WASHINGTON – Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has told Osama bin Laden that he would be willing to discuss a suggestion by the al Qaeda leader that al-Zarqawi consider broadening his future operations to include possible attacks inside the United States, according to senior intelligence officials.
“Let’s talk some more. I have ideas, you have ideas,” was the way one senior counterterrorism official described Zarqawi’s message, which was a response to an earlier communication sent by bin Laden. The exchange, obtained by U.S. intelligence, took place months ago, officials said.
“This was not a threat for tomorrow, but it confirms where we may be going,” the official said of the exchange. “It was two heavy hitters talking about a possible partnership.”
Al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant who has claimed responsibility for bombings and assassinations in Iraq, pledged his network’s allegiance to bin Laden and al Qaeda last October.
U.S. intelligence officials have been mining the latest communications between the two men, as well as previously intercepted messages, for clues about the relationship between the two terrorist leaders. Together, they said, the exchanges indicate al-Zarqawi and bin Laden are still independent operators rather than activists who have combined their efforts.
“Zarqawi may be a partner (of bin Laden) or a competitor, but it is not like they are close and in a binding relationship,” the senior counterterrorist official said. “They are in parallel.”
“Al Qaeda is reaching out to a big player,” the official said, while al-Zarqawi “is his own man. He is not playing second fiddle and sees himself not succeeding bin Laden but using Iraq as a springboard to his own global reach.”
The latest bin Laden-al-Zarqawi exchange – transcripts of which have not been released – became public after a Department of Homeland Security bulletin, classified “Secret,” was sent last weekend to state homeland security directors “detailing information about al Qaeda’s continued desire to carry out an attack potentially in the homeland,” said Department of Homeland Security spokesman Brian Roehrkasse.
The bulletin, three to four sentences long, said that “recent communication from al Qaeda’s leadership” indicate they had sought help from al-Zarqawi in attacking U.S. targets, according to one intelligence official who has seen the memo.
CIA officials said privately they were outraged by the disclosure that the United States had obtained the communications between the two men. Agency officials refused to discuss how the messages were obtained.
On Thursday, at the swearing in of new Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, President Bush referred to the exchange saying, “Recently, we learned that Osama bin Laden has urged the terrorist Zarqawi to form a group to conduct attacks outside Iraq, including here in the United States.”
This is the first communication between the two men to become public since February 2004. That’s when Bush administration officials released a January 2004 letter from al-Zarqawi to bin Laden, seized from a captured courier, in which the Jordanian laid out his plans for operations in Iraq and sought bin Laden’s support.