Editor's Note: This is the final report in a three-part analysis of the controversial Ayman al-Zawahiri letter.
The controversial letter from Ayman al-Zawahiri to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — which we believe is authentic despite certain apparent discrepancies — not only provides insights into the inner workings of the global jihadist movement, but also suggests that it is fast reaching an impasse. As a result, the bulk of the movement will either continue to seek guidance and leadership from Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri or it will attempt to assume a more political face. Should politics prevail, al-Zarqawi's proven ability to lead successful attacks will catapult him into a leadership role — and make him a rival to his current brothers-in-arms. It is too early to say which way the pendulum will swing, but one is thing is certain: The jihadist ranks have begun to fracture.
The U.S. war against jihadism, both its military and political components, is responsible for the jihadists' current situation — they realize that they cannot continue much longer on the path they have taken since before Sept. 11, 2001. Until the attacks, Western governments, especially the United States, viewed the jihadists as a low-intensity regional terrorist phenomenon that could be handled by law enforcement. Meanwhile, even as some governments in the Muslim world were colluding with jihadists because of their own foreign and domestic policy needs, the Muslim masses were ignoring them or, in some cases, flirting with them — not realizing that these transnational Islamist militants posed a security threat for Muslims as well. All of this allowed al Qaeda and its jihadist allies to flourish, while no outside factor required them to re-evaluate their course of action. Furthermore, their clear objectives and ability to move ahead with their plans created a general harmony within the ranks as regards their ideology, objectives and policies.
That situation no longer exists. Not only have the jihadists suffered physical losses in terms of men, money and infrastructure, they have also been challenged at the intellectual and ideological level — even from within. Like any political actor faced with both external and internal threats, they are being forced to deal with issues of credibility, relevance and the survivability of their organization and its cause. Subjected to a rude awakening, the Muslim world also is taking stock — albeit gradually — of the problems the jihadists have created. The Muslim masses, which never supported the jihadists even before Sept. 11, are now less and less willing to ignore them or try to use them to their advantage.
Not only have the jihadists suffered physical losses in terms of men, money and infrastructure, they have also been challenged at the intellectual and ideological level — even from within.
Meanwhile, moderate Muslims have started coming to the fore, shrinking the jihadists' potential pool of support. This has caused al Qaeda to take a hard look at its ideology as well as its methods — and to realize that it is way behind the curve when it comes to politics. In other words, the leadership understands that the network's military accomplishments have not translated into political support from the masses — even though they are desperately trying to pull Muslim public opinion toward their cause.
The mainstream Muslim world, however, has become far too nuanced to accept their manifesto. This is why we see al-Zawahiri, in his letter, trying to convince al-Zarqawi of the need for a more savvy political approach rather than the sole reliance on attacks. He is saying that, if al Qaeda is to become a competitive player, it needs to gain popular support, tolerate the Shiite, use the ideology card judiciously and understand that the bulk of Muslims (especially the ulema) do not share the Wahhabi ideology. Al-Zawahiri also urges al-Zarqawi to moderate his Wahhabi views in order to placate the non-Wahhabi Sunni majority in Iraq and the larger Muslim world. In this regard, he urges al-Zarqawi against alienating the religious scholars who may not share al Qaeda's doctrinal and juristic positions. Al-Zawahiri points to the example of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, saying that he has been a steadfast supporter of the cause despite his "Hanafi adherence, Matridi doctrine." He also reminds al-Zarqawi of the fate of the lone Wahhabi/Salafi Afghan group that fought the Soviets in the late 1980s, and its leader, Jamil-ur-Rehman, who sought to establish his emirate based on strict Wahhabi ideas in Afghanistan's Kunar province. In the end, stronger non-Wahhabi Afghan Islamist forces killed Jamil-ur-Rehman — and his organization crumbled. He also urges al-Zarqawi against appearing the cruel terrorist by carrying out and broadcasting hostage executions. "Among the things which the feelings of the Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable . . . are the scenes of slaughtering the hostages," he writes. "You shouldn't be deceived by the praise of some of the zealous young men and their description of you as the sheikh of the slaughterers, etc. They do not express the general view of the admirer and the supporter of the resistance in Iraq, and of you in particular."
Al-Zawahiri also tries to dissuade al-Zarqawi from interpreting too literally the Koran verses that ask Muslims to strike terror in the hearts of non-Muslims. He then refers to the death of his wife and daughter in the battle of Tora Bora as "American brutality." This is an attempt to pre-empt any misconception on al-Zarqawi's part that the jihadist leadership has gone soft, and also to point out that he has suffered personally. Quickly he turns to a discussion of the importance of good public relations, reminding al-Zarqawi that "more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media . . . we are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our ummah" (global Muslim nation). He also acknowledges the asymmetry in public relations capabilities between the jihadists and those they battle. Al-Zawahiri says, ". . . however far our capabilities reach, they will never be equal to one-thousandth of the capabilities of the kingdom of Satan that is waging war on us." And realizing that Muslims primarily identify with a nation-state — as opposed to the notion of an Islamic ummah — al-Zawahiri carefully tries to get the Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi to accept that it would be better for an Iraqi to serve as a figurehead and for al-Zarqawi to control his movement from behind the scenes. He warns that "the assumption of leadership for the mujahideen … by non-Iraqis" could "stir up sensitivity for some people," and he asks al-Zarqawi to consider how that sensitivity might be overcome "while preserving the commitment of the jihadist work and without exposing it to any shocks."
The letter suggests that al-Zawahiri wishes for continued U.S. actions against Muslims — which would sustain the anti-American sentiment within the Muslim world and thus allow the jihadists to be seen as the only force "defending" the Muslims. In this way, he believes, the jihadists can try to regain lost ground. He also expresses surprise that secular nationalist forces have begun to view the occupation of Iraq as troublesome and are beginning to feel the need for action against the U.S. military.
Above all, the al-Zawahiri letter is an acknowledgment of significant internal stress within the jihadist movement and the need to re-evaluate the gravity of the situation with an eye toward taking a more rational approach to ideology, objectives and policies. The movement, then, is set to splinter — and some within it could even take more moderate stances (as many of the Gamaa al-Islamiyah jihadists of Egypt did in the late 1990s and early 2000s). Depending on how the United States executes its war on terrorism, the changes to come eventually could take the sting out of the jihadist threat.