Search for Al-Zarqawi Highlights Problems By KATHERINE SHRADER
The Associated Press
Wednesday, June 1, 2005; 12:05 PM
WASHINGTON — A flurry of recent reports and rumors about whether the top insurgent leader in Iraq was wounded or even killed left U.S. officials uncertain about his fate while underscoring how difficult it is to track terrorists.
An audio tape released Monday that supposedly contained the voice of the insurgent leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, said he had suffered a “light wound” after combat with U.S. troops and was healthy again. U.S. intelligence officials said they believed the message was authentic.
On Wednesday, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the military doesn’t know where al-Zarqawi is. “Our assessment is that he has been wounded. The severity, I don’t know that we know that,” he said.
U.S. defense and intelligence agencies are thought to be using a variety of tools to gather information on the insurgency and its leaders, including electronic eavesdropping, unmanned aircraft and old-fashioned human spying.
Yet the U.S. intelligence community has struggled to penetrate the al-Qaida organization, even as it successfully pierced a black-market network for nuclear weapons technology run by Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan.
Al-Qaida has helped make itself a difficult intelligence target by becoming more diffuse since the U.S.-led invasion disrupted its bases in Afghanistan. It also closely guards information about its leaders and plans, and has its senior members often communicate by courier, not by telecommunications that could be intercepted.
Ben Venzke, who is chief executive of IntelCenter, a counterterrorism and national security firm, said having clarity about al-Qaida’s inner workings is hard to achieve. Protecting secrets, including the whereabouts of leaders, is considered paramount by the group.
“They are extremely good at operational security, and it is institutionalized throughout the organization,” Venzke said.
Illustrating how challenging it is to pin down al-Zarqawi, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Wednesday he assumes al-Zarqawi is in Iraq, but Rumsfeld added a warning to countries in the region who may be willing to help the insurgent leader.
“Were a neighboring country to take him in and provide medical assistance or haven for him, they, obviously, would be associating themselves with a major linkage in the al-Qaida network and a person who has a great deal of blood on his hands,” Rumsfeld said.
In recent days, the most concrete statements on al-Zarqawi’s health were coming from Internet bulletin boards associated with militant Islamic groups, including Monday’s recording and an earlier message asking Muslims to pray for his health.
Late last week, no one in the U.S. government could say for sure which postings were accurate _ the latest indication of the struggle to penetrate the Iraqi insurgency with spies or technology.
The best thinking then among the military’s leading analysts was that the postings could be legitimate, but it was impossible to know for sure, said one defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The official said it was plausible that al-Zarqawi was injured in operations led by the multinational forces operating in Iraq. But “until you actually see him … it is a lot of assessments,” the official added.
Intelligence experts point to al-Zarqawi’s resume to explain what a difficult target he is. Imprisoned in Jordan or on the run much of his adult life, he’s been trained in evading capture and handling tough situations. Now, as a terror leader, he’s most likely sleeping in a different place every night, not necessarily to plan and carry out operations, but to survive.
Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the Santa Monica, Calif.-based RAND Corp., noted that for months U.S. intelligence thought he had one leg.
“I am not saying he isn’t wounded, but he is a master of disinformation,” Hoffman said. “If you are looking for a one-legged person and someone with two serviceable limbs is walking by, you don’t think it’s Zarqawi then.”
“Intelligence for him isn’t a luxury,” Hoffman later added. “Intelligence for him is how he survives.”
Early last week, officials in some corners of the military were leaning toward the notion that reports that al-Zarqawi was wounded were a ruse designed to set him up for a heroic last stand against the Americans or to reduce the pressure from military forces pursuing him. Yet, the suggestion that he was wounded gradually gained credence, given that senior Iraqi government officials said publicly last week that they believed that was the case.
Still, there was no consensus as defense and intelligence officials relied on clues.
One defense official said the military was picking up indications through intelligence channels of talk within the insurgent community of potential successors to al-Zarqawi. Yet that was hardly considered confirmation of the reports he was wounded.