Al Qaeda also moved swiftly to develop a capability in Iraq, where it had little or no presence before 9/11. (The 9/11 Commission found no credible evidence of any operational connection between al Qaeda and Iraq before the attacks, and the infamous report connecting the 9/11 mastermind Mohamed Atta with Iraqi intelligence officers in Prague has been discredited.) On February 11, 2003, bin Laden sent a letter to the Iraqi people, broadcast via the satellite network al Jazeera, warning them to prepare for the "Crusaders' war to occupy one of Islam's former capitals, loot Muslim riches, and install a stooge regime to follow its masters in Washington and Tel Aviv to pave the way for the establishment of Greater Israel." He advised Iraqis to prepare for a long struggle against invading forces and engage in "urban and street warfare" and emphasized "the importance of martyrdom operations which have inflicted unprecedented harm on America and Israel." He even encouraged the jihadists in Iraq to work with "the socialist infidels" -- the Baathists -- in a "convergence of interests."Although they had little if any presence in Iraq before the war al Qaeda began to prepare for the invasion before it started. The result is they have been very successful and more importantly this has strengthened al Qaeda's hand through out the world.
Thousands of Arab volunteers, many of them inspired by bin Laden's words, went to Iraq in the run-up to the U.S. invasion. Some joined the fledgling network created by the longtime bin Laden associate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who had fled Afghanistan and come to Iraq sometime in 2002 to begin preparations against the invasion. (Zarqawi had been a partner in al Qaeda's millennium plot to blow up the Radisson Hotel and other targets in Amman, Jordan, in December 2000. Later, in Herat, Afghanistan, he ran operations complementary to al Qaeda's.) Zarqawi's network killed an officer of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Laurence Foley, in Amman on October 28, 2002 -- the first anti-American operation connected to the invasion.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq took the pressure off al Qaeda in the Pakistani badlands and opened new doors for the group in the Middle East. It also played directly into the hands of al Qaeda leaders by seemingly confirming their claim that the United States was an imperialist force, which helped them reinforce various local alliances. In Iraq, Zarqawi adopted a two-pronged strategy to alienate U.S. allies and destabilize the country. He sought to isolate U.S. forces by driving out all other foreign forces with systematic terrorist attacks, most notably the bombings of the United Nations headquarters and the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad in the summer of 2003. More important, he focused on the fault line in Iraqi society -- the divide between Sunnis and Shiites -- with the goal of precipitating a civil war. He launched a series of attacks on the Shiite leadership, holy Shiite sites, and Shiite men and women on the street. He organized the assassination of the senior leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, in the summer of 2003, and the bombings of Shiite shrines in Najaf and Baghdad in March 2004 and in Najaf and Karbala in December 2004. Even by the ruthless standards of al Qaeda, Zarqawi excelled.
Zarqawi's strategy did prompt criticism from other jihadi groups and some second-guessing within al Qaeda, but it nevertheless succeeded brilliantly. In a letter to Zarqawi dated July 9, 2005, Zawahiri questioned the wisdom of igniting Sunni-Shiite hatred in the Muslim world, and Zarqawi became known within the movement as al Gharib (the Stranger) because of his extreme views. Still, he pressed ahead, and the al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan never challenged him publicly. Although he led only a small percentage of the Sunni militants in Iraq, Zarqawi was at the cutting edge of the insurgency, the engine of the civil war. By late 2004, he had formally proclaimed his allegiance to bin Laden, and bin Laden had anointed him "the prince of al Qaeda in Iraq."
The visible success of its partners in Iraq has strengthened the hand of al Qaeda and its allies, old and new, in Pakistan. With the help of tactical advice and, probably, funds from al Qaeda, the Taliban had already regrouped by 2004. In 2005, bin Laden appeared in a Taliban video advising its commanders. By 2006, the Taliban had recovered sufficiently to launch a major offensive in Afghanistan and even attempted to retake Kandahar. New tactics imported from Iraq, such as suicide bombings and the use of improvised explosive devices, became commonplace in Afghanistan. Taliban attacks rose from 1,632 in 2005 to 5,388 in 2006, according to the U.S. military, and suicide operations grew from 27 in 2005 to 139 in 2006. NATO troops held on to the major towns and cities but suffered significant losses, including over 90 dead.
Al Qaeda has also developed closer ties to Kashmiri terrorist groups, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad. Some of those links predated 9/11. In late 1999, for example, bin Laden (as well as Taliban forces and Pakistani intelligence agents) was intimately involved in the hijacking of an Indian airliner by Kashmiri terrorists -- an operation that then Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh has since correctly described as the "dress rehearsal" for 9/11. Al Qaeda and Kashmiri groups have continued their deadly cooperation: the spectacular multiple bombings that rocked Mumbai last July had the marks of al Qaeda's modus operandi, and Indian authorities have linked them to al Qaeda's allies in Kashmir.