington have linked Zarqawi to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda, casting the Jordanian extremist as leader of the insurgency, mastermind of suicide bombings and the man behind the abduction of foreign hostages. But some critics of the war say the Bush Administration has deliberately skewed the level of Zarqawi's involvement in an attempt to portray the insurgency as a war waged by foreign Islamic terrorists. That view could be bolstered by intelligence emerging from around Fallujah since the end of June, when the practice of paying for information was abandoned. It suggests that the insurgency is led not by foreign-born Arabs but by members of Iraq's Sunni minority. "The overwhelming sense from the information we are now getting is that the number of foreign fighters does not exceed several hundred and is perhaps as low as 200," one agent said.

"From the information we have gathered, we have to conclude Zarqawi is more myth than man. At some stage, and perhaps even now, he was almost certainly behind some of the kidnapings. But if there is a main leader of the insurgency, he would be an Iraqi. But the insurgency is not nearly so centralised to talk of a structured leadership."

Military intelligence officials complain that their reports to Washington are largely being ignored and accuse the Pentagon of over-reliance on electronic surveillance and aerial and satellite reconnaissance by the CIA. In recent weeks America has claimed a series of precision air strikes on targets in Fallujah identified by the CIA as housing known Zarqawi associates. It has denied that there were any civilian casualties, despite television pictures showing dead and wounded women and children being pulled from the rubble of flattened homes. That is evidence, the military's spies say, of America's continued dependency on technology over old-fashioned human intelligence - an often voiced criticism since the early 1990s when Bill Clinton cut the number of field agents.

Both US President George Bush and English Prime Minister Tony Blair have, to varying degrees, conceded that intelligence on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction programs - the basis on which the decision to go to war was taken - was misleading. But both continue to maintain that the continued violence since Saddam was ousted is because the front line in the war on terrorism has formed in Iraq, a claim the Prime Minister was at pains to stress at this week's Labour Party Conference. Yet it now seems that the intelligence on which such claims are based is as haphazard, scanty and contradictory as ever it was.

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"The devil America knows," Fiona Symon (Financial Times), Published in NYT, 24 September 2004.

The gruesome beheading of two American hostages this week and the emotional campaign by relatives of Kenneth Bigley, the British detainee, for his release have cemented the image of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as the chief threat to security in Iraq. The presumed head of Tawhid wal Jihad (Unity and Jihad), the group that claimed responsibility for this week's atrocities, has been blamed for horrific acts from the videotaped decapitation of American businessman Nicholas Berg to the ruthless killing of Shia pilgrims.

Now, efforts by US officials to frequently link Mr Zarqawi and al-Qaeda's global network reflect efforts to portray him as the new face of international terrorism, second only to Osama bin Laden. A Saudi newspaper this week even claimed he was planning a September 11-style attack in the US or Europe. Yet, apart from reports that he once lived in an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan, no concrete evidence to prove Mr Zarqawi's involvement with al-Qaeda - or that is even alive - has emerged.

Jordanian-born Mr Zarqawi and his group have undoubtedly committed atrocities. But experts say their powers are exaggerated and a Zarqawi myth is being deliberately created. Tawhid wal Jihad is just one of several militant groups to have sprung up in occupied Iraq. Some of its members, presumed to come from abroad, may be linked to al-Qaeda, and the young zealots who carry the group's black banner may regard Mr Zarqawi as a figurehead. Yet there is no firm evidence to support US claims that they take orders from Mr Zarqawi.

US officials, by their own admission, say there may be fewer than 1,000 foreign fighters in Iraq. In fact the insurgency is mostly waged by a collection of Iraqi groups, including former Ba'athists and many Islamists. But focusing on Mr Zarqawi and his group has allowed Washington and the interim Iraqi government to put a non-Iraqi face on a complex insurgency and to perpetuate the claims of a link between pre-war Iraq and al-Qaeda.

Whereas Mr bin Laden's path to notoriety was well documented, Mr Zarqawi remains a shadowy figure. Indeed, in March a letter circulated in the Sunni stronghold of Falluja, headquarters of Tawhid wal Jihad, claimed he had been killed in a US raid last year. his name first came to international attention in the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq, when American officials highlighted his alleged presence as proof of links between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's regime. Iraq was accused of harbouring a "very senior al-Qaeda leader" when Mr Zarqawi spent time in Baghdad recovering from injuries sustained in Afghanistan.

George W. Bush underlined the point in June this year when he described Mr Zarqawi as "the best evidence of a connection to al-Qaeda" and its affiliates in Iraq. Since then, the US has raised the reward for Mr Zarqawi's capture to $25m.

None of Tawhid wal Jihad's statements, however, have carried Mr Zarqawi's name, according to Mustafa Alani, a Gulf-based terrorism expert. Although he was identified by an Islamist website last May as the man who beheaded Mr Berg, doubts remain. Nor are there any recorded meetings with the Jordanian since he left his homeland in 1999. "Zarqawi might be someone invented by politicians and the security services to point the finger of blame at," says Mr Alani.

Details about Mr Zarqawi's life are sketchy. He was born Ahmed Fadhil al-Khalayleh in 1966 in the impoverished Jordanian town of Zarqa, where he became a minor civil servant. He belongs to the Bani Hassan tribe, many of whose members work in Jordan's security services and whose territory extends into Iraq.

Some reports, based on interviews with neighbours, suggest he was an ill-disciplined youth who was regularly in trouble with the police for alcohol and drug-related offences. He left home to join the anti-Soviet campaign in Afghanistan during the late 1980s and this experience appears to have set the direction of his subsequent activities. On his return to Jordan, he clashed with the authorities as founder of a movement known as al-Muwahhidun, or sometimes as Tawhid, which sought to abolish the monarchy and establish an Islamic state. For this he was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 1996.

He lobbied for prisoners' rights - particularly the right to pray - and had some success in securing an improvement in conditions. He left Jordan after being released under a general amnesty in 1999. From here, the hard evidence about his activities ends. The only images that exist of him are four police photographs taken when he was in Jordanian custody between 1996 and 1999.

He is believed to have gone to Afghanistan and Pakistan, traveling on to Iraq and Iran where he raised money for and planned a series of terrorist attacks against Jordanian and western targets. Islamist experts in London who are familiar with al-Qaeda figures say they know little about Mr Zarqawi and regard his growing notoriety as "an American story". US, Jordanian and Kurdish officials give greatest credence to Mr Zarqawi's importance as a terrorist "field commander" in Iraq. Some Islamist experts, however, are particularly doubtful about the authenticity of a letter, released by US officials earlier this year, said to be from Mr Zarqawi to al-Qaeda leaders, urging them to help foment sectarian conflict. If Mr Zarqawi is linked to an Iran-backed group, they ask, why would he associate with acts of violence against Iraq's Shia?

If Mr Zarqawi ever emerges from the shadows, his capture would undoubtedly be a great propaganda coup for US-led forces in Iraq. But as a symbol, real or imagined, of the insurgency, the threat he poses could prove more enduring.

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"He's Everywhere; He's Nowhere: The Zarqawi Gambit, Part 2," Greg Weiher, CounterPunch, 9 March 2004.

Zarqawi is everywhere, and he is responsible for everything.

That's what an unwary reader might conclude from news coverage over the last several weeks.

"Abu Musab Zarqawi blamed for more than 700 killings in Iraq" (NBC News, 03/03/04).

"Zarqawi has warned of attacks on the majority Shia population with the aim of provoking a Sunni-Shia civil war to wreck the US plans to pull out of Iraq on 30 June" (Independent of London 03/03/04).

"Gen. John P. Abizaid said raids by American Special Operations forces and efforts by the Iraqi police against militants associated with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had thwarted a major attack in Basra" (New York Times 03/03/04).

"There is growing evidence that a terrorist [Zarqawi] with ties to al Qaeda was behind this week's bombing in Iraq" (Christian Broadcasting Network 03/04/04).

"Every soldier in Iraq is looking for Zarqawi," says Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt (Houston Chronicle 02/22/04).

You generally have to get well into these articles to find any qualification of these bold claims. But the disclaimers are puzzlingly blunt given the flamboyant prose that precedes them.

Under the headline, "New leading terrorist a master of disguises, thought to be recruiting for al-Qaida," the Knight-Ridder papers eventually note the following: "So far, coalition officials have presented little hard evidence to back their allegations," and "So far, little evidence has been produced regarding Zarqawi's activities, so it is not clear how firm the allegations are," (Houston Chronicle, 02/22/04).

In a curious construal, the Independent says about the supposed Zarqawi communiqu?, "While it is still not known whether the memo is a fake, its predictions look as though they are coming true."

And the redoubtable New York Times quotes a "senior American official" as saying: "that he knew of no direct evidence linking Mr. Zarqawi to Tuesday's attacks. 'That doesn't mean it's not what we expect to find,' the official said" (New York Times 03/04/04).

Much of this latest furor results from the US announcing in early February that it had intercepted a letter from Abu Musab al Zarqawi to al Qaeda seeking its cooperation in fomenting civil war in Iraq. In a previous article on the CounterPunch website ("The Zarqawi Gambit," 02/26/04), I listed reasons for a healthy agnosticism about allegations concerning Zarqawi, al Qaeda, and the supposed attempt to foment civil war in Iraq.

The first was that the alleged Zarqawi letter could not have been more congenial to the Bush Administration if it had been composed by Karl Rove. Invoking the specter of the universally-loathed al-Qaeda, it supported the interpretation that all of our troubles in Iraq are caused by outside agitators, not the Iraqis themselves. The inference is that violence in Iraq is not part of a war of national liberation, not a structural matter that will impede the flowering of American-style democracy, but by agitation that will pass when we get our hands on Saddam Hussein . . . or, I should say, Zarqawi. The second reason for skepticism was that the communiqu? was made public when "American officials" revealed it exclusively to the New York Times. Like many other government specials to the Times, the only source cited was "senior government officials." There was no attempt to consult non-government intelligence experts, authorities on Al Qaeda, authorities on terrorist activities, or scholars on the Middle East to explore any causes for skepticism. Rather, the Times continued its habit of running with whatever the U.S. government says. This has been characteristic of other government "exclusives" to Times reporters that have proven to be false.

