Two years after the attacks on the United States, Osama bin Laden's leadership cadre has been isolated and weakened and is increasingly reliant on the violent actions of local radicals around the world to maintain its profile. But the al Qaeda network is determined to open a new front in Iraq to sustain itself as the vanguard of radical Islamic groups fighting holy war, according to European, American and Arab intelligence sources.
The turn toward Iraq was made in February, as U.S. forces were preparing to attack, the sources said. Two seasoned operatives met at a safe house in eastern Iran. One of them was Mohammed Ibrahim Makawi, the military chief of al Qaeda, who is better known as Saif Adel. He welcomed a guest, Abu Musab Zarqawi, who had recently fled Iraq's Kurdish northern region in anticipation of the U.S. targeting of a radical group with which he was affiliated, Arab intelligence sources said.
The encounter resulted in the dispatch of Zarqawi to become al Qaeda's man in Iraq, opening a new chapter in the history of the group and a serious threat to American forces there.
"The monster is already near you," said one Arab official who is familiar with the intelligence and who spoke on condition that he not be identified by name or nationality. "I don't know if you can kill it."
The official added: "Iraq is the new battleground. It is the perfect place. It will be the perfect place."
After the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the locus of al Qaeda's degraded leadership moved to Iran. The Iranian security services, which answer to the country's powerful Islamic clerics, protected the leadership, including Adel and a son of bin Laden's, Saad, as well as other senior figures, according to the intelligence officials.
From guesthouses in Iran's east and south, this al Qaeda group planned the May 12 bombing of residential compounds in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the intelligence sources said. The group might have hoped that a campaign of violence, including the planned assassination of leading members of the Saudi royal family, would lead to the fall of the kingdom's government, Arab officials said.
After the Riyadh bombing, the Iranians, under pressure from the Saudis, detained the al Qaeda group. One European source said the Iranians had "freeze-dried" the group. Also, Saudi Arabia launched a major crackdown domestically.
But it was too late to snare Zarqawi. He had returned to Iraq. Arab intelligence reports have placed him in Baghdad, although he still retreats to the Iranian side of the border with Iraq when he senses his security is threatened, officials said.
Magnet for Foreigners
Crossing Iraq's borders with Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent with Jordan and Turkey, hundreds of foreign fighters have begun to flow into the country, according to both U.S. and Arab officials.
A U.S. military official said in a recent interview that there were already 220 foreign fighters in U.S. custody in Iraq. But American and Arab officials also said that al Qaeda has not yet coalesced in Iraq, and Zarqawi's mission to form a new network and manage these fighters in the country is still embryonic.
The occupation of Iraq -- once the home of the caliph, or universal leader, of Muslims -- is a galvanizing symbol for radical Islamic groups. On Internet sites and in mosques across the Islamic world, thousands of potential fighters are hearing -- and heeding -- calls to go to Iraq to fight the infidel, according to European and Arab intelligence sources who have tracked some of the movements of the recruits.
Egypt, for example, announced last week that it had arrested 23 men and was seeking two more on charges of belonging to a terrorist group. The suspects -- 19 Egyptians, three Bangladeshis, a Turk, an Indonesian and a Malaysian -- were planning to fight U.S. forces in Iraq, Egypt's interior minister, Habib Adli, said in an interview with the magazine Al Mussawar.
Kurdish forces in northern Iraq recently arrested a Tunisian carrying an Italian passport and attempting to cross from Iran.
Syria arrested and deported an Algerian national and a German resident who organized a group of radicals to travel to Iraq from the same Hamburg mosque where Mohamed Atta, the lead hijacker in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, once worshiped. German officials said the man, who is currently free but under observation, had ties to Zarqawi and had also recruited volunteers in Italy to fight in Iraq.
"They are coming," said an Arab official from a country that borders Iraq. "They are coming from everywhere."
After the meeting at the safe house in February, Iranian authorities placed Zarqawi, a 42-year-old Jordanian, under house arrest, according to Arab intelligence sources. It is not clear why they did so. Zarqawi was the head of a cluster of Arabs who had attached themselves to Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish fundamentalist group vowing to establish an Islamic state in northern Iraq. Ansar is believed to be closely allied with al Qaeda, according to the U.S. government. Zarqawi also is believed to have a network of contacts in the Middle East and Europe.
Word that Zarqawi was under house arrest in Iran reached Amman, the Jordanian capital, and officials there sent a detailed extradition request, including nearly a dozen photographs of him, to Tehran, according to American and Arab officials. Zarqawi was wanted in connection with a planned hotel bombing in Amman on the eve of millennium celebrations and with the assassination of U.S. diplomat Laurence M. Foley in the city last October.
