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Osama's Briar Patch

By Robert Parry
February 2, 2006

In calling on Americans to stay the course in Iraq, George W. Bush cites a recent speech by al-Qaeda leader Osama bin-Laden as well as a captured letter attributed to his deputy, Ayman Zawahiri. But the two al-Qaeda messages actually suggest the terrorist group holds distinctly different views about Iraq, one publicly and another privately.

Bin-Laden’s audio-taped speech almost baits Americans to leave Iraq, offering a “truce” that would spare the United States further attacks if it departs with its tail between its legs. However, the so-called “Zawahiri letter” warns al-Qaeda’s lieutenants in Iraq about the dangers of a rapid U.S. pullout that could result in many foreign jihadists quitting the struggle.

The two conflicting positions – one released for public consumption and the other supposedly expressing frank internal worries – raise the possibility that bin-Laden actually is telling the United States to do the opposite of what he really wants done, knowing that his endorsement of one action will encourage its opposite.

Just as Brer Rabbit in the Uncle Remus tales begged his captors not to throw him into the briar patch – because he actually wanted to be released into the briar patch – bin-Laden could be pretending that he wants the United States to depart Iraq because he really wants U.S. troops to stay.

Bin-Laden surely recognizes the strategic benefit to al-Qaeda of keeping the United States bogged down in Iraq. That way, al-Qaeda can continue to recruit and train fighters while limiting America’s capability to hunt down and kill top al-Qaeda leaders hiding in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Bush’s Trust

Yet, despite bin-Laden’s possible double game, Bush continues to insist that Americans must take the terrorist mastermind at his word.

“Whether you agree or not agree with the decision (to invade Iraq), this country has one option, and that’s victory in Iraq,” Bush told a cheering crowd in Nashville, Tennessee, on Feb. 1. “I say that because the enemy has said they want to drive us out of Iraq and use it as safe haven. We’ve got to take the word seriously of those who want to do us harm.”

But how difficult is it to imagine that bin-Laden would use his public pronouncements to mislead or confuse his American enemies?

Another way to interpret Bush’s comments is that the President does understand bin-Laden’s possible ploy but is himself using bin-Laden’s comments to shore up U.S. public support for continuing the war in Iraq.

Indeed, there may be a symbiotic relationship between what Bush wants and what serves bin-Laden’s interests. Bush may so loathe the prospect of admitting that he wasted the lives of more than 2,200 U.S. soldiers in a futile war that he would prefer to keep it going and is using bin-Laden’s public statement to help him.

Since 2002, Bush has cycled through a series of rationales for invading and occupying Iraq. He started with false claims that Iraq possessed stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and might share the WMD with al-Qaeda, even though Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein and Osama bin-Laden were sworn enemies in the Arab world.

Counting on the lack of U.S. sophistication about the intricacies of Middle East politics, Bush convinced large numbers of Americans – a majority in some polls – that Hussein was somehow complicit in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Though Hussein permitted United Nations inspectors into Iraq and let them search anywhere for the WMD, Bush argued that the U.N. inspections were not sufficient and pressed ahead with the invasion in March 2003. Afterwards, U.S. inspectors also found no WMD, nor any evidence that Hussein had a working relationship with al-Qaeda.

Later, facing a growing insurgency, Bush began claiming that Iraq had become the central front in the “war on terror” and must be fought to “complete victory.” He portrayed the Iraq War largely as a conflict between “terrorists” and the Iraqi people.

Sunni Resistance

It was not until a speech on Nov. 30, 2005, that Bush finally admitted what U.S. intelligence and military officials had long concluded – that the insurgency was mostly fought by Iraqi Sunnis who were resisting foreign occupation and the political dominance of their longtime rivals, the Shiites.

In that speech, Bush divided up the “enemy in Iraq” into three groups – the Sunni “rejectionists,” who resent having lost their privileged status; the Sunni “Saddamists,” who retain loyalty to the ousted dictator; and the smallest group, the foreign “terrorists,” who had entered Iraq to fight the American invaders and generally spread chaos.