The third reason for skepticism, not to belabor the obvious, is that the Bush administration has lied about intelligence on Iraq before. Remember the mobile weapons labs, the Wagons of Mass Destruction? Remember the Scuds lurking in secret locations in the desert? Remember the remote controlled drones, poised to spew death from Poughkeepsie to Pomona?

Since the Times broke the Zarqawi story on February 9, spawning columns by William Safire and David Brooks and Jim Hoagland and countless speculative articles about Zarqawi's evil activities, as well as multiple CPA press conferences, what additional documentation of the authenticity of the Zarkawi letter has been produced? What third parties have examined the compact disc upon which the letter resided? What articles have appeared about Arabists examining the text to see if the US translation is reasonable? To see if the language is consistent with what one would expect of a Jordanian like Zarqawi, and with other communications attributed to him? To my knowledge, the answer to these questions is "none."

On the other hand, there are additional causes to be skeptical of the document's authenticity. In the original story (02/09/04) American officials claimed the letter "was seized in a raid on a known Qaeda safe house in Baghdad." However, in his column of February 11, William Safire says that the courier was captured by Kurdish Pesh Merga in Kalar, a town about a hundred miles from Baghdad. This appears to have become the preferred version, since the Knight-Ridder papers report on February 22 that the letter was found on a courier captured in northern Iraq. Where and how "US officials" acquired the Zarqawi letter should be straightforward, particularly when they deem it important enough for a special to the Times. So why the confusion over such a simple thing?

We should also be skeptical about the recurring claim that resistance in Iraq originates outside the country. We have heard this story before, but always without substantiation. After the Saddam Hussein regime fell and mortality rates among American soldiers began to climb, high military and defense officials asserted that foreign terrorists were streaming into Iraq across Syrian borders. How inconvenient it was for them when the commanders in charge of patrolling those borders said there was no evidence to support such claims ("Commanders Doubt Syria is Entry Point," Washington Post, 10/29/03).

When insurgents overran a police station in Fallujah, killing fifteen to twenty Iraqi policemen, the Coalition Provisional Authority initially reported confidently that the attack was carried out by foreigners. The next day they admitted that actual evidence proved the attackers were Iraqis.

Similarly, American and Iraqi officials have been eager to link the Ashura bombings in Karbala and Baghdad to Zarqawi and to "traveling jihadists" (Christian Broadcasting Network). The authorities reported taking fifteen Iranians into custody. Of course, there was no shortage of them in the area. Iranians are almost all Shiai, and Ashura is the holiest day in the Shia religious calendar. An estimated 100,000 Iranians traveled to Karbala for the observance. The theory is that foreigners want to attack the Shiai to foment civil war. But it is not likely that Iranians, themselves devout Shiai, would make such an attack.

Robert Fisk is particularly cogent on the issue of outside agitators:

"Repeatedly the Americans have told us that the suicide bombers were 'foreigners.' And so they may be. But can we have some identities, nationalities? The US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, has talked of the hundreds of 'foreign' fighters crossing Saudi Arabia's porous borders. The US press have dutifully repeated this. The Iraqi police keep announcing that they have found the bombers' passports, so can we have the numbers?" (Independent, 03/03/04)

If Zarqawi is in Iraq, how difficult can it be to find him? He is, after all, an amputee. Even an amputee with a prosthetic leg tends to stand out in a crowd. With any support from the natives, a CPA investigator who said "I'm looking for a one-legged Jordanian" would have a fair chance of generating some leads.

And that's the crux of the matter, isn't it? It is not so difficult to believe that there are jihadis in Iraq. But the suggestion set out in the alleged Zarqawi letter and embroidered by "US officials" strikes me as preposterous. This is the suggestion that insurrection is a matter of foreign agitation, not of conditions endemic to Iraq. A one-legged foreigner cannot foment rebellion and elude US capture without substantial Iraqi support. An operation as sophisticated as the Ashura attacks cannot be carried out without active involvement from a cadre of Iraqis, and complicity by other Iraqis in fairly large numbers. Such activity should leave a trail in Iraqi society a mile wide . . . unless, of course, a substantial number of Iraqis are working to cover it. The whole affair has a peculiar odor. To quote Robert Fisk again: "Civil war. Somehow I don't believe it . . . an occupation authority which should regard civil war as the last prospect it ever wants to contemplate keeps shouting 'civil war' in our ears and I worry about that."

Thanks to Michael Christiansen for bringing the inconsistencty about the intercept of the alleged Zarqawi letter to my attention. Greg Weiher is a political scientist and free-lance writer living in Houston, Texas. He can be reached at [email protected]

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"A Purloined Letter: The Zarqawi Gambit, Part I." Greg Weiher, CounterPunch, 26 February 2004.

We've got the rebels in Iraq on the run!

So says a letter intercepted by U. S. Forces in Iraq in January (Dexter Filkins, New York Times, 02/08/04). It was taken during a raid on a "known" Al Qaeda safe house in Baghdad. U. S. authorities claim that the courier identified the author as Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a man they contend has ties to Al Qaeda and Ansar al Islam. According to these U.S. authorities, the letter was intended for Al Qaeda, and proposes a joint attempt to provoke civil war between Iraq's Sunni and Shia.

The letter confirms all of the fondest theories of the Bush administration about the war in Iraq.

First, it apparently dispels all doubt about an Al Qaeda-Iraq connection by virtue of its authorship (Zarqawi, Qaeda associate) and its destination (Qaeda's "inner circle").

Second, the letter establishes that the insurgency is being carried out by alien jihadis who are planning dastardly deeds. These are not the peace-loving Iraqis who want nothing more than to benefit from American largesse and build the democracy that the Bush administration has planned for them. These are foreigners who want to attack the Shia so that they will counterattack and "awaken the sleepy Sunnis." Clearly, they do not seek Iraqi welfare, but only unending jihad.

Third, the letter shows that stalwart American efforts are succeeding in winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. "The memo says extremists are failing to enlist support inside the country, and have been unable to scare the Americans into leaving." Nation-building proceeds apace. The author says that if civil war does not come by June 30, the mystic date when the planets align and the Bush administration must restore Iraqi sovereignty or turn into a pumpkin, then all hope is lost. "We can pack up and leave and look for another land, just like what has happened in so many lands of jihad. Our enemy is growing stronger day after day, and its intelligence information increases. By god, this is suffocation!"

Wow, what a gold mine!

This is the intelligence mother lode, isn't it? I mean, if you were Karl Rove, you couldn't design a better scenario to validate the administration's slant on the war than this.


That's a good reason to maintain a healthy skepticism.

In fact, there are a number of good reasons to take this story with a grain of salt (maybe a three- or four-pounder).

First, things haven't been going so well for George and the prevari-cons lately. George's approval rating is sinking like a stone, a majority of Americans believe he either lied or exaggerated the evidence that justified the war, the caucus scheme to hand over sovereignty is dead in the water, the Shia and the Kurds are getting restive, and there are rumors that the politicos at Chez Bush are looking for a way to jettison Darth Cheney. And lo and behold, now comes the Zarqawi letter to simultaneously confirm all the worst that the Bushies have been saying, and to reaffirm all of their most optimistic claims.

Isn't it all a little too pat? To quote the Times again, "The writer contends that the American efforts to set up Iraqi security services have succeeded in depriving the insurgents of allies." This raises suspicions, first because it so resolutely conforms to the Bush party line, and second because it defies everything we know about the situation on the ground.

The truth is that setting up Iraqi security services has provided insurgents with targets rather than depriving them of allies. Shortly after the letter was made public, a group of fifty to seventy Iraqis (not outsiders) overran a station in Fallujah, killing about twenty Iraqi police. When confronted by disgruntled Iraqis, the police have often fled, sometimes by crawling out of rear windows. One of the major obstacles to creating an Iraqi security capacity has been desertion.

It would be so much more convenient for the Bush Administration if all of the post-war woes of Iraq could be blamed on outside agitators. But the facts are that Iraqis continue to be "disappeared" and to die at the hands of trigger happy American occupiers, that infrastructure and institutions have not been restored, that unemployment and squalor are prevalent, and that tensions are rising among the indigenous Sunni, Shia, Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen.

Another reason to be skeptical is that this story was broken by the New York Times, and follows an all-too-familiar pattern. "The Times reporter Dexter Filkins in Baghdad, backed up by Douglas Jehl in D.C., broke the story exclusively," crowed William Safire (02/11/04).

Another "special" to the times. It has all the earmarks. Note the lack of citations of any specific CPA or Bush Administration contacts. Note the lack of any confirmation of the authenticity of this letter/CD from experts or authorities aside from "U.S. officials." Note the failure to consult third-party intelligence experts, authorities on Al Qaeda, authorities on wars of national liberation. Note the failure to provide any background on the validity of claims that Zarkawi actually could have written such a letter, is still in Iraq, or collaborated with Saddam Hussein. There is one disclaimer, two lines in a three-page piece: "Yet other interpretations may be possible, including that it was written by some other insurgent, but one who exaggerated his involvement."

This story comes solely from unnamed American government sources. In a follow-up story ("Al Qaeda Rebuffs Iraqi Terror Group," 02/21/04) the administration's version of the facts is entirely unquestioned. And yet not one actual person who vouches for the truth of this version is identified. Who is it that stands behind the authenticity of this document? "Senior American officials," "some American intelligence analysts," "the officials," "one official cautioned," "according to American officials," "one senior American official said," "two military officials said." Safire confronts the issue by saying "the message's authenticity was best attested by the amazed U.S. official who told Reuters 'We couldn't make this up if we tried.'" Why not? They've made up plenty of other stuff. I, for one, would be much more reassured if this amazed U.S. official had been willing to make his or her name a matter of record.

