The apparent evolution of Al Qaeda into a loose network of autonomous terrorist cells, as a result of U.S.-led attacks on Osama bin Laden’s inner circle, may be having the unintended effect of boosting the importance of Jewish targets as a primary focus of international Islamic terrorism.
Declassified U.S. documents, German court testimony and interviews with experts indicate that attacking Jewish targets is one of the main goals of Abu Musab Zarqawi, 37, the one-legged Jordanian who is touted as the most important figure in the network of radical Sunnis that has emerged from the crackdown on Al Qaeda’s leadership.
Zarqawi’s name has come up after nearly every major terrorist attack in recent months, from Casablanca to Istanbul, and he is considered a major figure in the continuing violence in Iraq. Most recently, he has been named in Spanish press reports as a possible mastermind of last week’s deadly terrorist attack in Madrid, in which 201 people were killed.
While Zarqawi, a chemical weapons expert, shares bin Laden’s radical Sunni faith and his strategy of brutally confronting the West, most experts believe he runs an autonomous network and has markedly different ideological priorities — to overthrow the Jordanian monarchy and kill Jews both around the world and in Israel.
“It is clear Zarqawi is fixated on several themes, chief among them conducting attacks using chemical weapons and targeting Jewish and Israeli targets,” said Matthew Levitt, a former FBI intelligence analyst and now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Zarqawi, also known as Ahmed Fadil al-Khalayleh, heads a Palestinian-Jordanian Sunni organization called Al Tawhid, or “unity of the faithful.” In the spring of 2002, German authorities thwarted a plot by an Al Tawhid cell to strike Jewish targets, according to court testimony. One operative has been convicted and four others are currently on trial for their alleged role in planning several attacks against targets including a Jewish-owned nightclub and a Düsseldorf restaurant popular among Jews, as well as the Jewish Museum Berlin.
According to declassified information released by the U.S. Treasury Department last September –– when Zarqawi and five of his associates in Germany were designated as terrorists and their assets frozen –– Zarqawi also has been “involved in smuggling terrorists into Israel.”
The Treasury said plans were made for Zarqawi operatives to meet with two Lebanese groups, the Shiite group Hezbollah and Asbat al Ansar, a Lebanese Sunni terrorist group tied to Al Qaeda, and any others “that would enable them to smuggle mujaheddin into Palestine” and “provide training on explosives, poisons, and remote controlled devices.”
By mid-2001, Zarqawi had received more than $35,000 “for work in Palestine,” which he planned to use to train Jordanians and Palestinians in Afghanistan and send them to Lebanon, the statement said. He reportedly received guarantees that further financing would come for attacks against Israel and in early 2002 “was reported to have found a way into Palestine.”
While Israeli officials have recently asserted that they had found evidence of direct Hezbollah support for Palestinian groups in the territories, they have not mentioned Zarqawi or Al Qaeda as active forces.
Zarqawi’s name also has come up in connection with bombings in Morocco and Turkey last year.
In the Moroccan city of Casablanca, three of the five sites targeted by suicide bombers last May were Jewish-related. In Istanbul, two synagogues and two British targets — the consulate general and a branch of HSBC bank — were bombed in November.
Zarqawi has also been linked to several attacks in his native Jordan. In October 2000, a Jordanian court sentenced him in absentia to 15 years of hard labor for his role in a thwarted plot against an Amman hotel and American, Israeli and Christian interests in Jordan, timed to the start of the new millennium.
Jordanian authorities also said he had ordered and funded the killing in Amman of an American diplomat, Lawrence Foley, in October 2002. They claimed he intended to conduct attacks against Jordanian officials and foreign embassies and personnel, especially Americans and Israelis.
Zarqawi’s name has mostly been associated with Iraq, however. He was mentioned in Secretary of State Colin Powell’s February 2003 presentation to the United Nations as evidence of a link between the Al Qaeda network and the Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein.
Since the end of major combat operations last May, he has been fingered as the prime suspect in deadly bombings against Iraqi Shiite targets, the Jordanian embassy and the U.N. compound in Baghdad, as well as in the recruiting in Europe of operatives to fight in Iraq.
In a letter to Al Qaeda leaders last month attributed to Zarqawi by the U.S. government, he took credit for 25 suicide attacks in Iraq and called on the Bin Laden network to support him in igniting a civil war between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq.
His name also was mentioned in the Spanish press on Tuesday as the possible mastermind of the Madrid bombings.
Europe indeed seems to be one of his favorite targets. In the last year, Zarqawi has been linked to several thwarted alleged chemical attack plots in Britain, France and Italy, according to Powell and CIA Director George Tenet.
Born in the Jordanian city of Zarqa in 1966, Zarqawi was first arrested in Jordan in the 1980s for anti-Israel activities. He then fought the Soviets in Afghanistan before returning to Jordan, where he founded Jund al-Shams, an Islamic extremist group, in 1991. He was jailed the following year for his Islamist activities.
But he really popped up on the terrorist radar screen soon after his release in 1999, when he started training members of his Jund al-Shams group in Afghanistan.
According to the U.S. Treasury, Zarqawi eventually set up his own camp in the western city of Herat, close to the Iranian border, where militants reportedly trained in chemical and biological weapons.
After he was wounded in the leg in early 2002 while fighting against U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan, he escaped to Iran. According to Powell, he moved in May 2002 to Baghdad, where his leg was amputated and replaced with a prosthetic device. He spent two months recovering in the Iraqi capital, during which time he established a base of operations, Powell said.
Before the war, he headed to northern Iraq to set up a “poison and explosives training center” in the area under the control of Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish Islamic group. While Powell told the United Nations that Ansar al-Islam and Zarqawi were both linked to the Saddam Hussein regime, many experts have dismissed those charges.
Some claim he has stronger ties to Iran, into which he reportedly crossed after the American invasion and where he could still be living under the protection of units of the Revolutionary Guards. Other officials claim he is in Iraq directing attacks.
Some experts also hold divergent views about Zarqawi’s relationship with Al Qaeda.
While the experts believe Zarqawi never swore “Bayat,” or personal allegiance, to Bin Laden and runs his own organization, they agree with the U.S. government in saying that Al Tawhid has close personal and organizational links to Al Qaeda.
Zarqawi’s emergence appears to reflect the morphing of Al Qaeda from an organized network into an ideology that is taken up by splinter networks.
In recent congressional testimony, the CIA’s Tenet included the Zarqawi network in a list of “smaller international Sunni extremist groups who have benefited from Al Qaeda links.”
The Al Tawhid operation in Germany seems to fit the pattern. It was thwarted in April 2002 when German police arrested the operatives after overhearing phone conversations between them and Zarqawi detailing preparations for operations against German and Jewish targets, according to press accounts of the trial.
One of the men was sentenced to a lenient four-year sentence last year because he provided precious insights into the inner workings of the cell. His four accomplices are currently on trial before the same court.
But there are other worrisome indications that Al Tawhid is still seeking Jewish targets. In late 2003, the German and Italian police arrested three North Africans on suspicion that they were recruiting fighters for Iraq. One of the men allegedly had been tasked by Zarqawi to plot suicide attacks against Jewish targets in Great Britain, Italy and Spain, according to the Spanish daily La Razon, citing European intelligence sources. The paper pointed to the Jewish communities in the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa as especially vulnerable because of their proximity to Morocco.