The Iranians rebuffed demands to turn over Zarqawi, who became more widely known when Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said at the United Nations in February that he was a key link between the government of Saddam Hussein, then Iraq's president, and al Qaeda.
Zarqawi had had a leg amputated at an exclusive Baghdad clinic in 2002, suggesting he had connections to government figures in Iraq, but European officials scoffed at the larger allegation. Zarqawi was an independent operator, they said, citing the interrogation of some of his allies in Germany.
Later in the spring, Zarqawi was released from house arrest and allowed safe passage along smuggling routes to Iraq, the sources said. By then, U.S. and British forces were occupying the country. The sources added that Zarqawi then became what the Americans had charged but never proved to the satisfaction of others on the U.N. Security Council: al Qaeda's man in Iraq.
A recent internal German law-enforcement report on al Qaeda described Zarqawi as someone who has "assumed leadership responsibilities" that have been delegated "from the original center to the regional level."
Zarqawi "would be a logical person to control things there," said Matthew Levitt, a Middle East analyst formerly with the FBI counterterrorism section and now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "He has a fantastic relationship with other groups -- the Baathists, radicals in Kurdistan, in Germany. . . . They will work with whoever they need to work with. He is a real personification of a global network."
Firm numbers on foreign fighters in Iraq are impossible to come by, but estimates in the intelligence community in Washington on how many have already entered the country range from 1,000 to several thousand. U.S. military officers in Iraq, and officials with the occupying authority led by L. Paul Bremer, say the figure is much lower but don't deny the potential threat the fighters represent or the difficulty of policing Iraq's borders.
The Iraq-Syria border, for instance, is an arid, mostly unmarked frontier, crisscrossed by hard-packed roads. The landscape is intersected by wadis, rocky outcroppings and a scattering of farms irrigated by wells. Much of the traffic in the area is smugglers transporting sheep and other livestock across routes they have used for decades. The territory is ideal for subterfuge. So is the mountainous Iran-Iraq border.
U.S. officials said there was no evidence that al Qaeda or other fighters were behind the recent bombings in Iraq, including the attack on the U.N. headquarters. "Most intelligence agencies think the Baathists are behind the current violence," said a spokesman for the State Department, referring to Hussein's party.
'A Threat Down the Line'
But even in the muted language of those attempting to put the best face on the situation in Iraq, the fear of al Qaeda is apparent. "There is a significant concern about the people moving in here," said a senior U.S. official in Baghdad. "I don't feel they have the capacity right now where they're sitting and organizing and being very strategic." But, he added, it "could be a threat down the line."
When bin Laden was trapped at Tora Bora in the Afghan mountains in 2001, he and his Egyptian deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, dispatched military chief Adel to Iran to negotiate a safe harbor for some of al Qaeda's scattering ranks.
Zawahiri had long-standing ties with Ahmad Vahidi, then the commander of the Iranian Qods force, a special operations unit, according to a European intelligence official.
A deal was struck. Iran's elected leadership, led by President Mohammad Khatami, repeatedly denied that senior al Qaeda figures were in the country, and pointed to the extradition of some fighters to Saudi Arabia as evidence of Iran's good faith. But Khatami has no control over security organs such as the Revolutionary Guard, which answers to the office of the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Among those who made it to Iran with Adel and bin Laden's son were Mahfouz Ould Walid, also known as Abu Hafs the Mauritanian and head of the religious committee that issued fatwas justifying attacks, and Abu Mohammed Masri, an Egyptian who is wanted in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa and who has been al Qaeda's chief financial officer, setting up its illicit diamond trade as a way to hide funds.
Others who went to Iran were Zawahiri's deputy, Abu Khayr, and Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, al Qaeda's spokesman, who was stripped of his Kuwaiti citizenship after an appearance on al-Jazeera television in which he vowed retaliation for U.S. airstrikes against Afghanistan.
With the capture of other top-tier al Qaeda leaders around the world, the group in Iran -- accompanied by numerous low- and mid-ranking Saudis, including some who would later participate in the May Riyadh bombings -- became the core of al Qaeda's functioning leadership.
Bin Laden and Zawahiri went into hiding in the mountains along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and their ability to communicate with their followers has been severely constrained, often limited to oral messages or handwritten notes.
