The Office of the Director of National Security has published the much-discussed letter from Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s number two in command, to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the commander of Al Qaeda in Iraq. The letter provides insight into the workings of al Qaeda, the perception of Zarqawi’s campaign in Iraq and the status of the insurgency. The news that a compromise has been reached to satisfy Sunni concerns over the Iraqi constitution makes the letter all the more important.
The are many interesting pieces of information contained within the letter. Zawahiri confirms that Abu Farraj al-Libbi, who was captured in Pakistan, was indeed a major player in al Qaeda, “The enemy struck a blow against us with the arrest of Abu al-Faraj.” However, al Qaeda views Pakistan’s operations in the tribal areas as an even greater threat, “the real danger comes from the agent Pakistani army that is carrying out operations in the tribal areas looking for mujahideen.” This conflicts with many analyst’s portrayal of Pakistani operations on the Afghan border as ineffective.
Zawahiri confirms what many of us have been saying for quite some time: Iraq is the central front in the War on Terror, and al Qaeda has committed to the battle; “the place for the greatest battle of Islam in this era.” The conflicts in Chechnya, Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Bosnia, which he refers to as the “far-flung regions of the Islamic world” are secondary in al Qaeda’s plans for the formation of the Islamist Caliphate. The real lever of power is in Iraq, Egypt and the Levant (Syria and Lebanon).
He lays out the short-term goals of al Qaeda for Iraq and the region, which squares with the plans issued by Saif al-Adel. The plan is predicated on an American withdrawal from Iraq.
The first stage: Expel the Americans from Iraq.
The second stage: Establish an Islamic authority or amirate, then develop it and support it until it achieves the level of a caliphate- over as much territory as you can to spread its power in Iraq, i.e., in Sunni areas, is in order to fill the void stemming from the departure of the Americans, immediately upon their exit and before un-Islamic forces attempt to fill this void, whether those whom the Americans will leave behind them, or those among the un-Islamic forces who will try to jump at taking power.
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.
Zawahiri devotes a significant portion of the letter on the popular support for Jihad in Iraq, and effects of Zarqawi’s declaration of war against the Shiites. Zawahiri understands that al Qaeda cannot succeed without backing from the populace; ” In the absence of this popular support, the Islamic mujahed movement would be crushed in the shadows.”
Zawahiri states that “Muslim admirers amongst the common folk are wondering about [Zarqawi’s] attacks on the Shia”, and do not understand what could drive al Qaeda in Iraq to perform beheadings, destroy mosques and other such acts of inhumanity. Zawahiri is blunt that no amount of explaining will remove doubt and disgust over these actions; “this matter won’t be acceptable to the Muslim populace however much you have tried to explain it, and aversion to this will continue.”
The issue of war and violence against the Shiites is addressed from a practical standpoint and Zawahiri asks pointed questions to Zarqawi, which he not-so-subtly proceeds to answer. The line of “questioning” looks more like a series of commands than an inquiry. It is quite clear that the senior al Qaeda command views Zarqawi’s declaration of war and attacks against the Shiites as harmful to achieving the goals for Iraq. Also note that Zawahiri has admitted scores of senior al Qaeda leaders are in Iran.
Indeed, questions will circulate among mujahedeen circles and their opinion makers about the correctness of this conflict with the Shia at this time. Is it something that is unavoidable? Or, is it something can be put off until the force of the mujahed movement in Iraq gets stronger? And if some of the operations were necessary for self-defense, were all of the operations necessary? Or, were there some operations that weren’t called for? And is the opening of another front now in addition to the front against the Americans and the government a wise decision? Or, does this conflict with the Shia lift the burden from the Americans by diverting the mujahedeen to the Shia, while the Americans continue to control matters from afar? 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? And why kill ordinary Shia considering that they are forgiven because of their ignorance? And what loss will befall us if we did not attack the Shia? 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?
Zawahiri questions Zarqawi’s hallmark propensity for displays of brutality and excessive violence, particularly the beheadings. He warns Zarqawi not to become subjected to the lures of a cult of personality. “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.”
Zawahiri acknowledges another major front of the war is fought in the media: “we are in a battle, and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. And that we are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our Umma.”
Today’s news of a compromise over the constitution must come as chilling news for al Qaeda high command. The Shiite and Kurdish factions agreed modify the constitution to alleviate Sunni concerns over the methods of amending the document and the legal status of former Baathists. Based on this compromise, the Iraqi Islamic Party, the most organized Sunni political party, has decided to halt its “No” campaign.
Mishan Jabouri, a prominent Sunni who was involved with the negotiations and was despondent over the document, now fully supports the changes; “Before now, I felt like I am losing. We are losing our power, we are losing our country, and I am like a foreigner living here Now everything has changed. This constitution, I think any Arab Sunni can support it The only opponents should be the Zarqawi people They oppose everything. If they wrote the constitution, they would oppose it.”
The prospects of Sunnis engaging en masse in Iraq’s political process can greatly influence both the course of Iraq’s future and the viability of the insurgency. If Sunnis feel they can fairly participate in the political process, the saner elements of the insurgency will come to grips with the situation. Couple the concessions made on the constitution with the relentless offensive against the insurgency and al Qaeda, and the incentives are there for the local insurgents to lay down their arms.
This constitutional compromise can drive a stake through the heart of al Qaeda’s “hearts and minds” approach in Iraq. Al Qaeda’s short-term goals of establishing a base of operations in Iraq and striking out at the greater Middle East may have to be pushed back to a mid or long term goal.