WASHINGTON -- Two and a half years into the US-led war on terrorism, the Al Qaeda network headed by Osama bin Laden has a new operations chief, some US and foreign intelligence officials now believe, and he is quickly becoming as deadly as the architects of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the 38-year-old Palestinian blamed for hundreds of deaths in terrorist attacks in Iraq, appears to have adopted the remnants of the sleeper cell network in Europe that helped spawn the Sept. 11 hijackers and now serves as the primary organizer of a diffuse, but growing collection of Al Qaeda veterans and new recruits on at least three continents, according to a recent US spy agency report, interviews with intelligence officials, and terrorism specialists.
After months of investigation, a picture is emerging that connects Zarqawi, whom US officials believe is still in Iraq, to the deadly train bombings in Madrid in March, a foiled plot to blow up Jordanian government offices in Amman last month, and the recent capture of several suspected terror cells in Italy, among other plots, the officials said.
Some intelligence officials stop short of comparing Zarqawi's role to bin Laden's past field commanders -- his relationship to the Saudi fugitive and other Al Qaeda chieftains, they say, is not as clear-cut -- but acknowledge he has picked up where they left off.
And as more dots in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East increasingly lead back to Zarqawi, he appears to have filled the vacuum as the top Al Qaeda field organizer. His capture could be even more important than bin Laden himself if American and allied intelligence services are to keep pace with what they believe has become a highly adaptable global movement of Islamic extremists following the Sept. 11 attacks.
''Zarqawi's terrorism is not confined to the Middle East," according to a recent US intelligence report labeled ''for officials' use only" obtained by the Globe. ''Zarqawi and his network have plotted terrorist actions against several countries, including France, Britain, Spain, Italy, Germany, and Russia. Since last year, members of his network have been apprehended in France, Britain, Spain, and Italy."
Zarqawi is best known as the leading Islamic terrorist in Iraq, believed to be responsible for the deaths of at least 700 people there in the last year and this month's beheading of American Nicholas Berg.
But his links to other Al Qaeda followers and sympathizers, ability to recruit new foot soldiers, and personal ties with some leading suspects in a series of ongoing terrorist investigations demonstrate how he has picked up the standard left by top Al Qaeda figures such as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah, both of whom are in US custody.
Zarqawi is believed to communicate through intermediaries and couriers along a chain of support from neighboring countries including Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
The Zarqawi network, now called the Al Tawhid Group, ''has been operating beyond Iraq for some time," said a US official who requested anonymity, citing recent intelligence reports.
''I would not characterize him as a formal, micromanaging chief as some of the others," the official added, ''but I would certainly characterize him as an operations chief in his own right. He has served as a magnet of foreign fighters and operatives that have come into Iraq to incite sectarian violence, and there are a number of plots he has been responsible for over the last several months far beyond Iraq."
''People are underestimating him," said Evan Kohlmann, a government terrorism consultant and author of the forthcoming book, ''Al Qaeda's Jihad in Europe: The Afghan-Bosnian Network."
Kohlmann added that Zarqawi ''has inherited the 9/11 network."
Zarqawi has had a long history as a terrorist foot soldier and organizer.
Born in the Palestinian refugee camp of Zarqa northeast of Amman in 1966, Zarqawi has moved freely among Islamic militant groups in Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. In 1986, he traveled to Karachi for training during the Soviet invasion of neighboring Afghanistan. He then returned to Jordan in 1990 to help establish a local terror group, Jaysh Muhammed, according to the US intelligence report.
After serving a prison term in Jordan in the mid-1990s for conspiring to overthrow the government, he is believed to have given orders to a terrorist group based there that was planning attacks timed to the millennium New Year's celebrations in Jordan, Israel, and the United States, the report said.
Those plots were foiled, but he traveled back to Pakistan in 2000, according to the French intelligence service, the DGSE, where he soon turned up in bin Laden's entourage in Afghanistan.
Until the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, Zarqawi ran two training camps, one near Kabul and another --specializing in chemical weapons training -- in Herat before he fled the US onslaught for neighboring Iran, according to the intelligence report. He soon helped establish another poison factory in Kurdish-held northeastern Iraq, where the militant group Ansar Al Islam offered Al Qaeda members safe haven.
Since then, he has used those contacts to recruit suicide bombers to come to Iraq. He also has used his contacts to cast a net to other Al Qaeda sympathizers in Europe, North Africa, and elsewhere, officials said.
Zarqawi's influence is increasingly being felt far beyond Iraq. The suspected mastermind of the Madrid bombings in March that killed 200 people, a Syrian named Abu Musab al-Suri, as well as other North Africans from Morocco and Algeria who have been tied to blasts, are believed to have links to Zarqawi, according to intelligence officials.
Amer Azizi, a Moroccan recently charged in Spain for his alleged involvement in the Sept. 11 plot and who was the suspected leader of the cell that bombed the Madrid trains, met with Zarqawi in Iran last year, according to communications intercepted by an allied intelligence agency. The Sept. 11 attacks were planned by an Al Qaeda cell in Hamburg.
Bryan Bender can be reached at email@example.com.