This is the Judith Miller method: cultivate a "highly placed inside source," take whatever this person says and report it verbatim on the front page above the fold. Hence the bogus story in the Times about the aluminum tubes imported by Iraq to enrich uranium. Hence the bogus story in the Times about the Iraqi scientist who revealed the locations where Saddam Hussein supposedly disposed of his chemical and biological weapons just before the war. If I hadn't done an internet search on "Dexter Filkins," I would suspect that it is a pseudonym for "Judy Miller."

But the best reason to be skeptical of the Zarkawi Gambit is the record this administration has so assiduously established with respect to the truth. I'm not just talking about the obvious stuff - you know, the apocryphal weapons of mass destruction. I'm talking about the absolute thoroughness of prevari-con lies, extending to the smallest detail, leaving no stone unturned. Lying is not episodic with the Bush Administration. It is policy.

Take for instance the plans of American nuclear energy plants that were discovered among Al Qaeda documents in Afghanistan. According to the Bush Administration, the phantom menace had designs to spew radioactivity across our purple mountains' majesties and amber waves of grain. Except that it now turns out that the story about such plans being found was bogus. Come on, did the plans exist or didn't they? How do you get that wrong?

Take for instance the other WsMD - the Wagons of Mass Destruction. As recently as the World Economic Forum, Vice President Cheney spoke again of the mobile weapons laboratories. Once again, however, there is a veracity problem. It has been firmly established that the supposed mobile weapons laboratories work much better for pumping hydrogen into artillery balloons than for producing chemical and biological agents. After all these months, how do you get that wrong?

I'm no intelligence expert, and I haven't cultivated any high-level inside sources. The Zarqawi letter may, against all odds, be genuine. But in the absence of an open and above-board discussion about the letter's authenticity, it is best to disregard it entirely. Why? Because without independent confirmation, there is simply no reason to believe anything this administration says.

I'll end with a quotation from the Christian Science Monitor (02/10/04).

"In [a Coalition Provisional Authority] briefing, Dan Senor, senior adviser to the CPA, suggested that the memo reveals increasing desperation on the part of the terrorists . . . [they] 'recognize that as we politically empower the Iraqi people, the terrorists will be isolated and it will be harder and harder for them to operate.'

The day after the briefing, Reuters reports that a car bomb killed more than 50 people at a police station south of Baghdad.

I would like to thank Chris Dodson for his correspondence on this topic. Mr. Dodson has been persistent in asking the New York Times to address issues about the Zarqawi letter that are raised in this essay. In spite of the Times' recent journalistic difficulties, Mr. Dodson has yet to receive any concrete response from the paper's "public editor."

Greg Weiher is a political scientist and a freelance writer in Houston Texas. He can be reached at [email protected]

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"Alleged leaflet by Iraqi militants claims al-Zarqawi is dead." Lee Keath, Associated Press, 4 March 2004.

A Jordanian extremist suspected of bloody suicide attacks in Iraq was killed some time ago in U.S. bombings and a letter outlining plans for fomenting sectarian war is a forgery, a leaflet signed by a dozen alleged insurgent groups said. A senior U.S. official denied that claim.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in the Sulaimaniyah mountains of northern Iraq "during the American bombing there," according to the eight-page leaflet circulated this week in Fallujah, a city 30 miles west of Baghdad that is a hotbed of anti-U.S. insurgency activity.

There was no way to verify the authenticity of the leaflet. It was signed by 12 groups, including several cited by U.S. officials in the past including the Ansar al-Sunna Army and Muhammad's Army.

It said al-Zarqawi was unable to escape the bombing because of his artificial leg.

The leaflet did not say when al-Zarqawi was supposedly killed, but U.S. jets bombed strongholds of the extremist Ansar al-Islam in the north last April as Saddam Hussein's regime was collapsing.

A senior U.S. official said the claim al-Zarqawi is dead was false and that the United States had information showing the Jordanian militant was alive well after the bombing campaign.

In al-Zarqawi's hometown in Jordan, an associate of his family told The Associated Press that according to the family, al-Zarqawi had been in contact with his mother until four months ago, when the communication ended after police came to question the mother.

In a telephone call Thursday to the family home, a woman answered and said, "He's not in contact with us. We don't know anything about him. Don't call again." She then hung up.

Before the Iraq conflict began last March, Secretary of State Colin Powell said al-Zarqawi received hospital treatment in Baghdad after fleeing Afghanistan.

U.S. intelligence sources said he apparently was fitted with an artificial leg. He was believed to have taken refuge in northern Iraq before the U.S.-led invasion, and then possibly moved on to Iran. It was widely believed that he then was still coordinating closely with Ansar al-Islam in Kurdish areas.

In February, the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq made public an intercepted letter it said was written by al-Zarqawi to al-Qaida leaders, detailing a strategy of spectacular attacks to derail the planned June 30 handover of power to the Iraqis. U.S. officials say al-Zarqawi may have been involved in some of the series of suicide bombings this year in Iraq.

The leaflet in Fallujah said the "fabricated al-Zarqawi memo" has been used by the U.S.-run coalition "to back up their theory of a civil war" in Iraq. "The truth is, al-Qaida is not present in Iraq," the leaflet said. Though many Arabs entered the country to fight U.S. troops, only a small number remain, the group said. "We had to help hundreds of them leave for their own protection because they were only a burden on the resistance. It was difficult to hide them" from Iraqi informers cooperating with U.S. forces, it said.

Leaflets by "mujahedeen" groups allegedly involved in fighting the U.S. occupation are distributed frequently in Fallujah and other cities of the "Sunni Triangle," the region north and west of Baghdad where guerrilla activity is highest. U.S. officials have said Muhammad's Army may be an umbrella groups of former Iraqi intelligence and security agents and that Ansar al-Sunna Army may be an offshoot of Ansar al-Islam.

A little over a year ago, Jordanian authorities named al-Zarqawi as the mastermind behind the 2002 murder of Laurence Foley, a 60-year-old administrator of U.S. aid programs in Jordan. Al-Zarqawi was born Ahmad Fadeel Nazzal al-Khalayleh in the Jordanian city of Zarqa, an industrial city 17 miles northeast of Amman from which he took his nom de guerre. The owner of a car repair shop in Zarqa said he was told by al-Zarqawi's nephew that al-Zarqawi had been in contact with his mother, Umm Sayel. In their last communication four months ago, al-Zarqawi called his mother at a Jordanian hospital where she was undergoing surgery, the garage owner told AP on condition of anonymity. The phone was tapped and police soon arrive to question Umm Sayel, and since then al-Zarqawi has not restored contact, the man said he was told by the nephew. He would not give the nephew's name or disclose his whereabouts. The AP repeatedly has tried to speak with al-Zarqawi's family.

Al-Zarqawi, believed to be in his 30s, left Jordan for Afghanistan in the late 1980s. He later returned and in 1992 was jailed 7 ? years for militant activities in the kingdom. He left Jordan in August 1999 for Pakistan. In a German court last year, Shadi Abdellah, a Palestinian on trial for allegedly plotting to attack Berlin's Jewish Museum and a Jewish-owned disco, testified he was working for al-Zarqawi. He said they met in Afghanistan. German authorities have reportedly said they believe al-Zarqawi was appointed by al-Qaida's leadership to arrange attacks in Europe.

Moroccan government sources said a group blamed for bombings in May that killed 45 people in Casablanca got its orders from al-Zarqawi. In Turkey, officials said he was believed to have played a role in bombings that killed 63 at two synagogues, the British consulate and a British bank in Istanbul in November.

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"Doubts cast on efforts to link Saddam, al-Qaida." Warren P. Strobel, Jonathan S. Landay and John Walcott, Knight Ridder Newspapers, 2 March 2004.

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration's claim that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had ties to al-Qaida - one of the administration's central arguments for a pre-emptive war - appears to have been based on even less solid intelligence than the administration's claims that Iraq had hidden stocks of chemical and biological weapons.

Nearly a year after U.S. and British troops invaded Iraq, no evidence has turned up to verify allegations of Saddam's links with al-Qaida, and several key parts of the administration's case have either proved false or seem increasingly doubtful. Senior U.S. officials now say there never was any evidence that Saddam's secular police state and Osama bin Laden's Islamic terrorism network were in league. At most, there were occasional meetings. Moreover, the U.S. intelligence community never concluded that those meetings produced an operational relationship, American officials said. That verdict was in a secret report by the CIA's Directorate of Intelligence that was updated in January 2003, on the eve of the war.

"We could find no provable connection between Saddam and al-Qaida," a senior U.S. official acknowledged. He and others spoke on condition of anonymity because the information involved is classified and could prove embarrassing to the White House.

The administration's allegations that Saddam still had weapons of mass destruction have been the subject of much greater public and political controversy than its suggestions that Iraq and al-Qaida were in league. They were based on the Iraqi leader's long history of duplicity regarding WMD, which appeared to be confirmed by spy satellite photographs, defectors and electronic eavesdropping. But the evidence of Iraq's ties to al-Qaida was always sketchy, based largely on testimony of Iraqi defectors and prisoners, supplemented with limited reports from foreign agents and electronic eavesdropping. Much of the evidence that's now available indicates that Iraq and al-Qaida had no close ties, despite repeated contacts between the two; that the terrorists who administration officials claimed were links between the two had no direct connection to either Saddam or bin Laden; and that a key meeting between an Iraqi intelligence officer and one of the leaders of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks probably never happened.

A Knight Ridder review of the Bush administration statements on Iraq's ties to terrorism and what's now known about the classified intelligence has found that administration advocates of a pre-emptive invasion frequently hyped sketchy and sometimes false information to help make their case. On two occasions, they neglected to report information that painted a less sinister picture. The Bush administration has defended its prewar descriptions of Saddam and is calling Iraq "the central front in the war on terrorism," as the president told U.S. troops two weeks ago.

