Intelligence officials tell NBC News they now have strong evidence that al-Qaida is responsible for most of the suicide bombings in Iraq. The latest sign of al-Qaida’s growing presence in Iraq: last week’s arrest of a key bin Laden operative, Hassan Ghul, who was caught as he tried to cross into Iraq from the north.
“The capture of Ghul is pretty strong proof that al-Qaida is trying to gain a foothold here to continue their murderous campaigns,” said U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez.
Intelligence officials tell NBC News Ghul is talking and was likely bringing money and plans for more bombings to Abu Musab Zarqawi, leader of an al-Qaida cell in the so-called Sunni Triangle area of Iraq.
“They believe that Ghul’s key mission was to link up with Zarqawi and begin the process of creating a much more permanent presence of al-Qaida inside Iraq,” said former national security official Roger Cressey.
The United States now believes Zarqawi has been in Iraq since before the war, planning terror operations that are now targeting the United States and its allies.
Intelligence officials say Iraq is the latest battleground for a badly wounded al Qaida organization, which they believe has now lost more than three-quarters of its top leaders — including key operatives now under arrest in Iran.
The most obvious failure in the war on terror is not finding Osama bin Laden. But intelligence officials tell NBC News they believe he is no longer in operational control of his organization. Instead, they say, he devotes most of his time to simply staying alive and occasionally, releasing audiotapes to inspire recruits and fund-raising.
That does not make al-Qaida any less deadly. In fact, the United States has credible reports that al-Qaida is trying to attack again — by air — hoping to inflict more damage than on 9/11.