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Oct 19, 2005 | 23:59 GMT

6 mins read

The Al-Zawahiri Letter: Insights into the Jihadist Movement

A U.S. Humvee passes a billboard showing the portrait of al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Baghdad on Oct. 8, 2005, a day after U.S. officials said they seized a letter allegedly sent to al-Zarqawi by al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri, in which he raised concerns over the impact on Arab opinion of videotaped executions.
(SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images)

Editor's Note: This is the second report in a three-part analysis of the controversial Ayman al-Zawahiri letter.

Having discussed our reasons for believing the controversial letter from al Qaeda deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to Iraq's al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is authentic, we now turn to the contents of the letter — and its key insights into the jihadist movement. One of the central themes of the letter is al-Zawahiri's emphasis on taking a pragmatic approach — rather than stubborn adherence to ideology — to achieve al Qaeda's goals.

Although the jihadists likely have been stressing political expediency for some time now, the letter serves to confirm that al Qaeda is not as dogmatic as most observers tend to believe. Al Qaeda's position in Iraq parallels that of the United States in that both have been largely unable to consolidate their gains or accomplish their strategic goals. The jihadist leadership, then, might be emphasizing political means to achieve its objectives. The direct result of this is that al Qaeda, like all radical and militant organizations, eventually could become more moderate — relatively speaking of course.

We have on several occasions pointed out how al Qaeda is on the path of trying to emerge in the political realm — while not relinquishing its military capabilities. Al Qaeda was founded as a military network whose principal objective was the expulsion of U.S forces from the Arab/Muslim world and the liberation of Muslim territories from non-Muslim occupation. At the time, the founders might have understood that they eventually would need to work on building a political organization as well, but — given their poverty of thought and the understanding that they would have their hands full with the military side of the movement — they chose to postpone working on the political plane.

The timetable has been pushed up for two reasons: The Bush administration's global war against jihadism and the resulting destruction of al Qaeda's military capabilities, and the feeble response to the al Qaeda call from within the Muslim world. This is why we see al-Zawahiri's great emphasis on the development of a political infrastructure, and his concern that military attacks and strict adherence to religious ideals will not get the job done. These accelerated efforts also likely come as a result of the network's rude awakening to the fact that the bulk of the Muslim world is aligning with its competitors, the moderate Islamists who are trying to take advantage of the Bush administration's push for democracy.

This would explain why al-Zawahiri tells al-Zarqawi that their envisioned Islamic polity will not be established without the support of the people. "[By] establishing an Islamic emirate in Iraq, or a caliphate if possible, then, we will see that the strongest weapon the mujahideen enjoy … is popular support from the Muslim masses in Iraq and the surrounding Muslim countries," he says.

Al-Zawahiri goes on to caution that the jihadists must avoid any action the masses do not understand or approve of — as long as there are other options. In other words, al Qaeda obviously is feeling the pinch from the U.S. move to neutralize it from within by working with moderate Islamists and promoting a form of democracy that respects the Islamic ethos of the Muslims masses. In this section of the letter, al-Zawahiri treads a difficult path — he cannot be caught using Western democratic terminology, yet what he is saying amounts to the same thing.

Al-Zawahiri understands that al-Zarqawi is much more of a hard-liner in his views than the mainstream al Qaeda leadership and that his success in staging the majority of jihadist operations in the world has boosted his confidence. Al-Zawahiri must also be aware that the network's point man in Iraq recently rebuked his own mentor, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, for denouncing his practices. 

After agreeing that the Shia are a deviant sect who have sided with the enemies of Muslims throughout history, al-Zawahiri warns al-Zarqawi to refrain from killing them and attacking their religious sites.

Therefore, al-Zawahiri does not want to irk al-Zarqawi and push him toward rebelling against the network. He says, "You might ask an important question: What drives me to broach these matters while we are in the din of war and the challenges of killing and combat?" The answer, al-Zawahiri explains, is that events are unfolding rapidly and the jihadists cannot afford to fall behind. The establishment of an emirate "is the most vital part" of the jihadist struggle in Iraq, he says. Al-Zawahiri, speaking as a respected elder within the jihadist movement, also urges al-Zarqawi to learn from the previous jihadist mistakes with regards to governance and strict adherence to ideology. 

He specifically refers to the Taliban's failure to broaden their regime to include the various influential segments of Afghan society — which he says led to citizen disengagement from the regime. "Even devout ones took the stance of the spectator and, when the invasion came, the emirate collapsed in days, because the people were either passive or hostile," he says. Al Qaeda's deputy chief also urges al-Zarqawi to moderate his Wahhabi views in order to placate the non-Wahhabi Sunnis who make up the majority in Iraq and the larger Muslim world. In this regard, he presses al-Zarqawi not to alienate the religious scholars who may not share al Qaeda's positions. Most striking, however, is the huge risk al-Zawahiri takes in telling al-Zarqawi to go easy on Iraq's Shiite population — given al-Zarqawi's deep hatred of the Shia. 

After agreeing that the Shia are a deviant sect who have sided with the enemies of Muslims throughout history, al-Zawahiri warns al-Zarqawi to refrain from killing them and attacking their religious sites. Such acts, he says, contribute to a growing negative perception of him and his group, even within jihadist circles. "… why were there attacks on ordinary Shia?" he asks. "… can the mujahideen kill all of the Shia in Iraq? Has any Islamic state in history ever tried that? … And what loss will befall us if we did not attack the Shia?" He also reminds al-Zarqawi that his actions could have repercussions for the more than 100 jihadist prisoners in Iran, including many leaders. Even if attacking the Shia is necessary, he says, making public pronouncements on the matter will prompt Iran "to take countermeasures." 

Toward the end of letter, al-Zawahiri refers to the various publications he has written. This likely is meant to remind al-Zarqawi that he is a senior ideologue — one who is speaking not because he has lost hope but because he has made a comprehensive appraisal of Islam and the reality the two men face.

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