During the summer, American forces in Iraq intercepted a long letter from al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s number two leader, to Zarqawi, leader of al Qaeda’s forces in Iraq. Initially, only a few sentences were made public. Zawahiri’s letter has now been verified as authentic and translated in full; the New York Times publishes the translation, with an article by Douglas Jehl. The letter is intensely interesting in several ways, but the Times’ commentary is not. Jehl opens his discussion by saying:
In it, Mr. Zawahiri told Mr. Zarqawi that the American occupation of Iraq had provided Islamic militants with a historic opportunity to win popular support.
That is, of course, consistent with the Times’ view of the Iraq war, but it is an absurd reading of Zawahiri’s letter. You’ll notice that Jehl doesn’t provide a quotation from the letter to support his interpretation. In fact, Zawahiri is evidently worried about how al Qaeda is doing in Iraq. His main purpose in writing the letter was to dissuade Zarqawi from the mass murder of Shia, and from releasing videos of beheadings. Zawahiri wrote:
[M]any of your Muslim admirers amongst the common folk are wondering about your attacks on the Shia. The sharpness of this questioning increases when the attacks are on one of their mosques… My opinion is that this matter won’t be acceptable to the Muslim populace however much you have tried to explain it, and aversion to this will continue.
And if the attacks on Shia leaders were necessary to put a stop to their plans, then why were there attacks on ordinary Shia? Won’t this lead to reinforcing false ideas in their minds, even as it is incumbent on us to preach the call of Islam to them and explain and communicate to guide them to the truth? And can the mujahedeen kill all of the Shia in Iraq? Has any Islamic state in history ever tried that?
There is much more along these lines. And here is Zawahiri on the subject of videotaped beheadings:
Among the things which the feelings of the Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable -also- are the scenes of slaughtering the hostages. You shouldn’t be deceived by the praise of some of the zealous young men and their description of you as the shaykh 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 by the favor and blessing of God.
Zawahiri is acutely aware of the public relations aspect of jihad. I don’t find it surprising that the Times chose not to emphasize this quote:
However, despite all of this, I say to you: that we are in a battle, and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media …. And we can kill the captives by bullet. That would achieve that which is sought after without exposing ourselves to the questions and answering to doubts. We don’t need this.
Reading Zawahiri’s letter is almost enough to make you feel sorry for him. He is like an old Bolshevik, wringing his hands over the murderous policies of his Stalinist progeny. Zawahiri was once a doctor, and is a relatively cultured and learned man. Zarqawi was a Jordanian street thug and is now a sadistic mass murderer. One can easily imagine how little effect Zawahiri’s remorse will have on the bloodthirsty leader of the Iraqi “insurgency.”
Zawahiri’s letter is far from being a celebration of the opportunity created by the American invasion of Iraq, as the Times implies. Instead, it is replete with evidence of al Qaeda’s tenuous grip on survival. For example:
My dear brother, we are following your news, despite the difficulty and hardship… I made sure in my last speech-that Aljazeera broadcast Saturday, 18 June 2005-to mention you, send you greetings, and show support and thanks for the heroic acts you are performing in defense of Islam and the Muslims, but I do not know what Aljazeera broadcast. Did this part appear or not?
Likewise, I showed my support for your noble initiative to join with your brothers, during a prior speech I sent to the brothers a number of months ago, but the brothers’ circumstances prevented its publication.
I want to reassure you about our situation. The summer started hot with operations escalating in Afghanistan. The enemy struck a blow against us with the arrest of Abu al-Faraj, may God break his bonds. However, no Arab brother was arrested because of him. The brothers tried-and were successful to a great degree-to contain the fall of Abu al-Faraj as much as they could.
However, the real danger comes from the agent Pakistani army that is carrying out operations in the tribal areas looking for mujahedeen.
I have a definite desire to travel to you but I do not know whether that is possible from the standpoint of traveling and getting settled, so please let me know.
Please take every caution in the meetings, especially when someone claims to carry an important letter or contributions. It was in this way that they arrested Khalid Sheikh.
Likewise, please, if you want to meet one of your assistants, I hope that you don’t meet him in a public place or in a place that is not known to you. I hope that you would meet him in a secure place, not the place of your residence. Because Abu al-Faraj – may God set him free and release him from his torment – was lured by one of his brothers, who had been taken into custody, to meet him at a public location where a trap had been set.
The brothers informed me that you suggested to them sending some assistance. Our situation since Abu al-Faraj is good by the grace of God, but many of the lines have been cut off. Because of this, we need a payment while new lines are being opened. So, if you’re capable of sending a payment of approximately one hundred thousand, we’ll be very grateful to you.
I don’t know if you all have contact with Abu Rasmi? Even if it is via the Internet, because I gave him a copy of my book (A Knight under the banner of the Prophet) so he could attempt to publish it, and I lost the original. Al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper published it truncated and jumbled. I think that the American intelligence services provided the aforementioned newspaper with it from my computer which they acquired, because the publication of the book coincided with a publication of messages from my computer in the same newspaper. So if you can contact him and get the original of the book, if that is possible for you all, then you can publish it on your blessed website and then send a copy to us, if that is possible.
This is not, to put it mildly, the picture of a successful organization. But it is an organization with a strategy. Zawahiri lays it out:
The first stage: Expel the Americans from Iraq.
The third stage: Extend the jihad wave to the secular countries neighboring Iraq.
The fourth stage: It may coincide with what came before: the clash with Israel, because Israel was established only to challenge any new Islamic entity.
It’s not hard to see how liberals’ calls for withdrawal from Iraq dovetail with al Qaeda’s strategy. Still, in view of the terrorists’ weakness as outlined above, you might wonder why Zawahiri is so presumptuous as to anticipate the “expulsion” of the Americans from Iraq. Zawahiri explains:
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?
My answer is, firstly: Things may develop faster than we imagine. The aftermath of the collapse of American power in Vietnam-and how they ran and left their agents-is noteworthy.
Well, it must be noteworthy. It’s all the liberal Democrats and their friends in the media can talk about. No wonder Zawahiri finds the Vietnam precedent encouraging.
One thing I have read before, but not fully appreciated, is how Sunni-dominated al Qaeda is, and how the organization views Shia as borderline infidels. But Zawahiri makes this clear:
The collision between any state based on the model of prophecy with the Shia is a matter that will happen sooner or later. This is the judgment of history, and these are the fruits to be expected from the rejectionist Shia sect and their opinion of the Sunnis. These are clear, well-known matters to anyone with a knowledge of history, the ideologies, and the politics of states.
No wonder al Qaeda has made so little progress among the Iraqis, most of whom are Shia. As is Iran; Zawahiri’s letter includes this extremely interesting information:
And do the brothers forget that we have more than one hundred prisoners – many of whom are from the leadership who are wanted in their countries – in the custody of the Iranians? And even if we attack the Shia out of necessity, then why do you announce this matter and make it public, which compels the Iranians to take counter measures?
Zawahiri’s letter is a valuable document. It lays out al Qaeda’s strategy for victory in Iraq and the world. It demonstrates al Qaeda’s growing unpopularity, its weakness and its vulnerability to American intelligence. And it protests feebly against al Qaeda’s descent into unalloyed nihilism and sadism–the ultimate destination of all totalitarian creeds. The Times says that it doesn’t know whether Zarqawi received Zawahiri’s letter or not, but it doesn’t matter. If Zarqawi got it–or if he read it in the newspaper–he tossed it into the wastebasket.
UPDATE: Austin Bay comments here.
MORE: The full text of the letter is also available in both English and Arabic, along with commentary on its significance, on Centcom’s web site.