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Al-Qaeda's Fragile Foothold

By Robert Parry
October 4, 2006

A newly disclosed internal al-Qaeda communiqué reveals a divided organization with only a fragile foothold in Iraq, hoping U.S. troops will stay long enough to give it time to build alliances with often-antagonistic Iraqi insurgents and other Sunni leaders.

The letter, dated Dec. 11, 2005, amounted to a warning from a senior al-Qaeda operative known as “Atiyah” to the then-leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The letter faulted Zarqawi for attacks on fellow Muslims that had alienated key elements of the Sunni-led opposition to the U.S. occupation.

Atiyah told Zarqawi that “the most important thing is that the jihad continues with steadfastness and firm rooting, and that it grows in terms of supporters, strength, clarity of justification, and visible proof each day. Indeed, prolonging the war is in our interest.” [Emphasis added.]

Atiyah’s assessment that “prolonging the war is in our interest” flies in the face of President George W. Bush’s argument that a prompt U.S. military withdrawal would amount to a major victory for al-Qaeda.

Indeed, the “Atiyah letter” – like a previously intercepted message attributed to al-Qaeda’s second-in-command Ayman Zawahiri – suggests that a U.S. military pullout in 2005 or earlier could have been disastrous for al-Qaeda’s terrorist bands, which are estimated at only about 5 to 10 percent of the anti-U.S. fighters in Iraq.

Without the U.S. military presence to serve as a rallying cry and a unifying force, the al-Qaeda contingent faced disintegration from desertions and attacks from Iraqi insurgents who resented the wanton bloodshed committed by Zarqawi’s non-Iraqi terrorists.

The “Zawahiri letter,” which was dated July 9, 2005, said a rapid American military withdrawal could have caused the foreign jihadists, who had flocked to Iraq to battle the Americans, to simply give up the fight and go home.

“The mujahaddin must not have their mission end with the expulsion of the Americans from Iraq, and then lay down their weapons, and silence the fighting zeal,” said the “Zawahiri letter,” according to a text released by the office of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence.

‘Still Weak’

The “Atiyah letter,” which was discovered by U.S. authorities at the time of Zarqawi’s death on June 7, 2006, and was translated by the U.S. military’s Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, also stressed the vulnerability of al-Qaeda’s position in Iraq and the need to mend fences.

“Know that we, like all mujahaddin, are still weak,” Atiyah told Zarqawi. “We have not yet reached a level of stability. We have no alternative but to not squander any element of the foundations of strength or any helper or supporter.”

The letter strongly cautioned Zarqawi “against attempting to kill any religious scholar or tribal leader who is obeyed, and of good repute in Iraq from among the Sunnis, no matter what. …

“The long and short of the matter is that the Islamic theologians are the keys to the Muslim community and they are its leaders. This is the way it is, whether you like it or not. … If you appear before the community in the guise of a pariah to the class of religious scholars, contradicting them, disrespecting them, and insulting them, then you will lose the people and you will fail in any call [to religion] or political act. …

“It is highly advisable to be polite and to show complete respect, regret, compassion, and mercy and so forth. You must incline yourself to this, and be humble to the believers, and smile in people’s faces, even if you are cursing them in your heart, even if it has been said that they are ‘a bad tribal brother,’ and what have you.”

Beyond the significance of Atiyah’s wish for a “prolonged” war, the letter underscores how tenuous al-Qaeda’s position in Iraq has been, especially when contrasted with Bush’s alarmist rhetoric about a smashing al-Qaeda  victory if the U.S. military withdraws.

Indeed, the “Atiyah” and “Zawahiri” letters suggest that one of al-Qaeda’s biggest fears is that the United States will pull out of Iraq before the terrorist organization has built the necessary political infrastructure to turn the country into a future base of operations.

The Mythic Caliphate

Zawahiri was so concerned about the possibility of mass desertions after a U.S. withdrawal that he suggested that al-Qaeda leaders in Iraq talk up the “idea” of a “caliphate” along the eastern Mediterranean to avert a disintegration of the force.

To Zawahiri, the rhetoric about a “caliphate” was a case of making empty promises to gullible followers, but President Bush has seized on al-Qaeda’s references to a “caliphate” to justify an expanded war against Islamic militants.

Even with the two fretful al-Qaeda letters in hand, Bush has continued to warn Americans about al-Qaeda’s intent to follow up a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq by turning the country into a launching pad for a vast Islamic “empire” that would spell the strategic defeat of the United States.

