The shadowy Abu Musab al-Zarqawi may be rapidly becoming Public Enemy No. 2 in the war on terror - an Islamist extremist almost as wanted as Osama bin Laden himself.
He's behind many recent bombings in Iraq, and possibly the wave of kidnapping and shootings directed at Westerners in Saudi Arabia, say intelligence officials and terror experts. The tradecraft in some of the Saudi attacks is reminiscent of techniques he has been known to use.
Al Qaeda may be not so much a guerrilla army as a loose organization of like-minded individuals, but if it can be said to have a chief operational officer, that person may now be Mr. Zarqawi.
"Zarqawi's become the de facto operational chief of the Al Qaeda network," says Rohan Gunaratna, author of "Inside Al Qaeda" and an expert at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore. "Osama is thinking at the strategic level, and Zarqawi is operating at the tactical level."
The latest sign of Zarqawi's deadly rise may have come in a series of attacks that rippled through Iraq on Monday. At least 16 people were killed, 13 of them in a car bombing that hit a convoy of Western electrical contractors.
In his response to the violence, Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi accused Zarqawi of trying to disrupt the transfer of sovereignty scheduled for June 30. "Al-Zarqawi and his followers are earnestly working to prevent the success of this measure," he said, referring to the transfer.
The Jordanian-born Zarqawi has honed an ability to quickly change his targets and methods of attacks through years of moving about the Middle East. US intelligence knows less about him than it does about some other major Islamist terrorist figures. For instance, in the past the intelligence officials believed he had lost a leg as a result of an American bombing raid on an Afghan training camp. But now they say they have decided he still has all his limbs. He may have tattoos, however, on some part of his body.
"[Zarqawi has] been at it for over a decade, closer to 12 years, but he only came up on our radar after the Jordanians fingered him for planning the millennium attacks against Americans and Israelis in Jordan [in December 1999]," says a senior US intelligence official.
It is not clear how Zarqawi, with a $10 million US bounty on his head, became US Enemy No. 2, and a possible replacement to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks and a former bin Laden right-hand man who was captured in Pakistan in March 2003.
In fact, Zarqawi and Mr. bin Laden have at times been at cross-purposes. For example, in the midst of the Iraqi insurgency, Zarqawi wrote a letter to bin Laden that was intercepted and later released by the US. In it, Zarqawi implores bin Laden to help provoke a civil war between the Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq. But that, experts say, does not fit with bin Laden's plans. Bin Laden, they say, wants Shiites and Sunnis to unite in his bigger aims against the United States, then settle any differences they have between them afterward.
But Zarqawi seems to have changed directions in that regard as well, possibly in deference to bin Laden's wishes. Since the August 2003 bombing of the mosque in Karbala in which some 83 people were killed, including the leading Shiite Muslim leader Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, Zarqawi hasn't targeted Shiites.
"I speculated then that bin Laden would talk Zarqawi back onto the reservation or kill him," says a senior US intelligence official. "Since [that attack in] Karbala, Zarqawi hasn't gone out of his way to kill Shiites. "
Moreover, in the statement that accompanied the tape of the beheading of US businessman Nicholas Berg, Zarqawi proclaimed that the assassination was one of many warnings to Americans to get out of Iraq. And he stated that it was also a warning to the Americans and Pakistanis to stay away from Wana. Wana is a central town in Wiziristan, the basically ungoverned territory between Afghanistan and Pakistan where it is believed bin Laden and many of his top acolytes are hiding.
"That's an interesting bow in bin Laden's direction," says the US intelligence official.
It also makes sense, intelligence officials say, for Zarqawi to draw closer to bin Laden for recruitment purposes. They say the tape of Berg - and many photos of the American abuses of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib - is a very effective recruitment tool for Zarqawi and Al Qaeda. "[Zarqawi is] mainly working with the Sunni population in Iraq," says the US intelligence official. "And they make up 40 percent of the population. Most of them are angry, afraid, so he has a big pool to draw from. He also draws on his original organization in Jordan. And there are probably Arabs coming in from Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Lebanon to fight. His organization is flush with manpower."
Another thing intelligence officials and experts picked out from the Berg tape is that the method used to kill him - a quick beheading - was used extensively and perfected in Chechnya, where Zarqawi is known to have ties.
"Zarqawi has cells deeply embedded in Chechnya, especially, but also in the Balkans and throughout Europe," says a European intelligence official. "I believe the cells have been there for at least 10 years."
Intelligence officials and experts on terror alike agree those cells were originally set up as support cells, but that they have been going operational.
For example, after Sept. 11, Germany placed several young men under surveillance. Four turned out to be members of a cell responsible for collecting money throughout Germany for Zarqawi. German authorities broke it up by co-opting one member to help against others. That man - Shadi Abdallah - provided the names of several cell leaders in Germany and other European countries.
But, "We haven't made much progress in wrapping up Zarqawi's cells in Germany, let alone Europe," says the European intelligence official. "They are extremely hard to crack because they operate in the classic cell fashion, with only one member of a cell having a contact name for someone above him."