WASHINGTON – Buoyed by the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, U.S. government officials hope the exposure of his radical network through hundreds of raids across Iraq will help them eliminate key tentacles of the amorphous Al Qaeda organization.
These officials say the raids have led to solid insights into Al Qaeda in Iraq and provided new clues about how the group trades information with Usama bin Laden and Al Qaeda central.
They also are learning who is connected to whom and how external support is funneled through Iraq from across the Middle East, including Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iran.
Several officials requested anonymity while the investigations were unfolding.
In a press conference in Baghdad, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said Thursday that 452 U.S. and coalition raids had been conducted since Zarqawi was killed June 7. The information is mounting: Military and other investigators are collecting documents, computers, weapons and DNA.
The work comes at a time when Al Qaeda in Iraq is in flux as it adjusts to operating without its charismatic leader. U.S., Iraqi and coalition forces are hoping to seize the opportunity to unravel Al Qaeda's complicated web.
Officials are also working to understand the group's purported new leader and whether he has the connections and credibility to assume Zarqawi's iconic role.
The enthusiasm of President Bush and other senior officials is tempered by the knowledge that Zarqawi's death crimps but hardly kills his organization. Authorities also are watching to see if Zarqawi's wish-for martyrdom attracts more fighters into the jihadist fold.
The U.S. military has identified an Egyptian, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, who is believed to also use the name Abu Hamza al-Mujaher, as Zarqawi's successor in Iraq and presumably in operations beyond.
The president's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, has cautioned against jumping to conclusions while the organization is adrift.
If in fact the new leader is al-Masri, authorities are only in the early stages of figuring out what he will mean for Al Qaeda.
Al-Masri, whose name means "the Egyptian," is a former member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad. He has long-standing ties to Al Qaeda's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri. Al-Masri has been fighting in Iraq since at least 2003 and engaged in the battle of Fallujah in 2004.
Zarqawi, a Sunni Muslim, was known for his gruesome attacks Iraq's Shiite population — a tactic that put him at odds with Al Qaeda's central leadership. But al-Masri could be more receptive to guidance from Afghan-Pakistani border, given his long-standing ties to Zawahri, a fellow Egyptian.
Early estimates do not predict significant change in Iraq. "We think he will probably continue on with the same tactics and techniques that Zarqawi did," Caldwell said.
Al-Masri was the point man for getting foreign fighters into Iraq. It was a critical position that would have allowed him to build relationships with numerous foreign contacts.
It remains to be seen how he will oversee the loose network outside of Iraq that Zarqawi established. The 39-year-old was believed to have links to radicals in more than 40 countries on at least five continents.
U.S. officials said the bulk of Zarqawi's reach outside of Iraq was centered in his home of Jordan, which was his primary target outside Iraq. Lesser extensions included his operatives in Europe, where he was believed to have just a handful.
At a Senate hearing Tuesday, retired Vice Adm. John Scott Redd, head of the National Counterterrorism Center, could not say for certain how many fighters have been trained by Zarqawi and may have returned to their home countries; some estimates suggest they could number in the low hundreds.
Redd said authorities have indications of plots "at least hatching" outside Iraq. "And some of those may have been far enough that we'll see them," he said.
In many ways, those plots typify the new Al Qaeda, which has evolved from a centralized group rooted in Afghanistan to an amorphous ideology dispersed worldwide.
During a speech in April, Gen. Michael Hayden, the newly appointed CIA director, said the war in Iraq motivates jihadists, but their failure there would weaken the movement globally.
"The loss of key leaders like bin Laden, Zawahri and Zarqawi — especially if they were lost in rapid succession — could cause the jihadist movement to fracture even more into smaller groups, and would probably lead to strains and disagreements," said Hayden, who at the time was the No. 2 U.S. intelligence official.