Amman Bombings Reflect Zarqawi's Growing Reach

Abu Musab Zarqawi is shown in undated photos released in 2002 and 2004.
Abu Musab Zarqawi is shown in undated photos released in 2002 and 2004. (AP)
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 13, 2005

BERLIN, Nov. 12 -- Triple suicide bombings in Jordan this week marked a breakthrough for Islamic guerrilla leader Abu Musab Zarqawi in his efforts to expand the Iraqi insurgency into a regional conflict and demonstrated his growing independence from the founders of al Qaeda, according to Arab and European intelligence officials.

Zarqawi, 39, has sought for years to overthrow the monarchy in his native Jordan. But since he emerged over the past two years as the best-known leader of the insurgency in Iraq, his success in rallying Islamic extremists from other countries to fight U.S. forces there has enabled him to extend his reach and influence, officials and analysts say. His guerrilla network, they say, has established roots in Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

"This is really alarming, if Zarqawi is able to carry out these kind of attacks in Jordan and if Iraq is able to become the headquarters for terror attacks in the region," said Mustafa Alani, senior policy analyst for the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. "We're talking about the emergence of another Afghanistan."

Some terrorism analysts and officials say Zarqawi has already eclipsed al Qaeda's founder, Osama bin Laden, in terms of prominence and appeal to Islamic radicals worldwide. Both want to establish a new Islamic caliphate in the Middle East but have clashed over tactics, such as whether it is advisable to avoid targeting Muslims.

While bin Laden has been on the run for the past four years, largely cut off from the outside world, Zarqawi has attracted hundreds if not thousands of fighters to Iraq and has avoided capture despite the presence of as many as 150,000 U.S. troops. He also has raised his profile by embracing merciless tactics, including videotaped beheadings and suicide attacks on civilian targets, such as the bombings in Amman that killed nearly 60 people at three hotels Wednesday night.

Jordanian officials said Saturday that Zarqawi's group had carried out the attacks, employing three suicide bombers from outside Jordan. A day earlier, the group asserted in an Internet statement that the bombers were four Iraqis -- three men and a woman.

"He's fashioned himself as the most important competitive force to al Qaedism," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert and director of the Washington office of the Rand Corp., a California-based research group. "For Zarqawi, Iraq is a means to an end, rather than an end to a means. His road runs through Baghdad, but it doesn't stop there. It goes on to Amman, Tel Aviv, Riyadh and perhaps even Western Europe."

Although he has formed an alliance with al Qaeda, Zarqawi has always worked as an independent operator. He met bin Laden in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 1999 and received some financial support from al Qaeda, but established a separate Afghan training camp for Jordanian fighters.

Last year, in a letter to bin Laden that was intercepted by the U.S. military, Zarqawi pledged his loyalty and changed the name of his Iraq-based Monotheism and Jihad network to al Qaeda in Iraq. But he also has squabbled with other al Qaeda leaders over tactics, strategy and fundraising.

In July, al Qaeda's deputy leader, Ayman Zawahiri, wrote a 16-page letter to Zarqawi that gently scolded him for kidnapping Arabs, killing rivals and sponsoring indiscriminate attacks that resulted in the deaths of innocent Muslims.

"The strongest weapon that the holy warriors enjoy is popular support from the Muslim masses," Zawahiri wrote. "In the absence of this popular support, the Islamic warrior movement would be crushed in the shadows, far from the masses who are distracted and fearful."

The U.S. government and several European intelligence agencies have concluded that the letter is genuine, although some independent researchers have expressed doubts about its authenticity.

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