Abu Musab Zarqawi has told Osama bin Laden that he would be willing to discuss a suggestion by the al Qaeda leader that Zarqawi consider broadening his future operations to include possible attacks inside the United States, according to senior intelligence officials.
"Let's talk some more. I have ideas, you have ideas," was the way one senior counterterrorism official described Zarqawi's message, which was a response to an earlier communication sent by bin Laden. The exchange, obtained by U.S. intelligence, took place months ago, officials said.
Abu Musab Zarqawi may be a competitor or partner of the al Qaeda leader, the official said.
"This was not a threat for tomorrow, but it confirms where we may be going," the official said of the exchange. "It was two heavy hitters talking about a possible partnership."
Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant who has claimed responsibility for bombings and assassinations across Iraq, pledged his network's allegiance to bin Laden and al Qaeda in October.
U.S. intelligence officials have been mining the latest communications between the two men, as well as previously intercepted messages, for clues about the relationship between the two terrorist leaders. Together, they said, the exchanges indicate that Zarqawi and bin Laden are still independent operators rather than activists who have fully combined their efforts.
"Zarqawi may be a partner [of bin Laden] or a competitor, but it is not like they are close and in a binding relationship," the senior counterterrorism official said. "They are in parallel."
"Al Qaeda is reaching out to a big player," the official said, while Zarqawi "is his own man. He is not playing second fiddle and sees himself not succeeding bin Laden but using Iraq as a springboard to his own global reach."
The latest bin Laden-Zarqawi exchange -- transcripts of which have not been released -- became public after a Department of Homeland Security bulletin, classified "Secret," was sent last weekend to state homeland security directors "detailing information about al Qaeda's continued desire to carry out an attack potentially in the homeland," according to Brian Roehrkasse, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.
The bulletin, three to four sentences long, said that "recent communication from al Qaeda's leadership" indicates it had sought help from Zarqawi in attacking U.S. targets, according to one intelligence official who has seen the memo.
The bulletin did not mention bin Laden by name, nor did it mention any response from Zarqawi, several officials said. It was first publicly reported Monday by the Associated Press, followed quickly by CNN and other major news organizations.
CIA officials said privately they were outraged by the disclosure that the United States had obtained the communications between the two men. Agency officials refused to discuss how the messages were obtained.
On Thursday, at the swearing-in of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, President Bush referred to the exchange, saying: "Recently, we learned that Osama bin Laden has urged the terrorist Zarqawi to form a group to conduct attacks outside Iraq, including here in the United States."
This is the first communication between the two men to become public since February 2004. That was when Bush administration officials released a January 2004 letter from Zarqawi to bin Laden, seized from a captured courier, in which the Jordanian laid out his plans for operations in Iraq and sought bin Laden's support.
U.S. officials portrayed the letter as evidence that Zarqawi feared the turnover of power to an interim Iraqi government, which was to happen in June. L. Paul Bremer, then head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, told reporters that "Zarqawi and all the others know they are falling behind in a race against time, a race against Iraqi self-government."
Intelligence analysts, however, said the letter did not reveal desperation on Zarqawi's part, but rather his belief that attacks should escalate to coincide with the political transition in Iraq. Indeed, almost all the steps Zarqawi told bin Laden he would undertake have been carried out, including suicide and car bombings.
U.S. intelligence officials have believed that Zarqawi's vision for the jihadist movement is different from bin Laden's. As a Palestinian brought up in Jordan, Zarqawi has seen Israel and Jews as the main targets, along with Americans who give them their support. Zarqawi has indicated that he thinks attacks against these enemies should be focused in the Middle East and, perhaps, Europe, these officials said. Hitting the U.S. homeland has generally not been in his planning.
Bin Laden, on the other hand, has remained focused on waging attacks in the United States, trying to destroy its economic reach to penalize it for supporting what he considers despotic Middle Eastern countries. Al Qaeda has helped equip or inspire movements elsewhere in the world, from sending money to the terrorists who carried out the bombing in Bali, Indonesia, to providing an ideological spark to the Madrid bombers.
"Al Qaeda is great branding and the force multiplier from North Africa to Southeast Asia," an intelligence official said.
Both Zarqawi, on the run in Iraq, and bin Laden, hiding along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, continue to carry out high-level planning and independent plotting, intelligence officials said, although their logistical challenges are presumably great.
"Though things are tough for Zarqawi, he has a long-term vision," an official said. "But his ability to talk about where his movement goes next is limited by concerns about what happens tomorrow."
Staff writer Dan Eggen contributed to this report.