Elsewhere, al Qaeda's leadership structure began unraveling in earnest a year ago, with the capture in Pakistan of self-proclaimed Sept. 11 planner Ramzi Binalshibh. Since then, many of the senior leaders have been caught, with information gleaned from one arrest leading to others. Among those now in custody are the U.S. operations chief, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, another key planner of the Sept. 11 attacks; and two planners of the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen on Oct. 12, 2000, Tawfiq bin Attash and Rahim al-Nashiri.
Last month, Thai police captured Riduan Isamuddin, known as Hambali, leader of the Southeast Asian terrorist organization Jemaah Islamiah, who is accused of orchestrating deadly bombings against Westerners at tourist sites in Bali and Jakarta, Indonesia. The United States and allied governments have rolled up thousands of others -- some sworn al Qaeda members, but mostly sympathetic radicals.
According to Arab and U.S. officials who have been briefed on American interrogations, almost all of the senior figures in captivity have been cooperating with the United States, which has employed a variety of stress techniques that stop short of direct physical abuse or torture to disorient the prisoners and break their morale.
In some cases, U.S. officials, who are holding these senior al Qaeda figures at a secret location, have created a parallel universe to hasten their cooperation. Some of the captives, for instance, have been given what appear to be copies of Arab and Western newspapers and magazines that are, in fact, written and printed by the CIA. Stories in these phony publications include reports that bin Laden had been killed or that the Saudi government had fallen in a coup d'etat, the Arab officials said.
"The logic is: 'Look, it's over' or 'You got what you wanted, so cooperate,' " said one Saudi source.
And for some of those arrested, it did appear that they were losing. When Zarqawi met Adel in Iran, al Qaeda was in some disarray.
The operational leadership in Iran, despite some of the swaggering statements issued by bin Laden or Zawahiri, felt that another spectacular attack in the continental United States was operationally impossible, according to the analyses by Arab intelligence agencies. The leadership could only hope that the Taliban could regroup in Afghanistan, as it appears to be doing, and that other radicals would rally to the al Qaeda cause of their own volition and commit atrocities in its name.
Saudis Launch Crackdown
Adel -- prompted by the large number of Saudis around him, including bin Laden's son, and with a little cash and some bomb-making expertise at his disposal -- decided to focus on toppling the Saudi government and encouraging attacks elsewhere in the Arab world. Moroccan officials, for instance, have linked the bombings in Casablanca on May 16 to the al Qaeda group in Iran.
Law enforcement officials at the same time concluded that Saudi Arabia had become the favored staging area and target for al Qaeda. "Saudi Arabia is a planning center -- that's correct. It's a hub for the Gulf," said a U.S. official.
But Adel's strategy strained the hospitality of the security services in Iran.
The May bombings in Riyadh killed 35 people. The Saudi government unleashed a major crackdown, killing some suspects during gun battles and arresting others. The Saudis obtained a trove of evidence -- phones, computer hard drives, documents and cash -- that pointed back to Iran and Adel. In addition, one of al Qaeda's local leaders in Saudi Arabia, Ali Faqasi Ghamdi, turned himself in and confessed that Adel and his associates were behind the bombings.
Furious, the Saudis sent two delegations to Iran. One was led by the interior minister's son, Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, the assistant interior minister for security affairs, and the other by a general in the intelligence service. They demanded that the Iranians turn over bin Laden's son and other Saudis, including the cousin of one of the Riyadh bombers, Turki Dandani.
The Saudi delegations also requested that Adel be returned to Egypt.
"They got the runaround," said a Saudi source.
The Iranians have assured the United States and numerous other countries that Adel and other al Qaeda operatives are now under house arrest and unable to communicate with others in the network, according to an official at the State Department. But the Iranians have refused to relinquish custody of the operatives.
"We are trying to get the Iranians to turn bin Laden's son over to the Saudis," said a senior counterterrorism official, adding that several countries have tried to act as intermediaries.
Some U.S. officials say they believe that Iran will never relinquish custody of Adel and the others because they could reveal connections between Iran and al Qaeda going back to the mid-1990s. Moreover, Western and Arab officials say they believe Iran is calculating that they are a useful chip in any future standoff with the United States over Iranian policy toward Iraq or Iran's alleged efforts to develop a nuclear bomb.
Iranian officials refuse to confirm publicly that Adel is in custody, saying only that they are holding some "big fish" who they allege threatened Iran with terrorist attacks.
Schmidt reported from Washington. Correspondents Anthony Shadid and Theola Labbé in Baghdad, staff writer Doug Farah in Washington and special correspondent Souad Mehkennet in Frankfurt contributed to this report.