Fields of Jihad

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YURI KOZYREV FOR TIME

A man prays in a remote spot on the northeastern Iraq border with Iran

The Kurds had laid out bait for their prey. In early January, Kurdish security officials spread word in the villages along Iraq's border with Iran that one stretch of the mountainous frontier was lightly guarded and thus safe for travelers who had reason to slip unnoticed in or out of the country. Then the Kurds waited. "It was like dropping seeds for a chicken, saying 'Come, come,' and then catching it," a Kurdish official involved in the sting told TIME. It was a crisp morning in mid-January when the chicken fell into the trap.

The tall man in an open-neck shirt, jacket and trousers looked like any of the traveling merchants who frequent the area. When he was stopped at a Kurdish checkpoint near Kalar, officials made an intriguing discovery in his travel bag: two CDs and a computer flash disc the size of a cigarette lighter. With a hunch who their catch was—the CIA had given them a heads-up that he might be in the area—the Kurdish officials snapped a digital mug shot of the traveler and e-mailed it to their American intelligence contacts. The confirmation came back quickly: the Kurds had nabbed Hassan Ghul, one of the key al-Qaeda operatives still on the run. "When Washington heard we had him," said a Kurdish official in Baghdad, "they were doing cartwheels."

The satchel was at least as important as the suspect. On one of Ghul's discs was a 17-page progress report and future plan of action in Iraq written to "You, noble brothers, leaders of Jihad." The author, U.S. military officials have concluded, was Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, whom U.S. intelligence believes is al-Qaeda's top operative in Iraq. If the memo is what Washington says it is, and if its author is not exaggerating, then al-Qaeda has played a greater role in the insurgency in Iraq than anyone has appreciated. The letter's author claims to have overseen 25 suicide attacks against various targets in Iraq, which would constitute almost all such assaults since the U.S. rolled into Iraq.

The report and other files captured with Ghul suggest a long-term strategy by an international terrorism organization to turn occupied Iraq into the front line of the global jihad. The memo, whose discovery was first reported by the New York Times, expresses frustration that the fight in Iraq has not been more successful as well as concern that it will soon fail. But, as a final strategy to upset U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq, the memo suggests provoking strife between the country's two main religious factions—the Sunnis and the Shi'ites—through attacks on Shi'ites, who would then presumably strike back at Sunnis. Shi'ite-Sunni discord is already problem enough for U.S. occupation authorities without al-Qaeda's stirring up more trouble.

Not everyone is convinced that the document found on Ghul was authored by al-Zarqawi. Mustafa Alani, a Middle East specialist at the Royal United Services Institute in London, believes that the letter is from a group of religiously motivated militants working in Iraq who are seeking an alliance with al-Qaeda. "Al-Qaeda has never been in the habit of setting out its strategy on paper," he says. "It's three years since 9/11, and we still haven't found one single written document about it." U.S. officials acknowledge there is no hard evidence that al-Zarqawi wrote the intercepted memo, but they say they are confident in their conjecture, based on information in the letter and the circumstances of Ghul's arrest.

Apart from the documents in Ghul's satchel, U.S. military officials say they have other evidence that the resistance in Iraq is increasingly being fought and led by jihadists rather than Baathists. Since the capture of Saddam Hussein in December, officials say, supporters of the former regime have largely given up the fight. Their role as financiers and organizers of the diverse insurgency has been taken up by religiously motivated groups that are recruiting young foot soldiers to come to Iraq. It's unclear, says a U.S. intelligence official in Washington, "how many are, quote-unquote, al-Qaeda." But it's plain, says a U.S. intelligence official in Iraq, "this is the battleground. It is easy to get here and easy to get weapons."

Al-Zarqawi is a central figure in all this. French terrorism expert Roland Jacquard notes that last month an audio recording of al-Zarqawi turned up in extremist circles, in which he urged holy fighters from around the world to join the fight in Iraq under his leadership. Jacquard says Western intelligence agencies believe al-Zarqawi has called for 1,500 to 2,000 jihadists to leave Chechnya for Iraq.

A Jordanian, al-Zarqawi, 37, has a long record as a jihadist. As a young man, he joined other Arab volunteers to help the Afghan mujahedin defeat Soviet troops in the late 1980s. He is thought to have joined up with al-Qaeda leaders in the 1990s. Eventually, al-Zarqawi was given responsibility for rotating al-Qaeda troops between Chechnya and Afghanistan, through the mountains of northern Iraq. There, U.S. intelligence believes, he became the on-the-ground commander of the well-trained extremist group Ansar al-Islam. In defending the U.S. case for war against Iraq at the U.N. a year ago, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell asserted that Saddam's regime harbored a terrorist network headed by al-Zarqawi. That claim was partially based on intelligence that al-Zarqawi, after sustaining injuries in the U.S. war in Afghanistan, fled to Baghdad, where his leg was amputated and he was fitted with a prosthesis. More recently, Powell acknowledged that the U.S. has turned up no "smoking gun" connecting Saddam with al-Qaeda. The memo putatively written by al-Zarqawi disparages the Saddam regime.

Al-Zarqawi is the focus of a manhunt nearly on the scale of the searches for Saddam and his two sons. U.S. officials say they have no firm idea where he is, but they suspect that he is in the Sunni triangle. Al-Zarqawi operates so inconspicuously that U.S. intelligence is having trouble "tracking him through the traditional ways," says an official.

The information yielded by the capture of Ghul, whom the Kurds turned over to the Americans, may help al-Zarqawi's hunters. "The discs [Ghul carried] were jammed," says a Kurdish security official. "You could not fit one more single word on them." In a small, weathered blue notebook in Ghul's satchel were names and telephone numbers from around the world, including a few in Western countries, the source adds. Says a U.S. intelligence official in Iraq: "We've been busy."

So too have the insurgents. Last week two suicide bombings bearing the hallmarks of al-Qaeda together killed more than 100 people; the attacks were targeted at centers where applications for new Iraqi policeman and soldiers were being taken. In another assault, guerrillas shouting "God is great" besieged an Iraqi police station and security compound in Fallujah, freeing prisoners and killing at least 21 people. The letter found on Ghul identifies four general targets for attack: Americans; Kurds; "Iraqi troops, police and agents"; and Shi'ites.

The letter describes the plan to foment violence between Shi'ites and Sunnis as a last-ditch effort by the resistance. The author complains of various obstacles: that the U.S. won't leave Iraq "no matter how many wounds it sustains," that Iraqis offer hospitality but "will not allow you to make their homes a base for operations or a safe house," that "our enemy is growing stronger day after day, and its intelligence information increases." He laments, "By God, this is suffocation!" The writer argues that the resistance has only a limited time in which to act—until the U.S. confers sovereignty on a new Iraqi government, a turnover planned for June. "We are racing against time," he says. Once democracy is in place, "we will have no pretexts," he argues. "If, God forbid, the [new Iraqi] government is successful and takes control of the country, we will just have to pack up and go somewhere else again."