October 07, 2005

The al-Zawahiri memo

CBS news is reporting that the US intercepted a 6,300 word memo from al-Zawahiri to Abu Musab Zarqawi that was written shortly after the London bombings (I'm assuming the 7/7 bombings). I want to see the full text of this before drawing any far-reaching conclusions, since the media in my experience has a habit of misinterpreting the terrorists' remarks in a manner not supported by the text.

According to CBS, the memo makes the following points:

1. Al-Zawahiri outlines al-Qaeda's plan for Iraq and beyond, more or less supporting the argument that al-Qaeda plans on using the country as a base from which to project itself outwards. Resuming the jihad in Egypt has long been a priority of al-Zawahiri's and in my view the recent bombings in Taba and Sharm el-Sheikh should be seen as a manifestation of this desire. In Lebanon, al-Qaeda's local affiliate is Asbat al-Ansar based in the Ein al-Hilweh refugee camp and Evan Kohlmann recently noted this item from January indicating that a member of Zarqawi's shura paid the Asbat al-Ansar leadership $100,000 and began training their members in document forgery.

The mention of Syria as being a target of al-Qaeda may strike some commentators as bizarre given the frequent US allegations that Syria is supporting the insurgency. However, it might be important to keep this item in mind when reading al-Zawahiri's remarks:

The magazine also reports on mass arrests of students in the city of Homs and of citizens from villages where individuals have been identified as having departed for Iraq. It gives the figure of up to 1,300 militants of various Arab nationalities arrested by the authorities in Syria, including 150 Algerians from the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prèdication et le Combat (GSPC). The news reports also detail the continuing victims of Law 49 (a 25-year-old decree stipulates the death penalty for membership in the Muslim Brotherhood), disappearances attributed to kidnappings by the regime and a government plan to replaced Islamic lessons in schools with ‘Ethics' studies.

So regardless of the nature or extent of Syrian involvement in the insurgency, al-Zawahiri would seem to be well within his rights to consider them an enemy. The fact that the al-Qaeda battle plan seems more concerned about setting up a stronghold rather than a theocracy in Iraq would seem to support the opinion of US analysts that the network is more interested in a beachhead than anything else in the country.

We also get some indications that the high command is not at all happy with Zarqawi's more sadistic activities:

In the letter, Zawahari complains to Zarqawi that some of his violent tactics are hurting public support for al Qaeda's cause, particularly the videotaped beheadings of hostages.

"We don't need this," the letter says. "Use a bullet instead."

Zawahiri also complains about Zarqawi's all-out war against the Shiites of Iraq, saying the Arab man in the street doesn't understand why suicide bombings are killing so many fellow Muslims.

As I noted to Eric in another conversation, it was precisely the more sadistic actions of the GIA that led al-Qaeda to ditch the group in favor of the GSPC. While Zarqawi hasn't gone nearly as far as Antar Zouabri did in declaring himself Caliph, ordering the indiscriminate murder of anyone who hadn't directly pledged allegiance to him, declaring the whole the Algerian society takfir, etc. Zarqawi likely heard stories about Zouabri during his time in Afghanistan and appears to have gone to some effort to avoid his fate.

The criticism of Zarqawi's killing of Shi'ites, like the earlier reference to plans to attack Syria, may also strike some observers as odd. As I have repeatedly noted, however, neither bin Laden nor al-Zawahiri are particularly interested in fighting a sectarian war against Shi'ites. While they have been willing to enlist sectarian groups into their coalition as cannon fodder (notably the Pakistani Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipah-e-Sahaba) or even as commanders (Zarqawi), they have steadfastly refused to incorporate such tenets into their platform, in large part they see it as counter-productive towards their long-term goal of a fighting a civilizational war with the West in general and the United States in particular.

The letter also indicates Zawahiri's life in hiding has left him cut off from news and financial support. He asks Zarqawi to provide him more information about operations in Iraq, saying he should know at least as much as the enemy knows, and he even asks Zarqawi to send money.

This is where I'd like to see the actual text of the letter, as the al-Zawahiri videos released to date suggest that he has real-time access to at least satellite television and, I would even go as far as arguing, not only al-Jazeera but also CNN International and BBC World Service. His request for information from Zarqawi may simply mean that he's smart enough not to believe either everything he reads in the news or his own propaganda and instead wants to know what the situation is directly from his commander on the front. The request for financial support seems a bit odd, but then again from the records recovered in the al-Qaeda computer that were printed up in the Wall Street Journal and the Atlantic Monthly leave me with the impression that al-Zawahiri is something of a penny-pincher and may want to make sure that Zarqawi is sending any extra cash he doesn't need back to the rest of the network.

Anyone with a full copy of the memo please e-mail it to me at scorpius@shwiggie.com ASAP so I can perform a more thorough analysis.

Posted by at October 7, 2005 04:13 AM | TrackBack (8)

As you say, it is as well to see the actual text of the letter. The full text has now been released (via Norm).

al-Z to al-Z

Posted by: DavidP at October 14, 2005 09:42 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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