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The Irrelevance of an Oath

Zarqawi and bin Laden are brothers in arms.

8:45 AM, Jul 21, 2005 • By DAN DARLING
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"You, gracious brothers, are the leaders, guides, and symbolic figures of jihad and battle. We do not see ourselves as fit to challenge you, and we have never striven to achieve glory for ourselves. All that we hope is that we will be the spearhead, the enabling vanguard, and the bridge on which the [Islamic] nation crosses over to the victory that is promised and the tomorrow to which we aspire. This is our vision, and we have explained it. This is our path, and we have made it clear. If you agree with us on it, if you adopt it as a program and road, and if you are convinced of the idea of fighting the sects of apostasy, we will be your readied soldiers, working under your banner,complying with your orders, and indeed swearing fealty to you publicly and in the news media, vexing the infidels and gladdening those who preach the oneness of God. On that day, the believers will rejoice in God's victory. If things appear otherwise to you, we are brothers, and the disagreement will not spoil [our] friendship. [This is] a cause [in which] we are cooperating for the good and supporting jihad. Awaiting your response, may God preserve you as keys to good and reserves for Islam and its people."

--Letter from Abu Musab Zarqawi to the al Qaeda leadership, circa January 2004

EVER SINCE HIS INTERNATIONAL DEBUT in October 2002, the origins of Abu Musab Zarqawi and the nature of his ties to Osama bin Laden have been shrouded in controversy. The U.S. Rewards for Justice profile of the man describes him as having "had a long-standing connection to the senior al Qaeda leadership" and states that he is "a close associate of Usama bin Laden and Saif Al-Adel," the latter being the terror network's current military chief. A number of European officials and anonymous individuals within the U.S. intelligence community disagree with this characterization however, with a senior counterterrorism official in the U.S. intelligence community having recently told the Washington Post that "Zarqawi may be a partner [of bin Laden] or a competitor, but it is not like they are close and in a binding relationship."

Claims by intelligence analysts, counterterrorism officials, and diplomats that Zarqawi existed separately or in opposition to Osama bin Laden proliferated widely (and were made mostly anonymously) following the February 2004 publicizing of Zarqawi's letter to the al Qaeda leadership--in which he requested their assistance in launching a sectarian war between Iraq's Shiite and Sunni populations. The New York Times reported, citing US intelligence sources, that al Qaeda members operating outside of Iraq had refrained from endorsing Zarqawi's sectarian views, a sign that many observers took as clear indication of the differences between the two.

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has even appeared to lend support to this view from time to time, replying in an answer to a question at the Council on Foreign Relations in October 2004 by saying ". . . My impression is most of the senior people [in al Qaeda] have actually sworn an oath to Osama bin Laden, and even, to my knowledge, even as of this late date, I don't believe Zarqawi, the principal leader of the network in Iraq, has sworn an oath, even though what they're doing--I mean, they're just two peas in a pod in terms of what they're doing."

To many, these remarks seemed to represent an admission of error, at best, since it was Zarqawi, whom Collin Powell described to the United Nations Security Council as "an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda lieutenants," whose presence in Baghdad prior to the war formed among the strongest elements of the administration's claims of ties between Iraq and al Qaeda. If Zarqawi was not an al Qaeda member, wouldn't Powell's warnings about a convergence of threats between Iraq and al Qaeda fall flat?

NOT QUITE. Many of the administration's detractors tend to forget that it was not Powell who first labeled Zarqawi as al Qaeda, but rather Hans-Josef Beth, the head of the Germany's International Terrorism Department of the Security Service (BND). Beth stated that Zarqawi was an al Qaeda leader who "has experience with poisonous chemicals and biological weapons" during a meeting of the German-Atlantic Society in Berlin during the fall of 2002, long before Powell's appearance at the U.N.