But before the war and since, Bush and his aides made rhetorical links that now appear to have been leaps:

- Vice President Dick Cheney told National Public Radio in January that there was "overwhelming evidence" of a relationship between Saddam and al-Qaida. Among the evidence he cited was Iraq's harboring of Abdul Rahman Yasin, a suspect in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Cheney didn't mention that Iraq had offered to turn over Yasin to the FBI in 1998, in return for a U.S. statement acknowledging that Iraq had no role in that attack. The Clinton administration refused the offer, because it was unwilling to reward Iraq for returning a fugitive.

- Administration officials reported that Farouk Hijazi, a top Iraqi intelligence officer, had met with bin Laden in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 1998 and offered him safe haven in Iraq. They left out the rest of the story, however. Bin Laden said he'd consider the offer, U.S. intelligence officials said. But according to a report later made available to the CIA, the al-Qaida leader told an aide afterward that he had no intention of accepting Saddam's offer because "if we go there, it would be his agenda, not ours."

- The administration tied Saddam to a terrorism network run by Palestinian Abu Musab al Zarqawi. That network may be behind the latest violence in Iraq, which killed at least 143 people Tuesday.

But U.S. officials say the evidence that Zarqawi had close operational ties to al-Qaida appears increasingly doubtful. Asked for Cheney's views on Iraq and terrorism, vice presidential spokesman Kevin Kellems referred Knight Ridder to the vice president's television interviews Tuesday. Cheney, in an interview with CNN, said Zarqawi ran an "al-Qaida-affiliated" group. He cited an intercepted letter that Zarqawi is believed to have written to al-Qaida leaders, and a White House official who spoke only on the condition of anonymity said the CIA has described Zarqawi as an al-Qaida "associate."

But U.S. officials say the Zarqawi letter contained a plea for help that al-Qaida rebuffed. Linguistic analysis of the letter indicates it was written from one equal to another, not from a subordinate to a superior, suggesting that Zarqawi considered himself an independent operator and not a part of bin Laden's organization.

- Iraqi defectors alleged that Saddam's regime was helping to train Iraqi and non-Iraqi Arab terrorists at a site called Salman Pak, south of Baghdad. The allegation made it into a September 2002 white paper that the White House issued.

The U.S. military has found no evidence of such a facility.

- The allegation that Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta met in Prague, Czech Republic, with an Iraqi intelligence officer now is contradicted by FBI evidence that Atta was taking flight training in Florida at the time. The Iraqi, Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al Ani, is now in U.S. custody and has told interrogators he never met Atta.

CIA Director George Tenet told the Senate Intelligence Committee last month that there's no evidence to support the allegation.

- Bush, Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell made much of occasional contacts between Saddam's regime and al-Qaida, dating to the early 1990s when bin Laden was based in the Sudan. But intelligence indicates that nothing ever came of the contacts.

"Were there meetings? Yes, of course there were meetings. But what resulted? Nothing," said one senior U.S. official.

The charges that Saddam was in league with bin Laden, and carefully worded hints that he might even have played a role in the Sept. 11 attacks, may have done more to marshal public and political support for a pre-emptive invasion of Iraq than the claims that Iraq still had chemical and biological weapons and was working to get nuclear ones.

A postwar poll last July by PIPA-Knowledge Networks found that 7 in 10 Americans thought the Bush administration had implied that Saddam was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. Bush himself never made that claim, but Cheney has kept the allegation alive.

Powell, however, was so unpersuaded by the claims of Iraq-al-Qaida contacts that he rebuffed efforts by Cheney's office, the Pentagon and the White House's National Security Council to include a lengthy listing of them in his February 2003 speech to the U.N. Security Council. Instead, Powell limited himself to a few sentences.

In a major address on the Iraqi threat on Oct. 7, 2002, Bush outlined a series of ties: "We know that Iraq and the al-Qaida terrorist network share a common enemy: the United States of America." He went on to say that Iraq and al-Qaida had high-level contacts over a decade, some al-Qaida leaders who fled Afghanistan went to Iraq and "Iraq has trained al-Qaida members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases."

In his January 2003 State of the Union address, Bush raised the possibility that Saddam "could provide one of his hidden weapons (of mass destruction) to terrorists or help them develop their own." Yet Tenet had told Congress the previous October that Saddam would take that "extreme step" only if he concluded that he couldn't deter a U.S.-led attack on his country. Concluded the senior U.S. official: "Did Saddam tolerate terrorists? Yes. Was there any evidence Saddam was involved with 9/11? No."

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Is Zarqawi Really the Culprit? Evidence tying an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist to the latest Iraqi bombings is murkier than US officials are letting on." Rod Nordland, Newsweek, web exclusive, 7 March 2004.

The stark fact is that we don't even know for sure how many legs Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi has, let alone whether the Jordanian terrorist, purportedly tied to al Qaeda, is really behind the latest outrages in Iraq. What is clear is that the Iraq conflict has elevated suicide bombing as a weapon of war to a scale never before seen, not only in numbers of victims, but in numbers of attackers, and their ability to field large number of suiciders at the same time.

Aside from the evidence suggested in a letter attributed to Zarqawi intercepted by officials earlier this year, we don't really know much more now than we did when Secretary of State Colin Powell made the case before the U.N. Security Council for war in Iraq in February, 2003. In that presentation, Powell cited Zarqawi's presence in Baghdad -- where he may or may not have gotten an artificial limb fitted after a wound suffered in Afghanistan -- as, if not a smoking gun, at least a smidgen of a powder burn linking Saddam Hussein to al Qaeda. The letter so neatly and comprehensively lays out a blueprint for fomenting strife with the Shia, and later the Kurds, that it's a little hard to believe in it unreservedly. It came originally from Kurdish sources who have a long history of disinformation and dissimulation. It was an electronic document on a CD-ROM, so there's no way to authenticate signature or handwriting, aside from the testimony of those captured with it, about which the authorities have not released much information.

The other problem with Zarqawi is his history of working for the Iraqi regime, and also apparently with the Iranians. That's a pretty hard trick -- Iran was a bitter enemy of the Saddam Hussein government. Then again, Ansar al-Islam, the Iraqi jihad group, has allegedly had some Iranian support, even though its main role was to do Saddam's bidding in its war against the more mainstream Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUT). Is Zarqawi Ansar al-Islam, or al Qaeda, or both? And even if he is, what really connects him to this week's bombings, except an impulse to find a bete noire, to put a face on the faceless terror. The commanding general of the 1st Armored Division, which patrols Baghdad, said in a briefing March 4 that "it's far more than a supposition and far less than empirical evidence" to say that Zarqawi was involved in the blasts Tuesday. "It's a very educated guess." Perhaps the strongest argument in favor of Zarqawi as culprit was a leaflet signed by an unprecedented 12 underground opposition groups, insisting that he had been killed already by American bombs; the leaflets were distributed after the Karbala and Baghdad blasts in the Sunni triangle towns of Falluja and Ramat. And they may even be right. "There is no direct evidence of whether he's alive or dead at this point," said Brigadier General David Rodriguez, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs, at a press conference Thursday.

As far as Abel Abdul Mehta, an Iraqi governing council spokesman, is concerned, the strongest evidence of an al Qaeda role in the attacks in Iraq is indirect, but persuasive. "Suicide bombing is just not in the Iraqi character, and never has been," he said. Generally that's true. But the first suicide bombing of this conflict was not only an Iraqi, but an Iraqi Kurd, who blew up his car at the entrance to Kurdish headquarters a month before the war started, killing an Australian news cameraman and four bystanders. And the second was reportedly an Iraqi army officer, who used an Iraqi taxi to approach an American checkpoint, blowing himself up and killing four American soldiers, south of Baghdad on March 29, before the fall of the capital. On April 3, two Iraqi women, made a video tape vowing to become suicide bombers and then blew themselves up at a checkpoint north of Baghdad, killing several American soldiers. One of the women was pregnant. All of the Iraqi bombers were wearing suicide belts in the Palestinian style.

In one of his last public pronouncements, Saddam's information minister, Mohamed Sayid al-Sahaf, boasted that they Iraqis had 4,000 suicide bombers ready to deploy. As if to confirm that, on April 12, a few days after the fall, U.S. troops found a cache inside a school that contained 300 suicide vests, filled with C-4 explosives and sophisticated detonators (the dead man switch, specifically, designed to go off if the bearer is shot and loosens his grip). There was also evidence that at least 80 other vests had been removed from the site before U.S. troops discovered it. One such vest was worn by a man who detonated a bomb outside the Palestine Hotel on April 9, killing himself and a U.S. Marine. Then in late April, a cache of 800 suicide vests was found in a factory in south Baghdad; officers described these vests as highly sophisticated in design as well.

But those early fears of a wave of Iraqi suicide missions did not at first pan out. Sahaf's record for inaccuracy held; after April 9, suicide attacks were all but unknown in the first months of the occupation. When they did resume, there was scant evidence of Iraqi involvement, at least as perpetrators. Perhaps the vests did not seem a very efficient method of attack; all of the suicide bombings since then have employed vehicles, ranging from trucks and buses to cars and ambulances, with massive charges, typically 1,000 pounds of C4 plastic explosives. The new spate began in August when a suicide bomber destroyed the Canal Hotel, killing Sergio de Mello, the UN representative, and some 20 persons. A short time later there was a remarkably well-coordinated attack in which five suicide bombers targeted the ICRC headquarters and four police stations. Some 40 persons were killed in all, but police managed to foil one of the attackers and captured him. He was a Syrian, or at least had Syrian identity papers. In the run up to the war, Syria had issued 2,000 passports to Syrian volunteers going to fight on behalf of Saddam Hussein, and several thousand Palestinians reportedly transited Syria to Iraq as well. In the ICRC and police station bombings, the attackers were highly organized, striking within minutes of one another, and using decoy or lead vehicles to get the bomb-laden vehicles, each with 1,000 pounds of plastique, past the security cordons. That was precisely the technique employed by al Qaeda in the May 12 Riyadh bombings which killed 35 people and involved nine suicide bombers. Foreign volunteers were also sent into Iraq from Lebanon and Syria, especially from Palestinian refugee camps; some of those who sent them, like Colonel Munir Maqdah in the Ain al Hilweh camp in Sidon, have openly advocated suicide bombing tactics against the Americans, as well as against Israelis. In an interview with me in September, Maqtah denied that he had dispatched Palestinian suicide bombers, as he had been earlier quoted as saying, but added, "the Americans are occupiers and anyone who occupies any country, there can be no security and no safety for them."

