To: Interested Parties
From: Robert O. Boorstin
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a deadly 38-year-old terrorist, has emerged as a major terrorist threat following the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Considered by the CIA to be “the most dangerous and effective Islamic terrorist at large,” National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice has dubbed him “the face of terrorism in Iraq.” Despite the Bush administration’s rhetoric about pursuing dangerous terrorists, it has failed to indict him on federal charges and left him off the FBI’s 22 Most Wanted Terrorists list.
The following is a summary of Zarqawi’s activities and the administration’s inability to bring him to justice.
- More tenacious than Saddam Hussein, more active than Osama bin Laden. Army Brig. Gen. Martin Dempsey said Zarqawi is a “more tenacious enemy” than Saddam was. Matthew Levitt, a former FBI terrorism analyst, calls him “the most active and frenetic terrorist commander out there today.” International security experts argue that Zarqawi is more important than bin Laden, “While bin Laden is out avoiding capture in the frontier provinces of Pakistan, Zarqawi is executing operation after operation after operation.”
- The most wanted man in Iraq. Working with the radical Islamist group, Ansar al Islam, Zarqawi has claimed responsibility for the bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Iraq in August and attacks on an Italian police station in Nasiriyah, and suicide attacks on oil terminals in southern Iraq. Despite the lack of evidence, the Bush administration continues to cite Zarqawi’s close ties to Saddam.
- Indictable offenses. Zarqawi is now best known as the “black-clad militant” behind the beheading of Nicholas Berg. He is also suspected of orchestrating the assassination of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley in Amman in 2002. He has claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks around the globe, including the March 11 bombings in Madrid and bombings of Jewish sites in Morocco and Turkey. The FBI has not indicted Zarqawi, despite these offenses.
- Failed to pull the trigger. The Bush administration had several chances to wipe out Zarqawi and his terrorist operation, but failed to act. From June 2002 through January 2003, the White House rejected three Pentagon plans to attack Zarqawi’s weapons labs. The Brooking Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon notes, “Here we had targets, we had opportunities, we had a country willing to support casualties, or risk casualties after 9/11 and we still didn’t do it.”
- Is there a blindspot? Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller made no reference to Zarqawi as a threat in their most recent press conference. They did, however, connect bin Laden and the Madrid bombings, even though Zarqawi directly claimed responsibility for those attacks. Not only is Zarqawi not on the FBI’s list of 22 Most Wanted Terrorists, but he fails to appear in the agency’s April 2004 Intelligence Assessment on al Qaeda.
- Origins of a terrorist. A Jordanian Sunni intent on leading an anti-Western holy war, Zarqawi traveled to Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight the Soviets, becoming a specialist in poisons. After spending seven years in a Jordanian prison for fomenting unrest, he fled to Pakistan in 1999, developed his own network of followers, and drew closer to al Qaeda’s leadership, receiving $35,000 to launch attacks against Israel.
Robert O. Boorstin is the senior vice president for national security at the Center for American Progress.