The Blog

The al-Zawahiri Letter

A window into the mind of the enemy.

7:20 PM, Oct 12, 2005 • By DAN DARLING
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

THE FULL TEXT of the just-released letter from al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri to Iraqi insurgent leader Abu Musab Zarqawi, dated July 9, 2005, makes it clear that not only are al-Zawahiri and bin Laden symbolic leaders to the global jihad, but they are still active in running their terror network, too.

The letter includes references to the fighting in Afghanistan, a peripheral acknowledgement of ongoing al Qaeda-backed insurgencies in Chechnya and Kashmir, and a discussion of the steps the network was forced to take to ensure the security of its senior leaders following the capture of senior al Qaeda leader Abu Faraj al-Libbi ("No Arab brother [Arab al Qaeda leader] was arrested because of him . . . the brothers tried--and were successful--to contain the fall of Abu al-Faraj as much as they could"). And the fact that al-Zawahiri now seeks information from Zarqawi is proof enough that he is not content to watch from the sidelines in Iraq: at several points he laments the fact that his current security arrangements prevent him from journeying to Iraq to take part in the jihad.

The letter does not suggest a man cut off from outside information ("More than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media," he notes), but rather an opponent who is intelligent enough not to believe his own propaganda (or the view of Iraq brought to him by the international media). Instead, he earnestly seeks a candid assessment of the situation on the ground from Zarqawi, so that he can better advise him and the rest of the network on how to proceed.

Far more interesting than what al-Zawahiri reveals about his status, however, is what he reveals about al Qaeda with regard to its organization, ideology, and grand strategy. For instance, despite numerous press reports claiming some kind of animosity or rivalry between Zarqawi and the rest of the al Qaeda leadership, there is no trace of it, even in the past-tense, in al-Zawahiri's letter. All of al-Zawahiri's criticisms towards Zarqawi are phrased in a respectful and constructive manner--even his request for money is in reply to an earlier offer of assistance from Zarqawi to those he sees as his commanders.

Another point certain to pique interest is al-Zawahiri's opinion of the Iraqi Baathists ("Arab nationalists") which is rather praiseworthy and certainly reconciliatory in discussing their mutual opposition to Israel: "It is strange that the Arab nationalists also have, despite their avoidance of Islamic practice, come to comprehend the great importance of this province . . . They have come to comprehend the goal of planting Israel in this region, and they are not misled in this, rather they have admitted their ignorance of the religious nature of this conflict." This mindset of pragmatism appears again and again in the letter as al-Zawahiri urges Zarqawi not to fall into the trap of religious dogmatism, even to the point arguing that mujahideen ulema (religious scholars) must be included "even if there may be some heresy or fault in them that is not blasphemous," underscoring just how pragmatic the al Qaeda leadership is in contrast to the widespread analytical opinion that the group is made up only of dogmatists unwilling to compromise on religious or ideological purity when dealing with potential allies.

It is worth noting that this pragmatic approach is by no means a new element of al-Zawahiri's character; the 9/11 Commission Report cryptically noted that he "had ties of his own" to the former Iraqi regime and sought to arrange meetings between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's government in 1998. Moreover, Western and Arab officials and analysts have long characterized al-Zawahiri as one of the key links between al Qaeda and hard-line elements of the Iranian security services.

Al-Zawahiri specifically references this link as part of his argument against Zarqawi's strategy of provoking a sectarian civil war in Iraq along Shiite-Sunni lines. After making more general criticisms of this strategy on the grounds that it alienates public opinion, multiplies the number of enemies the insurgency must defeat, and creates a strategic impossibility of wiping out the entire Iraqi Shiite population, al-Zawahiri then drops a bombshell:

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? And do the brothers forget that both we and the Iranians need to refrain from harming each other at this time in which the Americans are targeting us?