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Who's next?

By Henry Schuster

Editor's note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit and author of "Hunting Eric Rudolph," has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism, and efforts to combat them.
By the time he released his propaganda video, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was known around the world.


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Abu Musab al-Zarqawi
Osama Bin Laden
Acts of terror

(CNN) -- The first time I heard Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's name was in early 2002.

I don't think anyone at the time could have predicted how he was about to kill his way to notoriety.

I was in Amman, Jordan, with a colleague, and an intelligence official suggested we start paying attention to al-Zarqawi. He explained how al-Zarqawi had been tried for a plot to blow up Jordanian hotels on the eve of the millennium.

By the time U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell mentioned al-Zarqawi's name before the United Nations in February 2003, claiming that he was the link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, we were very much on the story.

Nothing that we heard about al-Zarqawi suggested any direct links to the Saddam Hussein regime. And while he had spent time in Afghanistan, details of his relationship with al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden were murky.

Hunting al-Zarqawi

Then al-Zarqawi seemed to explode into public consciousness. He became public enemy No. 1 in Iraq sometime after the 2003 bombings of the U.N. compound and Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad.

There were so many rumors: Did he really have a false leg as a result of a wound suffered in Afghanistan? (No, as it turned out.) Was he Palestinian? (No, again.)

My colleague Nic Robertson and I tried to follow al-Zarqawi's trail.

He still seemed to have support in Zarqa, Jordan, the home of his family and the town from which he derived his name.

In Amman, we walked through the bombed out hotel ballrooms where his suicide bombers had slaughtered 60 people in November 2005.

In other towns in Jordan we talked to his friends and his enemies.

On the Internet, we saw al-Zarqawi lay out his bloody vision of sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq, and finally saw him show his face in a breathtakingly egotistical video just a few weeks ago.

We were always trying to figure out how a troubled young Jordanian evolved into an uncompromising terrorist who apparently beheaded an American hostage and put the videotape on the Internet.

In al-Zarqawi's mind, perhaps, it all made sense. Not to me.

There were missed chances to catch him, but even al-Zarqawi seemed to know his death or capture was only a matter of time.

"Eyes are everywhere," he wrote to bin Laden. Perhaps that's why he kept his face hidden for so long, until that April videotape.

About three weeks ago, before I left for Afghanistan, I updated al-Zarqawi's obituary. It's just one of those things you do, in case he was captured or killed.

It might have been wishful thinking at the time, but now his death is a reality.

One down

It doesn't take long for the question to be begged: If you can catch al-Zarqawi why can't you catch bin Laden or his top lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri?

start quoteIf we happen to run across a leader or someone high up in [the Taliban or al Qaeda], we will attempt to capture or kill them, but that is not our principal focus.end quote
-- U.S. Col. John Nicholson

The only time bin Laden's name came up in Afghanistan over the past couple of weeks was when we asked. Especially with the U.S. military.

"It's not about any one man," Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry told us. However, he added that the 23,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, as well as the CIA and other intelligence agencies there, had "an obligation to one day either kill or capture bin Laden."

Col. John Nicholson, who commands along the Pakistan border in the east, also made it clear that his troops were less concerned with finding bin Laden than routing out the Taliban and any al Qaeda fighters who came their way.

"We are focused on killing or capturing al Qaeda wherever we find it," Nicholson said. "As far as if we happen to run across a leader or someone high up in their hierarchy, we will attempt to capture or kill them, but that is not our principal focus."

Neither officer said they had any evidence that bin Laden or al-Zawahiri was in Afghanistan. Instead, the working theory continues to be that both men are across the border in Pakistan.

That border is in many ways more hypothetical than real, particularly to the tribes that live on both sides, Nicholson said.

By way of example, a young lieutenant recounted a recent firefight with insurgents. It began when a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at his car. It ended with the insurgents making their escape back across the Pakistan border just a few hundred yards away.

Americans, on the other hand, can't easily or often cross the border. The United States in January sent a missile into Pakistan, striking a house where al-Zawahiri was thought to be. The result was different than that of the attack on al-Zarqawi.

Instead of a victory news conference, replete with high-tech footage, we got video of corpses and bewildered villagers.

There are all sorts of other reasons why getting bin Laden has been harder to get than al-Zarqawi: he's less active, he's in a presumably much more remote location, and the United States doesn't have the ability to strike in Pakistan that it does in Iraq.

But the question remains: Now that al-Zarqawi is dead, will either bin Laden or al-Zawahiri be next?

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