In a Sept. 5, 2006, speech, Bush declared, “This caliphate would be a totalitarian Islamic empire encompassing all current and former Muslim lands, stretching from Europe to North Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia,” Bush said. “We know this because al-Qaeda has told us.”

Some of Bush’s neoconservative advisers have referred to this coming conflict with militants among the world’s one billion Muslims as “World War III” and a “clash of civilizations.”

On Sept. 26, 2006, Bush also rejected the argument that the Iraq War has spurred the growth of Islamic terrorism.

“My judgment is, if we weren’t in Iraq, they’d find some other excuse, because they have ambitions,” Bush said. “They kill in order to achieve their objectives.”

But a growing body of evidence, including the intercepted al-Qaeda letters, appears to undercut Bush’s conclusions about both the prospects for “a totalitarian Islamic empire” and a disconnect between the continuing Iraq War and terrorism.

According to a National Intelligence Estimate, representing the consensus view of the U.S. intelligence community in April 2006, “the global jihadist movement is decentralized, lacks a coherent global strategy, and is becoming more diffuse.” [Emphasis added.]

The NIE also concluded that the Iraq War – rather than weakening the cause of Islamic terrorism – had become a “cause celebre” that was “cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement.”

Foundering Leadership

Still, while the Iraq War may have helped raise the tide of Islamic militancy in Iraq and around the world, the “Zawahiri” and “Atiyah” letters suggest that it has done little to lift al-Qaeda’s boats.

The letters depict a still-foundering movement whose only real hope for success is that the United States continues to overreact to the terrorist threat and thus generates a new surge of recruits to al-Qaeda’s cause.

According to the “Zawahiri letter,” al-Qaeda remained so disorganized that it even lacked a reliable means for getting out its messages. Zawahiri complained that six of his audio statements “were not published for one reason or another.”

The letter also asked if the embattled al-Qaeda operatives in Iraq might be able to spare $100,000 to relieve a cash squeeze facing the group’s top leaders in hiding, presumably along the Afghan-Pakistani border.

The “Atiyah letter” contained similar references to the weaknesses of the al-Qaeda leadership holed up in Waziristan on the Pakistani side of the border. “Atiyah” claimed that it was easier for Zarqawi to send an emissary to Pakistan than it was for al-Qaeda leaders to dispatch someone to Iraq.

Al-Qaeda’s leaders “wish that they had a way to talk to you and advise you, and to guide and instruct you; however, they too are occupied with vicious enemies here,” the “Atiyah letter” said.

Despite these weaknesses and al-Qaeda’s concerns about desertions in Iraq if the United States withdrew, President Bush has drawn nearly the opposite conclusions, insisting that a U.S. pullout would represent a great boost to al-Qaeda. But the facts seem to point the other way – that the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 relieved pressure on al-Qaeda leaders in hiding and gave them hope by attracting a new generation of young Muslims to the extremist cause.

By extending the U.S. occupation of Iraq indefinitely, Bush appears to be continuing to play into al-Qaeda’s hands.

As “Atiyah” observed, it follows that the longer the U.S. occupation drags on, the more time al-Qaeda will have to strengthen ties to indigenous Iraqi insurgents, attract more jihadists into its fold and harden its new recruits – “prolonging the war is in our interest.”

In that view, Bush’s strategy is helping al-Qaeda, both in Iraq and globally. But a prolonged war also has turned out to be in Bush’s interests.

Bush has skillfully exploited American memories of 9/11 and residual fears of al-Qaeda to strengthen his political position at home, achieving a one-party Republican government since 2002. Citing the terrorism threat, he also has engineered an unprecedented rollback of U.S. constitutional liberties.

In September 2006, the Republican-controlled Congress granted Bush the authority to ignore habeas corpus – a right to a trial by jury dating back to the Magna Carta of 1215 and one of the few rights expressly written into the body of the U.S. Constitution.

Now, under a new counter-terrorism law, Bush will have the power to jail indefinitely a person deemed an “enemy combatant” or an individual “who has purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States” or its military allies.

Since 9/11, Bush also has used the terrorist threat to discredit political opponents in the eyes of many Americans. In 2002 and 2004, Bush challenged the anti-terror credentials of Democrats, paving the way to Republican victories.

With Election 2006 only a little more than a month away, Bush has fired up the terror rhetoric again, saying Democratic criticism of the Iraq War has proved that “the party of FDR and the party of Harry Truman has become the party of cut and run.”

But Bush’s attack line ignores what appears to be the larger reality, that the policy that is actually serving al-Qaeda’s interests is a policy of “stay the course.”

[For more on this topic, see’s “Osama’s Briar Patch.”]

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at It's also available at, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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