TWO WEEKS AFTER intelligence officials confirmed that Osama bin Laden had sent a message to Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, urging him to plan attacks on U.S. soil, details are emerging from one of al-Zarqawi's lieutenants about what the man behind many of the terrorist attacks in Iraq could have in mind. Intelligence officials tell TIME that interrogation of a member of al-Zarqawi's organization, who was taken into U.S. custody last year and has been described as a top aide, indicates that al-Zarqawi has given ample consideration to assaults on the American homeland. According to a restricted bulletin that circulated among U.S. security agencies last week, the interrogated aide said al-Zarqawi has talked about hitting "soft targets" in the U.S., which could include "movie theaters, restaurants and schools."
The bulletin also notes the Iraq-based master terrorist's apparent belief that "if an individual has enough money, he can bribe his way into the U.S.," specifically by obtaining a "visa to Honduras" and then traveling across Mexico and the southern U.S. border. Al-Zarqawi's aide also revealed that his boss, after pondering the absence of attacks in the U.S. in recent years, concluded that a lack of "willing martyrs" was to blame. Al-Zarqawi believes, according to his lieutenant, that "if an individual is willing to die, there was nothing that could be done to stop him," even in the U.S.
There is no evidence, say intelligence agencies, that al-Zarqawi's agents have infiltrated the U.S. But authorities remain vigilant. Security sources tell TIME that just last week the FBI sent out two nationwide bulletins warning of a nonspecific threat to railroads in Detroit and Los Angeles. On her visit to Mexico last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice issued her own reminder of the border's vulnerability. "There's no secret," Rice told reporters, "that al-Qaeda will try to get into this country ... by any means they possibly can." --By Adam Zagorin, Timothy J. Burger and Brian Bennett