The United States military has not yet managed to catch Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the top Al Qaeda-linked terrorist in Iraq. But they have perhaps snagged the next best thing: his laptop.
In today's Internet world even a brutal terror figure apparently carries his life on a personal electronic device. A February raid by a covert US military unit came so close to Zarqawi that he fled from the vehicle in which he was traveling on foot, leaving his computer behind, say government sources.
On the hard drive was everything from information about Zarqawi's medical condition to pictures of himself, kept in a file labeled "My Pictures."
"His computer ... has provided a treasure trove of information," says a Pentagon official who asked to remain nameless.
Zarqawi is a bear-like Jordanian-born figure renowned even among terrorists for his brutality. He has set himself up as the top Islamist terror figure in Iraq, although his exact relationship with Osama bin Laden and the rest of Al Qaeda's leadership remains unclear.
On Feb. 20, he was traveling from Fallujah to a meeting in Ramadi when covert US forces almost caught him, the Pentagon believes. During the raid, US troops pulled over a car as it approached a checkpoint. As they did so, a pickup behind turned and sped away.
When they caught the pickup the US personnel found the computer, over $100,000 in euros, and two Zarqawi associates. Zarqawi himself may have escaped by rolling from the truck under an underpass, then fleeing on foot to a safehouse somewhere in the vicinity.
"We were extraordinarily close to getting him," says a high-level military official who regularly travels to Iraq.
Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed that as well at a press conference Tuesday afternoon. But he declined to elaborate, citing the sensitivity of revealing operational details.
Terror experts note that Zarqawi's apparent escape is a blow. His capture would not end the participation of Islamist terrorists in the Iraqi insurgency, but it would certainly demoralize them, and it would remove an energetic and creative terror figure.
But the computer might contain contacts, financial information, and hard data about his relationship with Al Qaeda.
"That would be solid gold [information]," says Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corp.
A European intelligence official says that he is not sure Zarqawi was ever in the truck. But the information on the computer was very valuable, he confirms. Among other things, it may indicate that Zarqawi is in worse physical condition than previously believed, and taking painkillers as he recovers from a wound to his stomach.
He also points out that the captured cash was in euros, not dollars, and indicates that the terror network likely maintains a functioning logistical connection with Al Qaeda's European branches.
The importance of the captured Zarqawi aides is not clear. Back in February - without mentioning the near-miss of Zarqawi himself - the Iraqi government announced that a raid had captured Talib Mikhlif Arsan Walman al-Dulaymi, also known as Abu Qutaybah, allegedly a key Zarqawi lieutenant.
Mr. Qutaybah arranged for transportation and safehouses, and moved money and equipment around the country for the Zarqawi network, according to the Iraqi government.
The raid also netted a man who occasionally acted as Zarqawi's driver, one Ahmad Khalid Marad Ismail al-Rawi, said the Iraqi government.
One top Al Qaeda figure thought to at least serve as a liaison to Zarqawi's network is named Abu Hadi al-Iraqi, says former CIA official Michael Scheuer. There have been rumors of his presence in Iraq - even of his death in an attack - but those have not been confirmed.
"If he turns up in Iraq, that's an important thing. And its even more important if they captured him," says Mr. Scheuer.
In the past, Zarqawi has been something of an independent operator, at times even competing with Al Qaeda for prized recruits and funds. But the US believes Zarqawi is now firmly entrenched in the Al Qaeda camp, said Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at Tuesday's Pentagon press conference.
"The intelligence experts in our government, and, I believe, in other governments, believe they have engaged in a process and become connected in a variety of ways - maybe people, maybe money," Mr. Rumsfeld said.
That said, the US and its partners are doing all they can to put pressure on him and his associates, tracking their money and recruits as well as the terrorist leaders themselves.
"I think he's on the run," Rumsfeld said. "A lot of pressure is put on their funding, recruiting, movements and our folks keep scooping up people engaged in various aspects of their work. The more they scoop up, visit with them, the more they learn and go out and scoop up others."