BERLIN — 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-Qaida 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-Qaida, who is better known as Saif Adel. He welcomed a guest, Abu Musab Zarqawi, who had recently fled Iraq's Kurdish northern region after the United States targeted a radical group with which he was affiliated, Arab intelligence sources said.
The encounter resulted in the dispatch of Zarqawi to become al-Qaida'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 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-Qaida's degraded leadership moved to Iran. The Iranian security services, which answer to the country's powerful clerics, protected the leadership, including Adel and bin Laden's son, Saad, as well as other senior figures, according to the intelligence officials.
From guesthouses in Iran's east and south, this al-Qaida group planned the May 12 bombing of residential compounds in Riyadh, the intelligence sources said. The group may 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.
Following the Riyadh bombing, the Iranians, under pressure from the Saudis, detained the al-Qaida 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.
Crossing Iraq's borders with Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent 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-Qaida 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 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 in Italy for volunteers to fight in Iraq.
"They are coming," said an Arab official from a country that borders Iraq. "They are coming from everywhere."
Following the meeting at the safe house in February, Iranian authorities placed Zarqawi, a 42-year-old Jordanian, under house arrest. 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-Qaida, 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 the assassination of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley in the city last October.
The Iranians rebuffed demands to turn over Zarqawi, who became more widely known when Secretary of State Colin 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-Qaida.
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.
The Iranians insisted, moreover, that although the photos were a match for their prisoner, the man the Jordanians had identified was a Syrian and was not Zarqawi, Arab intelligence sources said.
Later in the spring, Zarqawi was released from house arrest, and was 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-Qaida's man in Iraq.
A recent internal German law enforcement report on al-Qaida 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-Qaida 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 Saddam's party.
But even in the muted language of those attempting to put the best face on the situation in Iraq, the fear of al-Qaida 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."
Contributing: Anthony Shadid; Theola Labbi; Doug Farah; Souad Mehkennet.