Monday, Apr. 26, 2004

Abu al-Zarqawi

The letter was addressed to "the men on the mountaintops" and was laced with murderous fury. Found on the person of an al-Qaeda operative arrested in northern Iraq early this year, it pleaded for jihadists around the world to join in an effort to start a civil war in Iraq. With the handover of sovereignty to Iraqis approaching, the writer argued, "the only way to prolong the duration of the fight" was to foment conflict between the country's Sunni and Shi'ite populations and "bring the Shi'a into the battle." Though the letter was undated and unsigned, U.S. intelligence officials detected in its aims and bravado—the author claimed to have directed 25 suicide bombings—the imprint of Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, a longtime ally of Osama bin Laden's and now the most wanted terrorist kingpin in Iraq.

Judging from the violence that has convulsed Iraq in the weeks since the letter was discovered, al-Zarqawi's vision is materializing. A 37-year-old Jordanian with an artificial leg and a deep scar along the side of his face, al-Zarqawi is said to be a commander of Ansar al-Islam, the Kurdish guerrilla group linked to al-Qaeda, which may be behind the wave of suicide bombings in Iraq. But al-Zarqawi also has a wider influence. Western intelligence officials say terrorists tied to recent attacks in Casablanca, Istanbul and Madrid all had contacts with him. With much of al-Qaeda's leadership destroyed, al-Zarqawi is an archetype of the new terrorism threat: a global operator plugged into a network of like-minded Islamists from London to Lahore. In his letter, al-Zarqawi declared that if his efforts to sow chaos in Iraq fail, "we can pack up and leave and look for another land." Few tasks in the war on terrorism are more urgent than to find him before he does so.

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Dissecting the Case: The administration's rationale for war with Iraq is based on new and old evidence — as well as passionate conviction