Terror Watch: The World's Most Dangerous Terrorist

With his audacious threat to assassinate the new Iraqi prime minister, Jordanian terrorist Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi appears to have eclipsed Osama bin Laden as the single most dangerous threat to U.S. interests in the world today--and is proving just as elusive, according to U.S. intelligence officials.

U.S. officials suspect that Zarqawi--who is believed to have orchestrated the recent beheadings of American contractor Nicholas Berg and South Korean hostage Kim Sun Il--is holed up with followers in the rebellious Iraqi city of Fallujah. Since last weekend, U.S. forces have launched a handful of missile strikes on suspected "safe houses" in the Sunni Triangle city in a major new campaign to finish off the terrorist and members of his gang.

As in the ultimately futile bombardment of bin Laden's former hideout in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, however, U.S. officials concede there are no indications they have hit or injured Zarqawi himself. Some officials privately acknowledge they are not positive Zarqawi is still in Fallujah.

Indeed, while missile strikes in the radical Sunni stronghold continue, some U.S. sources officials say that Zarqawi may actually be directing or instigating events in the town by telephone from elsewhere in Iraq. His crucial role in the deteriorating security situation in Iraq, however, cannot be underestimated: a Pentagon official says Zarqawi appears to be behind an alarming number of homemade bombs which are being planted in Iraq; such makeshift bombs, known to the military as "improvised explosive devices," or IEDs, are being discovered at the rate of 800 per month--or more than 25 per day, NEWSWEEK has learned.

Even as the threat posed by Zarqawi increases, senior Bush administration officials concede that their understanding of who he is--and how he fits into the broader jihadi network exemplified by bin Laden--is evolving and may be more complex than was publicly presented 18 months ago in the run-up to the war in Iraq.

The first high-level Bush administration references to Zarqawi came in October 2002 when President Bush, in a speech in Cincinnati, laid out the case against Saddam's regime by emphasizing what he described as "high-level contacts" between the Iraqi government and Al Qaeda. One prominent example cited by the president was the fact that "one very senior Al Qaeda leader [had] ... received medical treatment in Baghdad this year"--a reference to Zarqawi. Then, in his February 2003 speech to the United Nations Security Council, Secretary of State Colin Powell described Zarqawi as "an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda lieutenants."

But just last week, in little-noticed remarks, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld conceded that Zarqawi's ties to Al Qaeda may have been much more ambiguous--and that he may have been more a rival than a lieutenant to bin Laden. Zarqawi "may very well not have sworn allegiance to [bin Laden]," Rumsfeld said at a Pentagon briefing. "Maybe he disagrees with him on something, maybe because he wants to be 'The Man' himself and maybe for a reason that's not known to me." Rumsfeld added that, "someone could legitimately say he's not Al Qaeda."

Rumsfeld's comments essentially confirm the contents of a German police document, first reported by NEWSWEEK last year, that quoted a terrorist defector from Zarqawi's network in Afghanistan describing the group as operating in "opposition to Al Qaeda."

Whatever his relationship to Al Qaeda before the war, there seems little doubt that Zarqawi's own terrorist network--which is believed to include Kurdish and possibly ethnic-Arab jihadi fighters--has coalesced into a persistent and growing menace to U.S. interests in the region and is acting in concert with, or in parallel to, bin Laden's interests.

This week, a voice message purporting to be Zarqawi threatened to kill new Iraqi Prime Minister Awad Alawi with a "sure sword" because he was "a symbol of evil, an agent of infidelity and a hypocrite." U.S. intelligence officials are now analyzing the tape to determine if it is in fact Zarqawi's voice. Earlier voice analysis convinced the CIA that Zarqawi was the person who narrated the gruesome video in which a group of masked men beheaded American hostage Nicholas Berg several weeks ago, and that Zarqawi himself wielded the knife.

U.S. officials also say they believe that associates of Zarqawi carried out the beheading this week of Korean hostage Kim, who was shown in a previous video desperately pleading for his life. U.S. intelligence also believes that Zarqawi was behind several major terrorist attacks in Iraq last year, including the bombing of local U.N. headquarters and the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad, an attack on a mosque which killed a pro-U.S. Shiite ayatollah and a bombing of an Italian paramilitary outpost.

Zarqawi has also been linked to terrorist activities outside of Iraq. Jordanian TV recently broadcast a lengthy report in which terrorist suspects described how Zarqawi put together a plot to blow up American and Jordanian government targets in and around the capital, Amman, using what Jordanian authorities claimed was some form of chemical weapon. The Jordanians claimed that if the plot had succeeded it could have killed as many as 80,000 people. The Jordanians also alleged that Zarqawi was going to use a network of associates based in Syria to help set up the plot.

Zarqawi was apparently born in 1966 to a family of Jordanian Palestinians who lived in the village of Zarqo not far from Amman. One of 10 siblings, he dropped out of high school to study the Qur'an, whose contents he learned by heart. Working for the municipality where his family lived, he married and started his own family. But in the l980s he left his family to join the Islamic mujahedin in Afghanistan fighting the Soviet occupation. He returned to Jordan a rabid jihadi, and soon after his return reportedly was imprisoned by the Jordanian government for more than seven years, apparently because of his extreme political and religious views.

More radicalized then ever after his release from prison, he subsequently moved his family with him back to the Afghan-Pakistan border where he immersed himself once again in radical Islamic activities--initially working for Islamic charities and then forming his own militant group called Al Tawhid, based at its own training camp near Herat, Afghanistan. Its members had to be Jordanians who were willing to pledge themselves to overthrow the current Jordanian monarchy and replace it with an Islamic regime.

He showed up on the radar screens of Jordanian authorities again in late l999 when he was suspected of masterminding an elaborate terrorist plot to strike U.S. and Jordanian targets in Jordan during the Millennium celebrations. Zarqawi's network of contacts is believed to extend as far north as London, as far west as the Iberian peninsula (where he may have had some influence over the militant cell that carried out the March 11 bombings of commuter trains in Madrid) and as far east as the wild-west Pankisi Gorge region of Georgia, which jihadi forces allegedly used as a major transit point for Islamic fighters heading to fight Russian forces in the rebellious province of Chechnya.

The net effect of Zarqawi's activities is to cast a mood of pessimism over U.S. officials in Iraq as they prepare to hand over "sovereignty" to the new interim government headed by Allawi on June 30. Officials note that, in what appeared to be a lengthy message to Al Qaeda leaders (found earlier this year in the possession of a captured terrorist suspect), a writer pleaded with Al Qaeda for help in the jihad against American invaders. The writer also expressed a desire to set Iraq's minority Sunni population against its majority Shiites. That writer, officials say, was Zarqawi. Some U.S. officials think that's exactly what the huge increase in the planting of homemade bombs signals. Zarqawi "wanted to get a Shia-versus-Sunni insurgency going--an open insurrection, the whole country blowing up," says one U.S. official, adding that Zarqawi also seems to want credit for his handiwork. "There's a great deal of ego here."