There is no evidence that Iraqis were involved in this latest series of suicide attacks. In aborted attacks, perpetrators have either had foreign passports or no nationality; in all of the attacks that succeeded, there's been nothing left to identify the attackers. In fact, in numerous cases the attackers apparently shaved their heads and donned full-length masks before driving to their doom. The shaving is an act of piety but the masks seem designed to make sure no one recognizes them.

One thing certainly is clear: there's a plentiful supply of willing victims. So far, there have been at least 46 suicide bombers since the war began, and they've managed to cause at least 702 deaths -- using the US military's lowball estimates for Karbala and Baghdad this week (add 154 if using the Iraqi Governing Council totals). All but a handful of those bombers and victims died since August. The attacks have been remarkably unsuccessful in killing coalition forces; 13 American soldiers, 5 Bulgarian troops, 2 Thais and 20 Italian coalition members also died by suicide bombs. But most of the victims have of course been Iraqis, with Iraqi police as the biggest single target, and innocent bystanders the most likely to die. Intelligence sources in Baghdad say the community reckons that as of Sept. 1, there was a pool of 100 suicide bombers, mainly recruited and organized by Ansar al-Islam. These sources estimate that 50 suicide bombers have died so far; but these sources, of course, subscribe to the Zarqawi-as-culprit school, without offering much in the way of detail. Still, from what we know of suicide bombers' indoctrination in other places, like Sri Lanka and Palestine, it often takes months to brainwash someone to the point where they're willing to kill themselves. That may well mean there are a lot more willing bombers in training, wherever they come from.

Only a week before the Karbala outrage, American troops leafleting a Baghdad neighborhood were fired upon from inside a house, and returned fire, killing Abu Mohamed Hamza, one of Zarqawi's lieutenants who was carrying a Jordanian passport and boasting a closet full of fake ID's, C4 explosives, detonators and -- a suicide vest. This is the closest they've yet come to establishing a solid link between Zarqawi, foreign fighters and suicide bombing, if not explicitly with al Qaeda. At a press conference in Baghdad, the coalition's deputy chief of operations, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, showed off photos taken at the arrest scene: "this is a suicide vest that was found inside the house at which Hamza was killed, contains a plastic explosive, ball bearings, blasting caps, a trigger device and a hand grenade. This satchel is made to loop over the neck and be detonated by hand. Inside of the house, you can see an extensive amount of explosives. There was a pre-made improvised explosive device, a container full of plastic explosives over here. These were a number of suitcases that were found with wires, batteries, items that would be necessary for triggering explosive devices. Outside the house were found some barrels of sodium nitrate, some crates with some Soviet Cyrillic writing on the side, some more bags of sodium nitrate, and other items unknown." There was one other thing: photographs of the elusive Zarqawi, although we couldn't tell how many legs he had. c 2004 Newsweek, Inc.


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"US Casts Fugitive as a Super-Villain Critics say an accused terrorist's role in Iraq attacks is exaggerated, noting weak evidence." Sebastian Rotella, Los Angeles Times, 7 March 2004.

RAMAT, Iraq _ Last month, a Jordanian gunman trapped in a terrorist safe house fought a U.S. Army platoon to the death here in the dusty badlands of western Iraq. After the gunman fell, U.S. troops discovered a hoard of explosives, guns, passports and a suicide bomber vest. And they hit pay dirt: In the debris were two photos of a Jordanian fugitive named Abu Musab Zarqawi. The slain man turned out to be a Zarqawi bomb maker being harbored by a former colonel in Iraqi intelligence.

A coalition poster shows the different images of Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi. The United States says it has 'clear intelligence' tying Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi to the bombings in Karbala and Baghdad (AFP/US Army/HO) The incident produced a rare tangible trace of a 37-year-old accused terrorist who has attained notoriety in recent days. Iraqi and U.S. leaders call Zarqawi the mastermind of an eight-month wave of attacks in the country, most recently the multiple bombings at Shiite Muslim shrines that killed as many as 271 people last week.

Almost every day, U.S. officials here display a confiscated letter, allegedly written by Zarqawi, that claims responsibility for 25 suicide attacks and lays out a blueprint for plunging Iraq into sectarian chaos. There is a $10-million price on his head. But the U.S. has provided little evidence implicating Zarqawi. In one case coalition officials say he plotted, the car bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad that killed 22 people last year, a U.S. counter-terrorism official said little progress had been made in identifying the culprits.

Although Zarqawi has been identified as a central figure in a multiethnic network whose tentacles reach across Europe and the Middle East, his anointment as an all-powerful kingpin troubles some investigators and experts, who say it distorts the nature of the insurgency in Iraq. An Iraqi anti-terrorist police commander dismissed the claim in the purported Zarqawi letter that he has carried out 25 "martyrdom operations," which would encompass most major attacks here since the fall. "They are always exaggerating about Al Qaeda," said Col. Dhia Hussein of the Baghdad anti-terrorism unit. "No witnesses have come and talked to me about Zarqawi. The only thing is that he is mentioned in the newspapers. And a $10-million reward. Who is this man? _ Maybe he exists _ such characters exist. But to complete these operations and we don't know, it's impossible."

Die-hard loyalists of the former Iraqi regime represent a bigger threat than Zarqawi, Hussein said. The suicide bombings in Baghdad are the work of different groups, he said, including the loyalists, recently arrived freelance Islamic extremists and foreign fighters who came to Iraq before the war.

The focus on Zarqawi is part of a political strategy to portray the terrorism threat as essentially foreign and rooted in the Al Qaeda network, thereby downplaying the significance of Iraqi insurgents, critics say. But outsiders could not operate in Iraq's "hostile tribal environment" without local allies, said Mustafa Alani, an Iraq-born expert on terrorism.

"The Americans want to say that the only people fighting them are supporters" of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, said Alani, who is based at the Royal United Services Institute, a London think tank affiliated with the British Defense Ministry. "Everybody blames Zarqawi, but I think it's a series of assumptions. It's of great publicity value to say he is trying to stir a civil war. With all the attacks they blame him for, he's either a superman or a myth."

Zarqawi has been in the spotlight before. His real name is Ahmed Fadhil Nazzar Khalailah, and U.S. officials identify him as a Palestinian Jordanian. His prewar presence in Iraq served as the basis for U.S. accusations tying Al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein _ allegations that remain unproven. The current depiction of Zarqawi as supreme chief of a terrorist army assaulting Iraq may reflect a U.S. perspective that differs from European and Arab views.

U.S. officials tend to personify the threat in a notorious individual, European investigators say, while Europeans and Arabs regard Islamic networks as loose and anarchic. American officials are also quick to group Zarqawi and other terrorists under the label of Al Qaeda, though the network is an increasingly dispersed constellation of groups, experts say. "There's this image of a super-villain who's behind everything," said Claude Moniquet, a terrorism expert at a Brussels think tank, who believes that the claim of 25 attacks attributed to Zarqawi is exaggerated. "These people don't work like that. What you always have to remember about the Islamic movements is that they are little, very independent cells, not all connected. There's no hierarchy."

But if Zarqawi has indeed led the campaign of mass-casualty suicide bombings in Iraq, he has rapidly grown into one of the most lethal terrorists in activity. "If Osama bin Laden were to disappear tomorrow, Zarqawi would become one of the biggest chiefs of the global jihad," Moniquet said.

Zarqawi's stature has risen as the murky array of global Islamic movements has reconfigured. Although he once ran an Al Qaeda training camp for Jordanians in Afghanistan, he kept a distance from the network's leaders, according to court testimony in Germany. His independence has increased as members of Bin Laden's inner circle have been killed or driven underground, investigators say.

In a recording that appeared on Islamic Internet sites in January, a voice believed to be Zarqawi's delivered a call to battle. His first known propaganda statement shows that he "aspires to be a boss and is growing militarily," an Italian law enforcement official said. "Oh Allah, America came with its horses and knights to challenge Allah and his messenger," the voice says on the tape. "Oh Allah, rend the kingdom of Bush as you rent the kingdom of Caesar."

After his release from a Jordanian prison in 1999, Zarqawi allegedly oversaw half a dozen plots against European and Israeli targets, but all were foiled. He is accused of ordering the shooting death of a USAID official in Amman, Jordan, in October 2002, a relatively unsophisticated operation. Last year, police found indirect ties between Zarqawi and major suicide bombings in Casablanca, Morocco, in May and Istanbul, Turkey, in November, Spanish and British officials say. But the investigation does not indicate that Zarqawi ordered car-bomb attacks on a British Consulate and a bank in Istanbul, despite press reports, a British counter-terrorism official said. Instead, it appears that the bombers in Turkey may have been trained by Zarqawi's network, the official said. "There's a general sense that the network must have contributed to the development of skills at some point, rather than having specific operational involvement," the British official said.

There are similar questions about Zarqawi's direct involvement in the barrage of sophisticated attacks against targets in Iraq. Some U.S. commanders agree that the extent of his role is a gray area. "Not all of the groups are exactly the same," a senior military official said. "And I think that's consistent with the way Al Qaeda has organized itself over the last few years. My own view is that Zarqawi has his own thoughts and his own direction he wants to take his organization. Not all other organizations are necessarily going to be in agreement with him. Nor are they going to operate necessarily under his command and control."

