Before his death, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had recruited hundreds of people who received terrorist training in Iraq and then returned to their home countries to await orders, The New York Times reported in Sunday editions.
Citing high-ranking security officials in Jordan, the Times said that in addition to recruiting volunteers and suicide bombers to fight in Iraq, Zarqawi had recruited some 300 people who received terrorist training in Iraq before returning home to await orders to carry out strikes.
Zarqawi was killed in an air strike by U.S. warplanes on a village north of Baghdad on Wednesday.
The Jordanians’ assessment of Zarqawi’s reach was the first to offer firm numbers and details about such training, the Times said.
The officials all spoke on condition that they not be identified due to the covert nature of their work.
Awaiting orders in Europe?
While U.S. counterterrorism officials said they too had seen movement of terrorists from other countries including Saudi Arabia and Egypt into Iraq for training under Zarqawi and his associates, they said they believed the number of those trained and sent home to await orders was probably significantly lower than 300, the Times said.
“My sense is that the next step might have been mobilizing his recruitment networks to attack Europeans,” the Times quoted Steven Simon, a former National Security Council staff member now at the Council on Foreign Relations, as saying. “That’s one reason I think his death makes a difference.”
The Times said that Jordanian intelligence officials had been particularly focused on Zarqawi, who was born there. Their scrutiny increased after he took credit for sending suicide bombers into three Jordan hotels last December, killing dozens, it said.
Efforts to supercede al-Qaida
The officials said Zarqawi had managed to set up logistical operations in Syria, Iran and Libya that funneled volunteers into Iraq, and that as the insurgency became increasingly driven by Iraqis, he wanted to spread it global reach and mount a challenge to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahri as the leader of a global terrorist war.
European authorities have identified dozens of young militant Muslim men who have either left to fight in Iraq or were prevented from doing so, and U.S. forces in Iraq have at least three French nationals among the dozens of foreign fighters they have captured there, the Times said.
German authorities also have arrested 18 suspected members of Ansar al Islam and the Zarqawi network since December 2004, including three Iraqis charged with plotting to assassinate former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi during a visit to Germany last year.