The U.S. intelligence community considers authentic a message on an Islamic Web site in which Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant who has asserted responsibility for bombings and assassinations in Iraq, was announced to have sworn his network's allegiance to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, a senior administration official said yesterday.
The practical implications of the statement are unclear, the official said, but it could serve the propaganda purposes of Zarqawi's organization and of al Qaeda.
"It puts Zarqawi in a top rung of al Qaeda and as a force to be reckoned with internationally," the official said. The statement "is also good for al Qaeda showing that [its] organized terrorist group is more aligned with the activity in Iraq," he added.
Although President Bush and his top national security officials have for two years described Zarqawi as an al Qaeda official, most analysts in the intelligence community have seen him until now as independent, someone who shared some aims with bin Laden but also considered himself a competitor. Zarqawi has differed in the past with bin Laden over the al Qaeda leader's determination to carry on terrorist operations in the United States and not just in the Middle East.
The new message, posted in the name of the spokesman of Zarqawi's group, said that he and the "soldiers" of his organization, Tawhid and Jihad, announce to the Islamic nation their "allegiance . . . to the sheik of the mujaheddin, Osama bin Laden." It adds, "When you give us orders, we will obey. If you forbid aught, it will be forbidden," according to the Search for International Terrorist Entities Institute.
In what one nongovernment analyst said could be considered a change in Zarqawi's approach to operate solely within the Middle East and Europe, the message said, "We swear to God that should you want us to cruise the sea with you, God Willing we will."
The message also refers to communications between Zarqawi, 38, and bin Laden "eight months ago" that were "interrupted by fate." U.S. intelligence intercepted a January letter from Zarqawi to al Qaeda and American officials made it public in February.
In it, the Jordanian laid out his plans for Iraq and sought bin Laden's support. In making the letter public on its Web site, the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Baghdad emphasized Zarqawi's statement that, with Iraqi sovereignty approaching in June and "with the deployment of [Iraqi] soldiers and police, the future has become frightening."
L. Paul Bremer, then the CPA administrator, told reporters at the time, "Zarqawi and all the others know they are falling behind in a race against time, a race against Iraqi self-government, when he says, 'Democracy is coming and there will be no excuse thereafter for the attacks.' " Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz told PBS in March that Zarqawi's letter showed that he believed "things are bad for us [in Iraq]. If we can't start a civil war pretty soon between the Shia and Sunnis, our goose is cooked and this is important."
Some intelligence analysts, however, assessed the letter differently at the time, saying it did not reveal desperation on Zarqawi's part but rather a declaration that attacks should escalate to coincide with the political transition in Iraq. Indeed, since the letter was intercepted, Zarqawi has carried out many of the tactics he proposed to bin Laden.
Zarqawi's January letter said the "zero hour" for stepped-up insurgency attacks would come at the end of June, when the United States passed sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government. That is "when we will begin to appear in the open, gain control [of] the land at night and extend it into daylight," Zarqawi said. He promised to "create companies of mujaheddin that repair to secure places and strive to reconnoiter the country, hunting the enemy -- Americans, police and soldiers -- on the roads and lanes."
Today, Zarqawi is recognized as equal to bin Laden by at least one U.S. measurement. The reward for anyone who provides information that leads to his capture or death has been increased from $10 million in February to $25 million, the same price put on bin Laden's head.
In his abortive negotiations with the leaders of Fallujah, interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi has insisted they turn over Zarqawi, and repeated U.S. bombings in that city have been justified as attempts to kill him or his associates. The negotiations were suspended when the Fallujah representatives said the demand to produce Zarqawi was unreasonable because he was not in their city.