Monday, February 16, 2004

Still No Ties
The discovery of a memo attributed to terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi that calls for incitement of civil war in Iraq raises questions again about whether Saddam Hussein, as the Bush administration claimed, once plotted with Al Qaeda.

But al-Zarqawi's memo--trumpeted by the Americans as a "blueprint for terror"--also should sound alarms about whether the U.S.-led war opened Iraq to global terrorism by making it unstable, insecure and ripe for exploitation.

Counterterrorism experts still are mulling over the al-Zarqawi find, and its credibility has not been proved. But the memo, 17 pages of an Arabic missive found in a compact disc held by a known courier of Al Qaeda, adds luster to al-Zarqawi's reputation as a dangerous and highly motivated operator in international terrorism and a senior ally of and collaborator with Al Qaeda.

His boastful screed lends credence to the notion that terrorist attacks now are coordinated in Iraq and that al-Zarqawi, since the U.S. invasion, has helped carry out such attacks and sees Iraq as fertile ground for terrorist growth.

There is nothing in the memo, however, that confirms or bolsters some key prewar White House claims: that al-Zarqawi was operating in the north as a leader of an Al Qaeda affiliate known as Ansar al-Islam, that he had set up a camp to produce deadly poisons and that, with Hussein's blessing and cooperation, he had moved people, money and supplies in and out of Iraq for months.

A curious omission

If al-Zarqawi were involved in prewar activities in Iraq, it would be a curious omission in a memo by a terrorist who was trying to foment rage against the country's majority Shiite Muslim population and was calling for kidnappings and killings of Americans in Iraq.

Al-Zarqawi, 37, has been a nimble, destructive point man among radical Islamists for years. He is a round-faced Jordanian whose real name is Ahmed al-Khalayleh and, like Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, he is a veteran of the Afghan war against the Soviets in the 1980s.

In 1999, al-Zarqawi was tied to a part of the so-called Millennium Plot in which and Al Qaeda schemed to blow up the Radisson Hotel and religious sites in Amman, Jordan. He lost a leg during the U.S-led war against Taliban and Al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan (news - web sites). He was convicted in absentia in the October 2002 slaying of a U.S. government employee Laurence Foley in Amman. German intelligence reportedly views al-Zarqawi as one of the major coordinators of Iranian-sponsored terrorism and Al Qaeda.

What is not known is when or how al-Zarqawi found Iraq a convenient place to work.

Terrorism expert and former FBI analyst Matthew Levitt, who has studied al-Zarqawi, noted that the memo reveals the ambitions of the "most frenetic operator working on behalf of Al Qaeda," but it does not provide ammunition for those out to prove that Al Qaeda and Hussein were in cahoots before the war.

"When people say `I told you so'" by linking the memo to prewar activities, "I'm skeptical," said Levitt, now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Role of foreign fighters

Al-Zarqawi's letter also adds tension to the debate among the U.S. military and intelligence communities over whether foreign fighters play a significant role in the insurgency in Iraq. U.S. Army commanders have downplayed the likelihood that the attacks have been coordinated and planned by outsiders.

But last week a military commander in charge of operations described al-Zarqawi as "the most capable terrorist in Iraq today" and emphasized that, in the memo, al-Zarqawi lays claim to 25 attacks in Iraq.

With that information and with what officials would describe only as developing intelligence, the coalition last week blamed two of the most devastating, unsolved attacks in Iraq--deadly bombings of the UN headquarters in Baghdad and the Ali Imam mosque in Najaf--on al-Zarqawi. They doubled a bounty for his capture and dubbed him the "wild card" in the administration's deck of cards in Iraq: a new $10 million man.

The coalition did little to explain why al-Zarqawi is implicated. Officials rebuffed questions about forensic evidence or whether other means, signal intelligence or intercepts, provided the link. Law-enforcement sources familiar with both bombings, however, say that as far as they know, forensic tests have not tied al-Zarqawi to either.

Daniel Benjamin, a former director of counterterrorism on the National Security Council staff, said the military has been cautious about linking the jihadist movement to Iraq's unrest. Benjamin, co-author of "The Age of Sacred Terror," a chronicle of the roots and ambitions of radical Islam, said he finds the plans attributed to al-Zarqawi in the memo "very plausible."

As Benjamin sees it, the memo is a sketch of the terrorist's goals in Iraq--and for all kinds of terrorists who now see Iraq, nearly a year after the American invasion, as an open playing field. But Benjamin finds little evidence that jihadists prospered inside Iraq before the U.S. invasion.

Instead, if al-Zarqawi's memo is to be believed, jihadists now are comfortable in Iraq.

"Al Qaeda had glancing contacts with Iraq before. It had many more contacts with Iran but . . . the real state sponsorship just wasn't there," Benjamin said.

"[The letter] tells us nothing about prior connections between Al Qaeda and Iraq," he said. "What it does tell us is, now, we have a big terrorist problem in Iraq.[Nitpicker emphaisis]
Well, as Cheney, the Dick says, it's better to fight them on the streets of Iraq than in New York, Boston... It's all part of 'the plan', increase al Queda recruitment, draw more 'terra'-ists to Iraq, keep them busy killing Americans and Iraqis over there so we won't find out our Homeland Security Department hasn't made much of a dent in security here.


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