Despite frequent talk of "foreign fighters," U.S. commanders say their foes are mostly Iraqi. Ragtag thugs, often fueling themselves with drugs and alcohol, collect $20 to fire a rocket-propelled grenade at U.S. convoys, the commanders say. The tougher factions are militants of the Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam and former officers of Saddam Hussein's security forces. "It's clearly wrong to pin all the attacks on Zarqawi or suggest that this is exclusively a foreign-fueled, foreign-initiated insurgency, because that's not the case," said Maj. John Nagl of the Army's 1st Infantry Division, which patrols the heart of insurgent turf.

Nonetheless, the recent discovery of the suspected Zarqawi network safe house suggests an alliance between foreign Islamic fighters and Hussein's traditionally secular die-hards.

The Feb. 19 gunfight resulted from a reconnaissance patrol by a platoon of the 1st Infantry Division in the semi-rural area near Ramat, a Sunni Muslim enclave that is the first large city on the desert road from the Syrian border. Ramat's smuggling rackets and anti-American fervor make it a way station for Arab jihadis. The 19 soldiers didn't realize that they had a wanted terrorist in their sights when they rolled into a remote hamlet around 1 p.m. They just wanted to question four suspicious-looking men standing outside a gray, two-story house typical of the affluence in Hussein's tribal strongholds, commanders say. But when the bomb maker known as Abu Mohammed Hamza saw the four Humvees, he bolted, drew a pistol and wounded a soldier who blocked his escape. Hamza engaged the soldiers in a desperate firefight. Hamza was believed to have been about 30, officials said. His real name has not been released. Intelligence officers think that Hamza was "one of a handful of trusted lieutenants" of Zarqawi and are trying to connect him to specific attacks, the senior military official said.

One of Hamza's captured Iraqi confederates was a colonel in Hussein's intelligence service who lived next door to the hide-out. During the gunfight, the colonel and two other men ran into his house, where women and children had taken refuge. The men disguised themselves in dresses and shawls, but soldiers nabbed them as they tried to sneak out among the women, military officials said. The passport-type photos of Zarqawi found by the soldiers may have been intended for identity documents. In the images, Zarqawi has a pasty complexion, a receding hairline and a weary look. He wears eyeglasses in one picture.

U.S. commanders say they have redoubled the hunt for him after Tuesday's bombing massacres of Shiite pilgrims.

"There is no doubt that Zarqawi and his network, in conjunction with former regime elements, perpetrated these attacks," Gen. John Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command, said at a Pentagon briefing last week. "We certainly know that the Zarqawi network is attempting to foment civil war."

Zarqawi arrived in Iraq after fleeing in late 2001 from Afghanistan, where he suffered wounds that reportedly required the amputation of a leg in Baghdad. He set up shop at terrorist training camps with Ansar al Islam, a Kurdish extremist group, near the Iranian border before the war. After U.S. bombs wiped out the camps and killed one of his deputies, Zarqawi took refuge in Iran. He has operated there with the apparent protection of Iranian security forces, investigators say. Last year, a suspect in a Spanish investigation said in an intercepted conversation that he was "in Iran with Abu Musab Zarqawi," according to a Spanish investigator.

U.S. commanders say they think Zarqawi is now in Iraq. His profile surged last month when U.S. officials here made public the letter seized from an alleged Al Qaeda courier. The captured messenger admitted that Zarqawi wrote the letter, said Iyad Allawi, a member of Iraq's Governing Council. The unsigned document is addressed to "the men on the mountaintops," thought to be Bin Laden and his right-hand man, Ayman Zawahiri. It describes victories and setbacks of the fight in Iraq and outlines a plan to ignite "sectarian war" by turning Shiites against Sunnis.

The letter is "a madman's plan," said Lt. Col. Ken Devan, intelligence officer for the Army's 1st Armored Division in Baghdad. "It's either a plea for help because he's having troubles, or he's trying to look for reinforcements." Some U.S. and Iraqi officials say there is no doubt Zarqawi wrote the letter. Devan was more cautious. "You have to look at it kind of critically," Devan said. "You can look at things on the surface and say: 'Well, OK, that's got to be him, that's got to be his work.' But again, you have to look more critically at it. So to say right now, do I think it was penned by Zarqawi, it's inconclusive at this point. A guy that has such good [operational security], you wonder why would he do that."

Alani, the London-based expert, thinks that parts of the letter are not consistent with Zarqawi's thinking. He found it unlikely that Zarqawi, who has had a good relationship with Shiite Iran, would denounce Shiites as "lurking snake[s]" and "malicious scorpion[s]" in writing. Until Zarqawi is caught or killed, questions will linger. There is the political context: The previous U.S. allegations about Zarqawi's supposed prewar links to the Iraqi regime fizzled. Ironically, developments such as the gunfight at the safe house suggest that postwar turmoil may have spawned such an improbable alliance.

In congressional testimony last week, Abizaid said: "We also have intelligence that shows there is some linkage between Zarqawi and the former regime elements, specifically the Iraqi intelligence service, and we are concerned to see a terrorist group come into close coordination with former Iraqi intelligence service people."

Times staff writers Patrick J. McDonnell and John Hendren contributed to this report.

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"A (Terrorist's) Letter from Iraq: The so-called Zarqawi Memo may or may not be genuine, but it's a revealing picture of Iraq right now." Christopher Dickey, Newsweek, web exclusive, 17 Feb. 2004.

Feb. 12 - It's springtime already in Baghdad. Traffic is thick on the streets and people fill the sidewalks in the early evening, strolling through the shopping districts. The suicide bomb that took out 47 young men lining up for jobs with the new U.S.-trained military yesterday -- a day after another bomb killed 53 Iraqis outside the capital -- was seen as a tragedy, of course, but not much of a disruption. Iraqis have learned, after 35 years of totalitarian tyranny, genocidal wars and, now, U.S. occupation to accept the facts of life and death and move on. The Americans may have a harder time of it, though. For us, the facts on the ground are pretty stark: an attack on U.S. forces every hour, at least one of our soldiers dying every day, and more than $1 billion of taxpayer money spent on this enterprise every week.

So the spokesmen for the U.S. military and the Coalition Provisional Authority are always looking for good news. They tout the election of an Olympic Committee (elections being alright for athletes, in the Coalition's view, but not so good for constitutional conventions) or the installation at long last of a cell-phone network in the Iraqi capital. When asked why, despite such happy events, the number of attacks on Americans and suicide bombings aimed at Iraqis working with them has increased, the answer is always pretty much the same: the resistance is getting desperate, so the more things improve, the more murderous it will become. With such bulletproof logic, the occupation spokesmen can pretend that the policy, at least, is invulnerable.

Now we discover that one infamous terrorist may actually agree with the American spin. Amid great fanfare, the Coalition has released a letter ostensibly found on a CD-ROM sent by one Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi to his betters in Al Qaeda, wherever they may be. The tone of the English-language "highlights" provided to the press is so self-serving it's almost embarrassing. As Coalition spokesman Dan Senor summed it up yesterday: "Mr. Zarqawi says in the memo that if the Iraqis assume effective control of their own government, the terrorists, the Al Qaeda elements, will lose their quote-unquote 'pretext' to wage terror in this country -- and he says they will literally have to pack up and go somewhere else, find another battle. We hope he's right, because that's the path we're on; we are on the path toward handing over sovereignty, and we are on the path toward defeating these terrorists. The two are inextricably linked."

But it gets better. Zarqawi, you'll recall, was the gimpy Palestinian-Jordanian figure cited by Secretary of State Colin Powell last year as a vital link (sort of, maybe) between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. So the mere mention of his name allows those who conjured up the Iraq invasion in the first place to bring out their old smoke-and-mirror routine implying that Saddam was behind September 11.

Given the Bush administration's record peddling bad intelligence and worse innuendo, you've got to wonder if this letter is a total fake. How do we know the text is genuine? How was it obtained? By whom? And when? How do we know it's from Zarqawi?

We don't. We're expected to take the administration's word for it. "How it was found is not as important as the fact that we have it, we've reviewed it, we understand what it is saying, and we can use it ... to understand the thought process behind the terrorists," explains Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the military briefer at the five-o'clock follies in Baghdad.

You're forgiven if you have your doubts. I certainly have mine. But after going over a translation of the complete document by Newsweek's staff, I'm inclined to agree with the general. Unlike the politically correct excerpts, which left out the first nine of 17 pages, the unsensitized Arabic text rings true to the tone of many Al Qaeda manifestoes:

"I say, and may Allah help me, that the Americans entered Iraq aiming at establishing the state of Greater Israel from the Nile to the Euphrates, and that this American Zionist administration believes that by speeding up the establishment of [this] state of Israel it will itself speed up the return of Christ."

Most of the document is actually a screed against Shiites, who make up the majority of Iraq's Arabs but are regarded by bin Laden's crowd as traitorous heretics and a fifth column in the ancient struggle against the West. Fomenting sectarian war with these apostates is not just a tactic, but a strategy and, indeed, a righteous cause as the letter-writer sees it. The author brags of organizing some 25 "martyrdom operations," meaning suicide bombings, many of them targeting Shiites as well as Americans, police and other Coalition forces. All that's true to form. Maybe this is Zarqawi, maybe not, but whoever is writing has an accurate sense of Al Qaeda's thinking and a feel for the situation on the ground here.

Woven through this diatribe is a cold-eyed appraisal of other major players in Iraq today, their weaknesses and the possibilities they offer for the Islamic revolutionaries' strategy. Such frank analysis is also typical of Al Qaeda-ish ideologues.

The majority of Sunni Iraqis, says the letter-writer, "dislike the Americans and wish for their withdrawal, yet they look for a bright shining future and they are very easy prey for the cunning media and deceptive politics." Their tribal leaders and religious scholars are not interested in holy war, preferring instead "to dance [ceremonial dances] and finish with a big meal." The Muslim Brothers, who belong to one of the oldest international Islamist political movements, now "bargain with the martyrs' blood and build their fake glory over the skulls of the faithful." They compromise with the Americans, seeking seats in the new government, while trying to control the jihad by pulling the purse strings.

