May 14, 2004

Who is Zarqawi?

ZAHN: Just who is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and does his emergence makes him as dangerous a threat to the U.S. as Osama bin Laden? Those are questions for our own terrorism analyst, Peter Bergen, who joins us tonight from Washington. Hi, Peter. So what is the linkage, if any, between Mr. Zarqawi and al Qaeda? PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Well, Zarqawi had his own group, which was called al-Tawhid, which in Arabic means unity. And it was a separate group according to both European and American counterterrorism officials I've talked to in the past. He had his own group. We also know from a letter that was also discovered in January in 2004, a letter from Zarqawi to the al Qaeda leadership implying some sort of separation. So on the one hand, he has his own group and is his own man. On the other hand, CNN's Henry Shuster has reported in the past that Zarqawi received financing from al Qaeda in Afghanistan. So it's a little murky. But it seems to me overall, Paula, that here's a guy who had his own group who sometimes reached out to al Qaeda but is very much his own man and right now, from an operational standpoint, is more important than Osama bin Laden in terms of the number of operations he's undertaking. Osama bin Laden still remains the ideological godfather of all this, but in terms of actually doings on the ground in Iraq and in Jordan, and possibly in places like Casablanca, Madrid, where Zarqawi is also being linked to attacks, Zarqawi is extremely active right now. ZAHN: Hasn't the U.S. government though on one level led us to believe that that linkage is far stronger than what you're pointing out tonight? BERGEN: Well, Secretary Powell in his presentation to the U.N. Security Council before the war certainly presented a pretty strong link. And one part of the exhibits there was that Zarqawi had gone to some kind of medical treatment in Baghdad which demonstrated some link to the Iraq regime. And also Secretary Powell said that this guy was linked to al Qaeda. As I say, I think these links are all rather murky. One thing about this medical treatment in Baghdad, it was supposed to be for an amputated leg he'd suffered in Afghanistan. Well, it turns out if you looked at that video, he doesn't appear to have an amputated leg in this video. He's certainly a very active person for somebody who has got a missing leg. So there are a lot of things we don't know about Zarqawi. What his exact relationships are to al Qaeda I think remains an open question. ZAHN: So, Peter, we're looking at a picture right now. Zarqawi is allegedly which man in the picture? BERGEN: Well, he's the one in the middle who's going to execute Nick Berg. And I haven't seen the whole video, obviously, but he is that man. ZAHN: But you can't rule out the possibility that he either had a fake leg or some sort of prophylactic device? BERGEN: That's true. But crippled, people with amputated legs, I can't imagine -- to cut off somebody's neck, it seems you'd have to be quite an active kind of individual. So I think that the question of whether or not he had an amputated leg or not is sort of in play right now, particularly with this video. ZAHN: The search for Zarqawi has been pretty intense by a bunch of different intelligence operations. Just bring us up to date on how intense that search has been. BERGEN: Well, right now, he's got a $10 million award on his head, which I think is representative of the U.S. government's desire to get him. I think he really came on the radar screen starting in 2000 with the millennium plots in Jordan which didn't work out. These were plots to blow up an American-owned hotel in Amman in Jordan, the capital, attack tourist sites associated with Saint John the Baptist, etcetera. That's when he first came on the radar screen. He came even more on the radar screen in 2002. He's regarded as being behind the assassination of an American diplomat in Jordan, Laurence Foley. And since the beginning of the Iraq war, he's been incredibly active. If we believe this letter, the Zarqawi letter that was found in January 2004, he's behind pretty much every major suicide attack in Iraq, whether it was attacking the United Nations building, attacking the Red Cross, attacking a police barracks with Italian police officers in Nasiriyah in southern Iraq, the Jordanian Embassy. The list goes on and on. ZAHN: Peter Bergen, we're going to leave it there this evening. Thanks so much for your input tonight.