In Washington, D.C., last week, intelligence officials at a brainstorming session debated whether Al Qaeda's top commander had gotten his hands on nuclear materials. In Dublin, U.S. investigators met with counterparts to look into a financier allegedly funneling money to the Qaeda boss. In Amman, Jordan, as three American-owned hotels mopped blood off their floors and hospitals tallied 57 dead from the country's worst terrorist outrage, no one doubted who was to blame: the same Qaeda bigwig. It wasn't Osama bin Laden who had everyone's attention. It was the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi.
Afghanistan used to be the place to go for terrorist training, funding and real-world experience in battle. Not anymore. Iraq has become, in President George W. Bush's words, "the central front" in the war on terror. And compared with distant Afghanistan, Iraq has more fighting, more people, more money and a far better strategic position in the heart of the Middle East. If Afghanistan under the Taliban was a backwoods school for terrorism, Iraq is an urban university. "Bin Laden and Zawahiri remain in the leadership's safe haven in Afghanistan," says a senior Taliban official who uses the nom de guerre Abu Zabihullah. "But Iraq is where the fierce encounters take place, where we recruit and dispatch fighters and where jihad's spirit thrives."
The suicide bombers Zarqawi sent to slaughter hotel guests and wedding parties in Amman on Nov. 9 (a date that in Jordan would be written "9/11") were all Iraqis, according to a Web site used for Qaeda pronouncements. But Zarqawi is also suspected by European officials of running or inspiring cells in Britain, France, Spain and the Netherlands, as well as an underground railroad for terrorists between Iraq and Italy. American intelligence officials believe his network is trying to recruit in the United States.
U.S. officials are also increasingly worried that a global underground of financiers that once served Al Qaeda in Afghanistan is now aiding the Iraqi insurgency. Treasury officials have specifically designated a Libyan in Dublin, Islamic journalist Ibrahim Buisir, as a terrorist financier. "Especially given the merger between Al Qaeda and Zarqawi's group," a U.S. official says on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation, "we are concerned that Buisir may be helping to finance the [Iraqi] insurgency." (Buisir denies the charge, telling NEWSWEEK, "I'm not involved in anything... your country has gone crazy.") French investigators worry that 10 of their fellow citizens killed or captured while fighting in Iraq may be just the beginning of a wave. "Iraq is a great black hole that is sucking up all the [radical] elements in Europe," French antiterrorist judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere told BBC Radio recently, worried that such radicals already are returning home with more knowledge and training.
Sitting there in the middle of that hole is Zarqawi, a Jordanian who until the Iraq war was a relative nobody as terrorists go. "He was a small man, with a small group, in a small jail," says Jordanian journalist Abdallah Aburomman, who spent three months in the same prison with Zarqawi in 1996. Zarqawi's jihadist views were even more extreme than bin Laden's at the time, says Aburomman, who was jailed on political charges. "The Taliban were trying to win Afghanistan's seat in the United Nations, and he said, 'Why do they want to belong to an infidel organization?' "
As Zarqawi became increasingly successful in Iraq, through a combination of brazen suicide attacks and gruesome propaganda videos, he publicly appealed to bin Laden for support and pledged to follow his lead. Bin Laden responded by anointing him "emir" of Al Qaeda in Iraq, and lavishly praising his newfound protege. Zarqawi gained recruits, and made common cause with Saddam's Baathist followers, whom he had long bitterly denounced. Even in Jordan, where he was widely despised before the Iraq war, a semiofficial poll in August (quickly suppressed) suggested that 70 percent of Jordanians approved of Zarqawi's actions in Iraq.
That popularity is unlikely to survive last week's outrages. The suicide bombers targeted weddings and a family gathering entirely of Arabs, mostly Jordanians. The only Americans killed were Syrian-born filmmaker Moustapha Akkad--who produced the "Halloween" series, and directed such movies as "The Message" and "Lion of the Desert"--and his daughter Rima, who had come from Los Angeles to attend a friend's wedding. Jordanians protested in the streets for the next two days, denouncing Zarqawi as a coward and cheering Jordanian King Abdullah II. In the wake of that public rebuke, Zarqawi put a statement on the Web attempting to justify his targets as "centers of unbelief and prostitution."
Jordan's powerful intelligence agency, the General Intelligence Department, had foiled several of Zarqawi's plots when he operated in Jordan many years ago. His only successful attack there until this year was the 2002 assassination of an unprotected American official, USAID director Lawrence Foley--and even then, the perpetrators were quickly apprehended. But last August, Zarqawi's outfit managed to smuggle missile launchers from Iraq to Aqaba, Jordan's port near the Egyptian and Israeli borders. Attackers fired a rocket at a U.S. warship, missing it but killing one person.
Many Jordanians blame the hotel bombings on the presence of huge numbers of Iraqis who have fled to Jordan since the war. The exiles number half a million or more--in a country with only 5 million people. Jordanian intelligence has a hard time keeping tabs on them. "This was a big operation," says retired Jordanian general Ali Shukri, an analyst and former adviser to the royal palace. "They needed three controllers, three safe houses, someone to case the targets, someone to give them the kit. That's a lot of local help." Iraqi government spokesman Laith Kubba doesn't doubt that his country is exporting terrorists. "This disease is growing in Iraq and unless we put an end to it, it will spread to the rest of the area. Some Arabs who sympathize with [the jihadists] will see consequences of that when this disease reaches them."
Zarqawi has known contacts in Europe. Early this month, British authorities arrested two 22-year-old men and an 18-year-old on terrorism offenses. The two older men had DVDs with suicide-bomb instructions and supposed surveillance photographs of the White House and the Capitol. U.S. counter-terrorism officials, who did not want to be named because their investigations are ongoing, tell NEWSWEEK that one or more of the suspects also had alleged contacts with an online recruiter for Zarqawi, operating under the pseudonym "Maximus." U.S. officials believe Maximus, a purveyor of war-zone "carnage porn" and sappers' manuals, is really a Bosnian from Sweden named Mishad Becktasivic. He was arrested with a Turk from Denmark in an apartment in Sarajevo. Among the furnishings: bomb-making materials and suicide vests.
So far Zarqawi's forays into Europe have been as unsuccessful as his early operations in Jordan. The greater concern is what happens after the war. "Those who don't die... will be the future chiefs of Al Qaeda or Zarqawi in Europe," says the French terrorism expert Roland Jacquard. The war against the Soviets in Afghanistan spawned a generation of jihadists, many of whom returned to their own countries to form new radical groups like Al Qaeda. Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert at RAND Corp., says Iraq has been a "net importer" of terrorists but may be on its way to becoming a "net exporter," one that spawns "knowledge, veterans and operations."
Last May, CIA analysts produced an assessment of how the Iraq war would affect global terrorism; the report was so secret, its very title is classified. A counterterrorism official, who did not want to be named because he was discussing classified matters, says the report's conclusion is that defeat of the insurgency in Iraq would unleash experienced, capable and vengeful terrorists on the rest of the world, and particularly the United States. It's a kind of terrorist Darwinism. Those terrorists who survive, as Jenkins puts it, will be the fittest and the smartest--and they'll be looking for new battlegrounds.