As for the Americans themselves, "the Crusaders," they're easy targets because they're spread so thin and don't understand anything about the country. The writer proposes not only to kill them when possible, but to abduct them "so that we can exchange them for our arrested sheikhs and brothers." Not a happy thought.

The strategic challenge for the letter's author is what to do when the American troops have pulled back to the relative safety of their garrisons and handed off most of the fighting to Iraqi police and soldiers who actually know the terrain, the language, the people, and in many cases have deep family ties in the community. On the one hand, that will make it a lot harder to fight "the foreign occupation," especially if you're a foreigner yourself. But the challenge the author sees is not the power of some new "democracy" (which is mentioned ironically), it's the bastardized security apparatus drawn from the old ranks of the dictator's forces: "an army and police force that will bring back the time of Saddam Hussein and his cohorts." When Saddam actually was in power, contrary to the Bush administration's spin, there was no place in his Iraq for Islamic revolutionaries.

So, yes indeed, the "Zarqawi Memo" could be taken as tacit admission of defeat by one foreign fighter who hoped to set Iraq ablaze and make it a new base of operations for Al Qaeda. And for those of us interested in the minutiae of terrorist thinking, as well as the mostly forgotten hunt for Osama bin Laden, it really is fascinating. But as an American here in Iraq, I don't find the letter much consolation.

The writer, sinister idealist that he is, complains that too many of the home-grown fighters in Iraq are reluctant to be suicidal martyrs. Instead, he says, these Iraqis lay landmines, launch missiles, fire mortars and then go home to their wives and kids. He doesn't really want to have anything to do with them, nor they with him.

Unfortunately for us, these are the guys, precisely, who are attacking American forces every hour, killing an American every day, and costing us a billion a week. And so far, there's no sign at all that they're giving up. c 2004 Newsweek, Inc.

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"Iraq: Captured 'Al-Qaeda Letter' Poses More Questions than Answers." Jim Lobe, IPS-Inter Press Service, 16 February 2004.

BODY: A letter purportedly written to senior al-Qaeda leaders by a key associate, Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, appears to undermine a major thesis of hard-core pro-Israel neo-conservatives who led the U.S. drive to war in Iraq. The letter, which is essentially an appeal for help in launching a "sectarian war" against Iraq's Shi'a Muslim population, was circulated by the Pentagon after it was allegedly seized in a raid on a safe house in Baghdad on Jan. 23 that netted a prominent courier of the al-Qaeda terrorist group. It was leaked to 'The New York Times', which reported on it Feb. 10.

U.S. war planners clearly saw the 17-page letter as confirmation that their strategy for pacifying Iraq, particularly the so-called "Sunni Triangle", was working. Its quick declassification and wide dissemination suggested the message was one the Pentagon was eager to get out, precisely because it corresponded to the military's own claims that it was grinding down the armed opposition in the occupied country. The writer, identified by the Pentagon as Zarqawi, a Palestinian Jordanian who the administration has long alleged is closely linked to al-Qaeda -- the group led by Osama bin Laden -- admits that the U.S.-led occupation is making steady progress.

"There is no doubt that our field of movement is shrinking and the grip around the throat of the mujahidin has begun to tighten", the letter, which was found on a compact disc, states. "With the spread of the army and police, our future is becoming frightening".

The author takes credit for 25 "martyrdom operations" directed against Shi'a targets and U.S. and other coalition forces, suggesting that foreign Islamist fighters, rather than indigenous groups, might indeed be responsible for suicide bombings, as the U.S. military has argued. The letter writer also reports that his forces are planning to carry out more attacks against Iraqi military and security forces. Since the letter's date, suicide attacks against these targets have indeed escalated sharply.

So far, so good.

At the same time, however, the letter, excerpts of which were published by the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) and the 'Weekly Standard', tends to debunk several of the neo-conservatives' own myths.

First, it contains no suggestion at all of any pre-existing cooperation or relationship between ousted Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and either Zarqawi or al-Qaeda, as the neo-conservatives have long contended. It expresses great disappointment at the absence of al-Qaeda in Iraq, a disappointment that undermines the administration's insistence that it is that group that is behind a growing number of attacks in Iraq. Indeed, the tone suggests, according to Iraq expert Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, that the writer - if it is Zarqawi - has not been in close contact with al-Qaeda for quite some time.

More important, the letter's thrust -- the necessity for carrying out attacks against Shi'a Muslims in Iraq -- serves also to undermine a major neo-conservative thesis -- that Islamist extremists work together to accomplish their goals regardless of their own sectarian affiliation. This "terror masters" thesis -- named for the book, 'The War Against the Terror Masters', by the theory's foremost Washington proponent, Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) -- argues that western intelligence agencies have been naive to think that Shi'a groups like Hezbollah and Iran would not work closely with extremist Sunni groups, like al-Qaeda or Zarqawi's network, because of their sectarian differences.

In Ledeen's view they all form one "coherent terror network" in which Iran plays the dominant role. Among others, Richard Perle -- also based at AEI but better known for his close ties to Vice President Dick Cheney and the Pentagon's civilian leadership -- has publicly propounded this thesis. "The terror network is more complex, and far more united, than most our analysts have been willing to accept", he wrote last September in an article in National Review Online.

"The divisions and distinctions of the past no longer make sense; the terror mafias are working together, and their missions are defined by the states that protect, arm, fund and assist them: Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia."

According to Ledeen, Iran is the "lynchpin of the terror network", and routinely hosts or organises meetings of the network's major leaders. Tehran has strongly denied any connection or support to al-Qaeda or any other radical Sunni group.

In his September article, Ledeen wrote that Tehran hosted a terrorist summit last August that included Hezbollah's chief of operations Imad Mughniyah; Zarqawi; al-Qaeda's number two Ayman al-Zawarhiri; bin Laden's son Saad, and Iranian intelligence officials. Zarqawi promptly relocated to Iraq several days later, presumably to begin carrying out operations of the kind that he reports in the Jan. 23 letter, Ledeen added.

The problem with that theory is that the letter attributed to Zarqawi fails to provide even the slightest hint of an Iranian connection, and consistently refers to the Shi'a population in Iraq -- to which Iran has long provided strong support -- as if it, perhaps even more than Washington, is the ultimate enemy.

"The Shi'a have declared a subtle war against Islam", the letter states. "Even if the Americans are also an arch-enemy, the Shi'a are a greater danger and their harm more destructive to the nation than that of the Americans."

"They are the most cowardly people God has created. Killing their leaders will weaken them and with the death of the head, the whole group dies", Zarqawi writes of the Shi'as, whose religion he describes as a "perverse sect". Such references to Shi'as and the lack of any reference at all to Iran in such a long letter, Cole told IPS, simply add to the view among most regional specialists both in and outside the U.S. government that Ledeen's "terror master" theory is as questionable as the notion of an operational link between Hussein and al-Qaeda.

"The document undermines all the conspiracy theories about Iranian support for al-Qaeda or an al-Qaeda-Hezbollah link", says Cole. "The Iranians would as soon shoot those people Zarqawi and al-Qaeda as look at them". In that respect, the letter and its widespread distribution, particularly by neo-conservative groups and publications, mark a potentially serious setback to those in and out of the administration who have adopted Ledeen's view. Not coincidentally, it is the same group, both within and outside the administration, which argued before the war that Hussein and al-Qaeda were closely linked. The same group has been the major obstacle to any steps by Washington to improve relations with Tehran since talks were suspended last May, after an al-Qaeda attack on a western compound in Tehran that U.S. officials charged had been ordered from somewhere in Iran.

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"Distorted Intelligence?" Michael Isikoff, Newsweek, 25 June 2003.

Secret German records cast doubt on the Saddam-Al Qaeda connection. Plus, why Qatar is footing the legal bills for an 'enemy combatant' "Hundreds of pages of confidential German law-enforcement records raise new questions about the Bush administration's core evidence purporting to show solid links between Osama bin Laden's terror network and Saddam Hussein's regime.

The Voluminous German records, obtained by Newsweek, seem to undercut highly touted administration claims that Abu Mussab Al Zarqawi, a hardened Jordanian terrorist who once received medical treatment in Baghdad, was a key player in Al Qaeda. In fact, the secret German records--compiled during interrogations with a captured Zarqawi associate--suggest that the shadowy Zarqawi headed his own terrorist group, called Al Tawhid, with its own goals and may even have been a jealous rival of Al Qaeda.

The captured associate, Shadi Abdallah, who is now on trial in Germany, told his interrogators last year that Zarqawi's Al Tawid organization was one of several Islamist groups that acted "in opposition" to bin Laden's Al Qaeda. At one point, Abdallah described how Zarqawi even vetoed the idea of splitting charity funds collected in Germany between Al Tawhid and Al Qaeda.

While the internal machinations between Al Tawhid and Al Qaeda may seem obscure, they cut to the heart of one of the most politically sensitive issues in Washington at the moment: whether the Bush White House exaggerated and distorted U.S. intelligence to justify the war on Iraq.

Much of the debate revolves around claims that Saddam had large stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons--stockpiles that so far have not been found. But an equally fierce debate has been taking place behind the scenes about the handling of sketchy, and at times, contradictory evidence relating to Saddam's supposed connections with Al Qaeda.

Zarqawi was at the center of those claims. In a Cincinnati speech delivered Oct. 7, on the eve of a congressional vote authorizing him to wage war on Iraq, President Bush asserted that "Iraq and Al Qaeda have had high-level contacts that go back a decade." His chief example was that "one very senior Al Qaeda leader" had "received medical treatment in Baghdad"--an obvious reference to Zarqawi, who had his leg amputated there in 2002.

