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Fake letter, real trouble?

The alleged Al Qaeda correspondence is likely a forgery that, if exposed, could embarrass the Bush administration.

October 18, 2005|Bruce B. Lawrence | BRUCE B. LAWRENCE is a professor of Islamic Studies at Duke University and editor of "Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden," to be published by Verso Books next month.

THE LETTER from Ayman Zawahiri to Abu Musab Zarqawi that surfaced last week was immediately pressed into service as part of the U.S. war on terror.

"As Iraqis prepared for this election," declared President Bush in his national radio address last Saturday, "the world learned of a letter written by a leading terrorist explaining why Iraq is the central front in their war on civilization. Al Qaeda's No. 2 leader, a man named Zawahiri, wrote to his chief deputy in Iraq, the terrorist Zarqawi. We intercepted this letter, and we have released it to the public. In it, Zawahiri lays out why Al Qaeda views Iraq as 'the place for the greatest battle' of our day."

But is this letter authentic?

On the face of it, the content reflects much of what Zawahiri and his comrade, Osama bin Laden, have long been saying is the crux of the jihadi cause: Muslim lands have been invaded by infidels; apostate Muslim rulers welcome the invaders. Chief among the infidels are the American occupiers of the "Land of the Two Holy Mosques" (Saudi Arabia) and the Zionist occupiers of the "Holy Sanctuary," or Jerusalem. What's more, the recent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq only add to the humiliation suffered by Muslims, and now a defensive jihad is required against the "Zionist/Crusaders" until they are defeated and expelled from the Islamic world.

ALSO FAMILIAR is the incremental theory of how the reclamation of Muslim territory will take place: Expel the Americans from Iraq; establish an Islamic authority there; then extend the jihad wave to the secular countries nearby.

Beyond the clamor for continued and spiraling warfare, however, there is a new element in the letter. It is a warning to Zarqawi that the success of the jihad ultimately depends on mass appeal and public support. Without a popular mandate, we are told, the noble warriors, or mujahedin, cannot ensure victory after the infidel invaders are evicted.

In fact, so important is winning goodwill that it entails overlooking doctrinal error, even heresy just short of blasphemy, among the Sunni ulama (the elite religious community). It also requires non-provocation of Shiite leaders, even though the falsehood of Shiite doctrines (and the Shiites' collusion with the invaders) is said to be "well known."

If the letter is authentic, this would be a rare and extraordinary instance of strategic gamesmanship within Al Qaeda. For Al Qaeda to suggest compromising with tainted followers in order to ensure group cohesion to gain a larger prize -- freedom from foreign occupation -- would certainly be unprecedented.

How remarkable then that Zarqawi ignored the letter! It was apparently written in early July, yet the last three months have witnessed the slaughter of Iraqi Shiites in unprecedented numbers. If the letter were real, it would suggest that there is indeed a genuine split within Al Qaeda almost as major as the divide that separates Sunnis from Shiites in Iraq at large.

But there are reasons to doubt that it is authentic. First is the suspiciously long delay between when the letter was written and when it was made public. Who benefits from this delay if not those who favor voting for the new Iraqi constitution at all costs? Its appearance on the eve of the vote in Iraq reinforces the notion that anarchy will be the only outcome if the constitution is defeated.

And then there is the improbable request for the payment of 100,000 (presumably dollars) from Zarqawi to Zawahiri, when one might have expected the opposite channel of funding. And the bizarre suggestion that if the reader is going to Fallouja, "send greetings to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi." Did the writer of this letter forget that it was already addressed to Zarqawi?

If it seems too good to be true that Al Qaeda is about to implode, and that the letter from Zawahiri to Zarqawi is the first sign of internal struggles in the Al Qaeda leadership, that's because it is. The actual evidence points to the likelihood that Al Qaeda may be the target of a disinformation campaign. Wherever that campaign originated, it seems to have produced a forgery which, if revealed, will be embarrassing to the president of the United States, confirming that the war for hearts and minds needs to be waged by more open and credible means.

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