A Chilling Iraqi Terror Tape

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Jihad leader Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist and the most wanted man in Iraq, this weekend released a telling window into his organization, Attawhid wal Jihad, or Unity and Jihad. In a slickly produced hour-long video Zarqawi lays bare the milieu of his suicide bombers, their safehouses, their rituals and their targeting guidelines. Given directly to TIME, the video is a bold, menacing statement of the group's intent and capability. The subtext of this disturbing tape is that for the U.S. this is likely to be a long, drawn out fight in Iraq against a committed, well-organized enemy.

The tape contains many chilling scenes. When the chairman of the U.S. appointed Iraqi Governing Council, Izzedine Salam, then the country's highest Iraqi official, was assassinated last month in a car bomb Zarqawi quickly claimed credit. Now he shows the act, in graphic footage shot from a parked car: A convoy of white SUVs disappears down a Baghdad street, followed a moment later by a ball of flame and explosion so intense the windscreen through which the cameraman films cracks before your eyes.

When a suicide car bomber intercepted a convoy of security personnel for General Electric in the heart of Baghdad on June 14 Zarqawi's information unit was there, ready and waiting. The three-vehicle convoy enters the screen and is followed down a crowded little street. As the lens zooms in the vehicles erupt in a blistering ball of flame. Three bystanders are seen turning their backs from the blast, attempting to cover their heads. In contrast to other videos of insurgent attacks, the cameraman does not flee. Instead he holds his position and zooms in on the burning suicide vehicle and the flaming SUVs. Survivors can be seen moving from the vehicles and attempting to take cover.

Each episode of this grim "Best Of" the militant group's attacks over the last year is accompanied by professional-style editing, graphics and camera work. Explanations are given of each operation, the names of the suicide bombers, and the targeting justification. Apologies are given in Arabic screen titles for not showing all the available footage, citing technical problems and operational considerations.

One thing the video makes clear is that foreign fighters have developed a sophisticated organization in Iraq. Interviews on the tape, and living wills made by suicide bombers, show how Muslim men have been brought to the country through well-defined and clearly funded channels. Appearances are made by Saudis, Algerians, Libyans, Jordanians and others; the video even claims that one bomber had lived in Italy and played hockey for a premier club.

This is also a statement of Zarqawi's rise in the jihad community. Prior the Iraq war he was a marginal figure in the larger al-Qaeda cluster of militant groups. The invasion and subsequent invasion of Iraq gave him and other insurgents a stage upon which to make their mark as mujahideen heroes, akin to the veterans of the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In this video, what is believed to be Zarqawi's voice is heard only once, part of an audio tape he released last month threatening the new U.S.-backed Baghdad government and reinforcing to Islamic extremist recruits and financiers that he is the one to follow.

More fascinating than the unprecedented action footage of the suicide attacks are the long glimpses into the culture and mindset of the fighters. In the opening vignette a night vision camera records what's purported to be a young suicide bomber's living will and messages to his family as masked men crowd around him. The dozens of fighters then chant as he walks to the cabin of the tanker truck rigged with explosives. The men give the bomber a final hug and farewell. He turns to the masked figures and waves, as though he's about to board an ocean liner for a holiday. Behind the wheel bomber shows off the wiring to the explosive device and the trigger, a button between the seats. The camera records the truck disappearing into the night and the devastating explosion as it reaches its target,  the American position beneath Khalidya bridge, west of the restive city of Fallujah.

The group also repeats its claims of responsibility for the attacks on Italian soldiers in Nasiriyah in which 18 were killed, the truck bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad and the death of Special Representative Sergio Vieira de Mello as well as the bombing of the Mount Lebanon Hotel in March. In the hotel attack, the cameraman is positioned too close to the blast and the camera crackles with digital static as the torrent of yellow and orange flame rolls toward it.

This video speaks of a danger more organized than the one viewed through the snippets of the intelligence and glimmers of insight the public previously seen. It does not bode well for the immediate future of Iraq's fledgling government nor the ultimate exit plans for the 130,000 U.S. troops still here.