Zarqawi received even more prominence in secretary of State Colin Powell's Feb. 5 presentation to the United Nations Security Council. In that address, Powell described Zarqawi as "an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda lieutenants." During his stay in Baghdad, Powell claimed that "nearly two Qaeda affiliates" converged on the Iraqi capital and "established a base of operations there."

But the German interrogations of Shadi Abdallah present a more complex and somewhat different picture of Zarqawi's role in international terrorism. According to Abdullah, Zarqawi's Al Tawhid group focuses on installing an Islamic regime in Jordan and killing Jews. And although Al Tawhid maintained its own training camp near Herat, Afghanistan, Zarqawi competed with bin Laden for trainees and members, Abdallah claimed.

A Jordanian native who migrated to Europe in the mid l990s and became involved in militant Islamic activities in an effort to escape personal problems stemming from his acknowledged drug use and homosexuality. Shadi Abdallah is now on trial in Duesseldorf, Germany on charges of plotting with Zarqawi and other members of an alleged Al Tawhid cell in Germany to attack Jewish or Israeli targets inside Germany. Abdallah could get ten years if convicted on the charges, but is believed to have become a key German government informant and witness against other Al Tawhid operatives who will be tried later.

Transcripts of Abdallah's interrogations over several months last year by investigators from Germany's Federal Criminal Police are perhaps the most important hard evidence collected by any Western intelligence or law-enforcement agency about the terrorist activities and aims of Zarqawi and his associates.

The transcripts indicate that while there was certainly interaction between members of Zarqawi's Jordanian-focused terror group and Al Qaeda, the organizations largely operated separately and had different aims. Shadi Abdallah told investigators how he himself initially was recruited to go to an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan by one of Osama bin Laden's sons-in-law, whom he met while on a religious trip to Saudi Arabia. After sustaining a head injury in one of Al Qaeda's Afghan training camps, Shadi Abdallah says, he found himself recuperating in a compound where bin Laden lived.

Later, he was briefly assigned to be one of bin Laden's bodyguards. At the time, bin Laden's top advisors believed he was threatened with assassination, and recruited Abdallah as a bodyguard because he was almost as tall as the Al Qaeda leader. While a member of bin Laden's entourage, Abdallah says he had numerous conversations with Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemeni resident in Hamburg who later played a key role in the September 11 hijacking conspiracy.

But after "only about two weeks" as a bin Laden bodyguard, Abdallah told German investigators, he became disenchanted with bin Laden's hard-line ideology, which he found distasteful because of bin Laden's insistence that the Koran allowed the killing of women children and old people. Abdallah said he made his way from bin Laden's hideout to Zarqawi's Al Tawhid training camp near Herat. There, he was informed that Al Tawhid's mission was explicitly to "fight the Jordanian regime and to overthrow the government of Jordan" as well as the "annihilation of Jews all over the world."

After training in Zarqawi's camp, Abdallah returned to Germany and hooked up with an alleged Al Tawhid cell there that was involved in raising funds and acquiring fake passports for the terror group. Abdallah says that after American forces drove him out of Afghanistan following the 9-11 attacks, Zarqawi for several months ran Al Tawhid out of Iran, using telephones and a network of couriers to pass messages and documents to the German cell and other operatives in Europe.

At the time of Abdallah's arrest by German authorities last spring, Zarqawi apparently was still running the group out of Iran; and the only Iraqi connection with Al Qaeda was access to phony Iraqi documents, Abdallah told authorities. Several U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reports that were used to craft Powell's Feb. 5 presentation to the Security Council told Newsweek they were aware all along of the German information about Zarqawi. But the officials insist the CIA firmly stands behind what Powell said about Zarqawi's purported links to Al Qaeda. Even the German evidence, they said, indicates that there were some associations and links between the two organizations.

Despite the inflammatory language of Powell's U.N. presentation, Bush Administration officials also have acknowledged that their information about Zarqawi's stay in Baghdad is sketchy at best. According to U.S. officials, Zarqawi entered Iraq around May of last year to have an amputation performed on his leg, which was injured while he was fleeing American forces in Afghanistan. According to some reports, one reason that he might have gone to Baghdad for the operation was that the Iranian government, in one of its sporadic crackdowns on Al Qaeda, had expelled him.

Senior U.S. officials acknowledged to Newsweek within days of Powell's speech that it was "unknown" whether Saddam's government helped arrange Zarqawi's hospital stay in Baghdad or whether Iraqi intelligence had any contacts with him while he was in Baghdad. Since U.S. forces ousted Saddam two months ago, only one confirmed member of Zarqawi's group has been captured by American troops in Iraq. Little if any other information has surfaced to illuminate Zarqawi's Baghdad stay or the dealings between Saddam's government and Zarqawi or other alleged Islamic terrorist operatives, including bin Laden. U.S. officials acknowledge that some top captured Al Qaeda leaders, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah, have told U.S. interrogators bin Laden vetoed a long-term relationship with Saddam because he did not want to be in the Iraqi leader's debt.

As for Zarqawi himself, his whereabouts remain unknown. By the time U.S. forces began massing on Iraqi borders in preparation for an attack, intelligence reports indicated that Zarqawi had already left Baghdad, possibly for Syria or Lebanon. When war broke out in March, U.S. intelligence believed that Zarqawi was probably hiding out in an Islamist enclave in Northern Iraq run by Ansar Al Islam, and extremist group which Powell also suggested had connections to both bin Laden and Saddam, even though it was in a part of Iraq not controlled by Saddam's government.

U.S. intelligence now believes that Zarqawi may have escaped to Iran once again when U.S. and Kurdish forces routed Ansar Al Islam from its base during the war. Officials say they do not know whether he is free to continue to operate Al Tawhid from Iran, or whether he is in Iranian custody. Officials also say that while considerable evidence has turned up to support Powell's claim that the Ansar Al Islam camp visited by Zarqawi was used as a refuge for Al Qaeda operatives fleeing Afghanistan, little evidence has surfaced to validate implications by Powell that before the Iraq war, an agent placed by Saddam inside the Islamist enclave had helped to arrange Al Qaeda's safe haven there.

The German government evidence appears to demonstrate how the Zarqawi story told by Powell to the Security Council was partial at best and misleading at worst, in the sense that it took Zarqawi's tenuous relationship to Al Qaeda and his mysterious visit to Baghdad and lifted them out of context to imply evidence of a closer collaboration between Iraq and bin Laden than the facts demonstrated.

Missing entirely from Powell's speech was the qualifying and even contradictory information in the German files. Also missing was any reference to Zarqawi's sojourn in Iran, which knowledgeable officials concede might be as significant, if not more important, than any visit he paid to Baghdad.

One intelligence source says that as the Bush Administration cranked up the government to prepare for war, intelligence agencies were ordered to produce two critical papers that could be published to justify an attack on Saddam. One paper related to Weapons of Mass destruction, the other to Saddam's links to terrorism. Classified versions of both papers were written and the paper on WMD was eventually published by the Bush Administration as an official dossier. But an unclassified version of the paper on Saddam's links to terrorism was never published because intelligence agencies could not reach final agreement on what exactly it should say . . .

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"Jordanian indictment reveals operations of Jund al-Shams terror network." Alon Ben-David, Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, 16 June 2003.

In the indictment, filed to the Jordanian National Security Court and obtained by JTIC, there is no mention of Al-Qaeda involvement in the attack. However, the indictment reveals that Abu-Musab Al-Zarqawi, suspected by the USA of being the link between Al-Qaeda and the former Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, had met the diplomat's assassins in Syria, where they were trained. It is the first evidence that Al-Zarqawi has operated out of Syria.

Foley, executive officer of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in Jordan, was shot dead last year outside his home in a western Amman neighbourhood. The 60-year-old diplomat was about to enter his car when he was hit by a volley of bullets fired from close range. Soon after, Jordan and the USA charged Al-Qaeda with responsibility for the attack. In an audio recording released several weeks later, believed to be by Osama Bin Laden, the speaker mentioned Foley's murder among a list of other attacks committed by Al-Qaeda.

However, the indictment specifies Al-Zarqawi, as the key figure behind the attack. Al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian national, together with 10 other defendants - Libyans, Syrians and another Jordanian - are charged with the murder of Foley and with plotting to commit other attacks against US and Israeli targets in Jordan. Only five of the 11 suspects are in custody, among them Saad Salem Bin-Suawayed, a 40-year-old Libyan, suspected to have been the gunman.

According to the indictment, Al-Zarqawi visited Syria last year, where he met the operatives involved in the plot. They were trained in Syria, supplied with guns and grenades, and then returned to Jordan with instructions to locate a suitable target. Suawayed and his accomplices began searching the diplomatic neighbourhood of Amman for possible targets. By chance, they spotted Foley's diplomatic licensed car and followed it until he arrived at his home. The team waited outside the house until Foley emerged again and then shot him.

Saed Kheir, head of Jordanian General Intelligence, travelled to Damascus a few weeks after the attack, where intelligence sources believe he presented evidence that the assassins arrived from Syria and demanded the co-operation of the Syrian government. Syrian security services mounted an investigation and were able to present Kheir with the names of the suspects. Soon after, on 4 December 2002, four of the suspects were apprehended in Jordan. Last week, Jordanian authorities arrested the fifth suspect, Mohammed Dumos, charged with facilitating the illegal border crossing of the others from Syria and with obtaining the mini-van that was used in the attack.

The indictment does not attribute the attack to Al-Qaeda, and regional intelligence sources have pointed the finger at Al-Zarqawi's own independent faction, Jund al-Shams. "The Jordanians are experts when it comes to Al-Qaeda," a senior intelligence source told JTIC. "If they say it's not Al-Qaeda - then it isn't."

In recent months, Israeli intelligence agencies have ceased the use of the term 'Al-Qaeda' and began referring to what they call 'World Jihad' - "a series of dozens of small affiliated organisations that operate in different levels of co-operation", according to a senior intelligence source who spoke to JTIC. "Al-Zarqawi embodies the complexity of this matrix," the source added.

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