Yesterday's New York Times reports, in paragraph 18, that the French believed Zarqawi was active in Europe before the U.S. invasion in March 2003, a point often missed in the media's coverage of his death:
â€¦French counterterrorism officials said they found Mr. Zarqawi's handiwork in a Chechen-trained terrorist cell in the suburbs of Paris that was broken up in December 2002. Chemicals, bomb-making materials and a chemical weapons protection suit were found in the men's possession, together with elements for a remote control detonator.
Beginning in paragraph two, the same piece also notes:
[Zarqawi's] recruiting efforts, according to high-ranking Jordanian security officials interviewed Saturday, were threefold: He sought volunteers to fight in Iraq and others to become suicide bombers there, but he also recruited about 300 who went to Iraq for terrorist training and sent them back to their home countries, where they await orders to carry out strikes.
There have been scattered reports that Iraq had become a training ground, but Jordan's assessment was the first to offer firm numbers.
Of a range of intelligence experts in the United States, Europe and Jordan interviewed about Mr. Zarqawi's reach, only the Jordanians offered such detail.
Counterterrorism officials in the United States said that they, too, had seen a flow of terrorists into Iraq from other countries, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, seeking training under Mr. Zarqawi and his associates.
But they said that they believed the ''bleed out'' of people trained and sent home to await orders was probably significantly lower than 300.
Contrast that number to those who trained in al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan from the 1990s on before dispersing to dozens of other nations. Richard Clarke, a national security official in the Clinton and Bush administrations, told PBS's Frontline the following in March 2002:
I think the intelligence community, the FBI, were unanimous, certainly throughout the year 2000 into 2001, that there was in fact a very widespread Al Qaeda network around the world in probably between 50-60 countries -- that they had trained thousands, perhaps over 10,000 terrorists at the camps in Afghanistan; that we didn't really know who those people were.
Question: But didn't you push for military action after the Cole?
Clarke: Yes, that's one of the exceptions.
Question: How important is that exception?
I believe that, had we destroyed the terrorist camps in Afghanistan earlier, that the conveyor belt that was producing terrorists sending them out around the world would have been destroyed. So many, many trained and indoctrinated Al Qaeda terrorists, which now we have to hunt down country by country, many of them would not be trained and would not be indoctrinated, because there wouldn't have been a safe place to do it if we had destroyed the camps earlier.
While we don't know how many of these terrorists are now operating in Iraq or have been killed there, we do know that a large-scale terrorist "conveyor belt" was operating before the U.S. mounted a sustained and serious campaign against al Qaeda and well before coalition forces invaded Iraq. Perhaps someone will make all these points during the upcoming debate on Iraq in the House and Senate or the next time they are interviewed by Chris Matthews or Tim Russert on the Iraq "bleed out."