WASHINGTON Â— U.S. officials said Monday that they had obtained a message in which Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden urged the terrorist network’s chief operative in Iraq to consider mounting attacks on targets inside the United States.
The message contained no information pointing to specific plots in the United States, officials said.
But intelligence officials see the communication as a fresh indication that the Al Qaeda chief is determined to strike domestic targets and sees an expanding role for Abu Musab Zarqawi, the leader of an insurgent network suspected in suicide bombings and beheadings in Iraq.
In the message, Bin Laden “asks Zarqawi to consider getting himself involved in attacks on the United States Â— not U.S. interests, but the United States,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “There are no specifics, no concrete plans.”
An official with the Department of Homeland Security said the agency had no immediate plan to raise the nation’s threat level, currently set at yellow, or “elevated.”
But the official said that the department had sent a classified nationwide bulletin to security officials over the weekend, calling their attention to “recent credible but nonspecific threat information that the U.S. government has received.”
Analysts at the CIA and other agencies are said to be intrigued by the nature of Bin Laden’s request, in part because it suggests that he and Zarqawi may have different priorities.
The Jordanian-born Zarqawi has focused his efforts in the Middle East, urging Muslims to join the insurgency in Iraq and expel American forces from the region, while Bin Laden has advocated targeting facilities inside the United States.
The message suggests that Bin Laden may be trying to redirect Zarqawi or expand his list of assignments even as Zarqawi directs insurgents in Iraq and seeks to escape capture.
“It’s kind of curious that [Bin Laden] should reach out to Zarqawi for this kind of task because he does have his hands full,” the U.S. official said.
Intelligence officials declined to provide details on the nature of the communication or how it was obtained Â— whether it was an intercepted call, a message being delivered by courier or an e-mail found among the files on computers used by insurgents who have recently been captured in Iraq.
Bin Laden is known to have avoided communicating by cellular or satellite phone since shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, when it was disclosed in news reports that his conversations had been intercepted by U.S. eavesdropping equipment.
Early last year, American authorities intercepted a 17-page memo believed to have been written by Zarqawi that asked Bin Laden to support efforts by insurgents to mount a “sectarian war” in Iraq and drive out the U.S. military.
The memo was found on a computer disc being carried by a suspected courier for Al Qaeda.
In October, Zarqawi’s network “pledged allegiance” to Bin Laden in an announcement posted on the Internet.
That statement was seen by intelligence officials as cementing what had been a more informal affiliation between Zarqawi’s group and Al Qaeda.
Last week, the Iraqi government said that it had captured a key aide to Zarqawi, part of a string of recent arrests of alleged Zarqawi lieutenants that prompted Iraqi officials to express growing confidence that they would capture or kill the militant leader.