As better information emerges about the recently foiled terrorist strike against the Jordanian intelligence headquarters in Amman, the event just might demonstrate that Secretary of State Colin Powell hit the bull's-eye when, speaking before the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003, he made his most incriminating charge against Saddam Hussein.
Powell said then that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, "an associate and collaborator of Usama bin Laden and his al-Qaida lieutenants," had taken sanctuary in Iraq after the U.S. invasion chased him out of Afghanistan.
Invited by an agent of Saddam, Zarqawi's organization migrated to the Kurdish controlled area of Iraq, Powell said. There, they set up "another poison and explosive training center camp." But in May 2002, Zarqawi went to Baghdad for medical treatment.
"During his stay, nearly two dozen extremists converged on Baghdad and established a base of operations there," said Powell. "These al-Qaida affiliates based in Baghdad now coordinate the movement of people, money and supplies into and throughout Iraq for his network, and they have now been operating freely in the capital for more than eight months.
"From his terrorist network in Iraq," Powell said, "Zarqawi can direct his network in the Middle East and beyond."
What's more, Powell said, Saddam's regime rebuffed U.S. overtures to surrender Zarqawi. "We asked a friendly security service to approach Baghdad about extraditing Zarqawi and providing information about him and his close associates," Powell said. "This service contacted Iraqi officials twice, and we passed details that should have made it easy to find Zarqawi. The network remains in Baghdad. Zarqawi still remains at large, to come and go."
Now, information in the videotaped confession of one of Zarqawi's alleged lieutenants captured in Jordan appears to back up Powell's startling assertion that Saddam -- a secular Arab dictator -- provided sanctuary to anti-American Islamist terrorists affiliated with al Qaeda.
In sting operations culminating April 20, Jordanian security agencies arrested six alleged terrorists and killed four others. On April 26, Jordanian TV broadcast a special report saying that these alleged terrorists had planned to bomb the Jordanian intelligence headquarters, the prime ministry and the U.S. embassy in Amman. The attack on the intelligence headquarters, the Jordanian narrator claimed, would have used "chemical explosives" and "could have killed 80,000 Jordanian citizens."
Four surviving alleged terrorists were shown in videotaped statements. Their self-professed leader was identified as Azmi al-Jayyusi.
"In Herat (Afghanistan), I began training for Abu Musab," Jayyusi says in a translation published by the BBC. "The training included high-level explosives and poison courses. I then pledged allegiance to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and agreed to work for him without any discussion. After the fall of Afghanistan, I met al-Zarqawi once again in Iraq.
"In Iraq, Abu Musab told me to go to Jordan along with Muwaffaq Udwan to prepare for a military operation in Jordan," said Jayyusi.
Once he was in Jordan, Zarqawi sent him money via couriers, said Jayyusi. "He also supplied me, through messengers, with forged passports, identity cards and car registrations and all that is necessary."
The Jordanian report includes no time line for these events. But Jayyusi's claim that he and Zarqawi went to Iraq after "the fall of Afghanistan" and that Zarqawi hatched his plot from there generally mirrors Colin Powell's statement to the United Nations that Zarqawi fled Afghanistan for Iraq and managed his operations from there.
There's one rub, of course: How do you judge the credibility of these alleged terrorists and their Jordanian-elicited confessions?
A statement from one of them, identified as Husayn Sharif, backs up Jordan's claim that the plot intended a "chemical" attack. "He (Jayyusi) mentioned that this would be the first suicide chemical attack by Al-Qa'idah and asked me to help him purchase the vehicles," said Sharif.
Ironically, this is the one part of the story Zarqawi himself now apparently denies. Al Arabiya last week broadcast an audiotape purporting to be Zarqawi's voice. He took credit for the plot to blow up the Jordanian intelligence headquarters. But, he said (in a translation published by Federal News Service), "The Jordanian Intelligence lied twice. First, when they claimed that we have been preparing to kill Muslims, and to kill innocent inhabitants. Secondly, when they claimed that they thwarted the plan for the sake of . . . preventing Muslim blood being shed."
These points would be important to this terrorist not because he disdains chemical weapons, but because he wants his Muslim audience to believe he is not trying "to kill Muslims." On the same tape, the purported voice of Zarqawi confesses he would very much like to use chemical weapons -- in the right place.
"What has been mentioned regarding unimaginable numbers, as if it was a chemical bomb that would have killed thousands of people -- this is a pure lie," he says. "God knows that if we possessed -- and we beseech God that He may allow it soon -- if we possessed such a bomb, we would not have hesitated for one moment to fervently strike cities in Israel, such as Eilat and Tel Aviv and others."
The U.S. government concurs with at least one point made by this voice: the intended attack in Jordan was conventional. A U.S. official told me what was recovered there was not a chemical weapon and did not include any poisons, but that it did include chemicals designed to increase its conventional explosive impact.
I asked State Department spokesman Adam Ereli if the department still stands behind everything Colin Powell said about Zarqawi in his Feb. 5, 2003, presentation to the Security Council. "Yes," said Ereli.
Time may be proving that on this all-important question, Powell hit his target dead-on.