The Case for the Al-Zawahiri Letter

8 MINS READOct 18, 2005 | 23:57 GMT
Editor's Note: This is the first report in a three-part analysis of the controversial Ayman al-Zawahiri letter. The letter purportedly written by deputy al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to Iraq's al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has been met with a great deal of suspicion. Skeptics assume the U.S. military faked the letter as part of a psychological operation aimed at weakening the jihadists in Iraq and creating confusion within the entire global jihadist network. Having assumed the letter is a fake, the skeptics have then proceeded to examine its contents with an eye on confirming that belief. A statement posted Oct. 13 on the Internet in which al-Zarqawi calls the correspondence a U.S. fabrication has served to increase those suspicions. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that the letter was indeed doctored as part of a U.S. military psyops. A close, careful and detailed scrutiny of the full text of the letter released by the Pentagon in both Arabic and an English translation, however, leads us to believe it is genuine. The references to events as well as its nuances, style and language make it nearly impossible for it to have been fabricated. Certainly, the various historical events mentioned in the letter are a matter of record that anyone could have obtained. Only an insider to the phenomenon of radical and militant Islamism, however, could have weaved them into such a detailed narrative as this. That said, it also is highly likely that the letter as released is not the real version, but one that has additions and/or deletions. Even if that is the case, however, it still means that al-Zawahiri sent a real letter to al-Zarqawi. Regarding the matter of al Qaeda rejecting it as a fake, this comes from its Iraqi branch led by al-Zarqawi, who likely never received the letter — which would explain why he is calling it a fake. The U.S. military did not actually intercept the letter, but rather obtained it from the home of the recently killed Abu Azzam al-Iraqi, a senior aide to al-Zarqawi who might not have had the chance to deliver it to al-Zarqawi. One of the most confusing aspects of the July 9 letter, which has exacerbated the debate regarding its authenticity, is the passage at the end in which al-Zawahiri states: "My greetings to all the loved ones and please give me news of Karem and the rest of the folks I know. And especially, by God, if by chance you're going to [Al] Falluja[h], send greetings to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi." If this letter is addressed to al-Zarqawi, the skeptics ask, why is al-Zawahiri asking the reader to send greetings to al-Zarqawi? This is not necessarily a paradox. In fact, al-Zawahiri likely sent the letter to an intermediary who would have been charged with relaying it to al-Zarqawi. With al-Zarqawi on the run now more than ever — given the U.S. military's complete focus on the jihadist component of the Iraqi insurgency — that would have been no small feat. The section of the letter in which al-Zawahiri seeks financial assistance from al-Zarqawi also seems odd, not just intuitively but also because of certain empirical facts. Read carefully in this regard, however, it is not as if al-Zawahiri is saying that al Qaeda prime's finances have gone dry and that it is now dependent upon its newly inducted Iraqi branch for sustenance. On the contrary, al-Zawahiri is asking for is temporary loan of sorts until the al Qaeda leadership is able to re-establish links with its financiers, which have been severed with the arrest of al Qaeda operational commander in Pakistan, Abu Farj al-Libi. To further the argument that the letter is a fake, critics also have cited al-Zawahiri's mention of al-Libi's capture and his acknowledgement that Pakistani intelligence and security forces are hunting down the network's leaders. Why, they ask, would al-Zawahiri discuss such sensitive matters? From our point of view, however, it is not surprising to see such internal communication between two nodes of al Qaeda, especially because the facts are publicly known and post facto. One commentator pointed out another "discrepancy," the fact that the letter was signed Abu Muhammad. It is well known that Arabs, when speaking among themselves, commonly refer to one another as father of so and so and son of so and so. In fact, it is not even necessary that the relationship be real; rather the reference could also be allegorical. Also, al Qaeda militants and other radical Islamists have long used noms de guerre to hide their true identities. Some also point to the pessimistic tone of the letter, citing the allusion to al Qaeda's imminent defeat in Afghanistan. This is the result of an improper reading of the letter. Al-Zawahiri actually is saying that the current year has brought a revival of attacks in the country. The only negative remark he makes about Afghanistan and the Taliban is from the past. Suspicions also have been raised because the U.S. military has not been clear on how it intercepted the letter — but when does any security or intelligence agency reveal its modus operandi to the public, especially at a time of war? Additionally, some have raised questions as to why al Qaeda leaders would discuss matters in great detail that are common knowledge among jihadists. They forget that even among jihadists there is a great deal of difference of opinion on many matters — especially between al Qaeda prime and al-Zarqawi's group, which just recently joined the al-Qaeda network. Another matter is the point that al-Zarqawi was not part of al Qaeda when he was in Afghanistan. How, it is asked, could al-Zawahiri refer to a time when the two were together back then? The answer to that question likely can be found in the video footage that shows al-Zarqawi with leaders of Afghan and Arab factions fighting the Soviets. It is extremely likely that two would have met during those years. Another analysis of the letter has pointed to the religious salutation in the letter, calling it Shiite, as opposed to a Sunni salutation or hard-line Wahhabi for that matter. This is not a Shiite salutation, as Muslims — irrespective of denomination — recite blessings upon Mohammed's family several times in each of their five daily prayers and as part of other rituals as well. Moreover, referring to Mohammed in that way is not a strictly South Asian Sunni phenomenon. Yet another claim is that the letter was written by a Shia — most likely by an Iraqi Shiite group or Iranian intelligence — because al-Zawahiri refers to the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad in the way Shia refer to him. However, referring to Hussain bin Ali as "Imam" is not a Shiite-patented term; even Sunnis use it. This is a common mistake among those who focus on Sunni (especially Wahhabi) opposition to the Shia — and assume that Sunnis would not employ language that is more commonly used by the Shia. The letter's suggestion that it might be better for an Iraqi to lead the insurgency also is seen as problematic by those who say al Qaeda ideology is ummatic — based on a supranational bond between Muslims irrespective of nationality. This also is a weak argument because al Qaeda is no exception to the notion that pragmatism trumps ideology when faced with adverse geopolitical realities. In fact, most of the arguments against the letter's validity focus on what Wahhabis and jihadists would or would not say. They overlook the fact that al Qaeda did not come this far by ignoring concerns of political expediency. It is quite possible that the discrepancies in the contents of the letter are the normal result of translation and analysis by the Pentagon — or even that it has been doctored. In either case, that is not the same as fabricating the letter, which — given U.S. military and intelligence unfamiliarity with the intricacies of the jihadist phenomenon — would have been impossible. In fact, if such insight did exist, there would be no global jihadist threat to begin with.

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