Though Bush didn’t put percentages on the three elements, most analysts estimate that the foreign “terrorists” comprise only about 5 to 10 percent of the armed opposition. Plus, many Sunnis resent the presence of these outsiders who are tolerated only to the degree that they share in the fighting against the Americans and the dominant Shiites.

If the Americans left, there is a strong possibility that not only would the flow of new jihadists into Iraq dry up but that the shrunken al-Qaeda contingent in Iraq would be hunted down by both Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites.

There have been some signs of this already. For instance, on Aug. 13, 2005, in the western city of Ramadi, Sunni members of the Dulaimi tribe set up protective perimeters around their Shiite neighbors and reportedly fought the foreign jihadists who were trying to dislodge the Shiites from the Sunni-dominated city. [Washington Post, Aug. 14, 2005]

The biggest loser from an American withdrawal might well be Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born terrorist leader of al-Qaeda forces in Iraq. Not only would his recruiting likely suffer and many of his current fighters desert, but he would no longer be of much use to the Iraqi Sunnis.

Globally, the loss of al-Qaeda’s principal recruiting pitch – the U.S. occupation of Iraq – also could damage bin-Laden’s long-range plans.

These concerns were expressed in the so-called “Zawahiri letter” that was purportedly sent to Zarqawi but fell into the hands of U.S. intelligence last year. The letter depicts an embattled group of extremists fearful that a sudden U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq would leave them isolated and battling to defend a few small enclaves inside Iraq.

The letter does raise the notion of establishing an Islamic “caliphate” along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, known as the Levant, but depicts this idea as designed to keep the jihadists from simply going home once the United States departs Iraq.

The letter states that the “caliphate” was mentioned “only to stress … that the mujahedeen 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.”

In other words, al-Qaeda leaders see promoting the dream of an unlikely “caliphate” as a needed sales pitch to keep the jihadists from drifting back to their everyday lives.

Marginal Extremists

Assuming the letter is real – al-Qaeda has denied its authenticity – it also portrays al-Qaeda as a struggling organization under financial and political duress, holding out hope for limited successes in Iraq, rather than dreaming of global domination, as Bush claims.

Al-Qaeda’s leaders were so short of funds that they asked their embattled operatives in Iraq to send $100,000 to relieve a cash squeeze, according to the letter.

There is also the historical fact that Muslim nations have succeeded, again and again, in suppressing Islamic radical movements as long as Western powers have not gotten too directly involved.

In a speech on Oct. 6, 2005, Bush inadvertently underscored this point when he noted that “over the past few decades, radicals have specifically targeted Egypt and Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and Jordan for potential takeover.” He could have cited Algeria, too.

But the bottom line to all these cases is that the Islamic radicals were defeated, explaining why so many of al-Qaeda’s leaders are exiles. Bin-Laden is a Saudi; Zawahiri is an Egyptian; Zarqawi is a Jordanian. In the late 1990s, bin-Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders were even banished from the Sudan, forcing them to flee to remote Afghanistan.

Al-Qaeda had literally been chased to the ends of the earth, but managed to get a second chance when the new Bush administration ignored intelligence warnings in August 2001 about an impending assault inside the United States.

The Sept. 11 attacks succeeded in destroying New York’s Twin Towers and damaged the Pentagon, killing 3,000 people on U.S. soil and putting al-Qaeda back on the map.

But bin-Laden and his cohorts were soon on the run again as the United States retaliated for Sept. 11 by attacking Afghanistan. Cornered in the mountains of Tora Bora, bin-Laden caught another break when Bush chose to rely mostly on Afghani warlords who let bin-Laden and other top leaders slip away.

The Bush administration already was shifting its attention to an old nemesis in Iraq, taking aim at Saddam Hussein even though neither bin-Laden nor Zawahiri had been captured or killed.

Many Middle Eastern analysts believe the U.S. invasion of Iraq was another godsend to al-Qaeda, both in relieving pressure on their scattered forces along the Afghan-Pakistani border and in transforming this band of zealous killers into defenders of Muslim lands.

The Iraq War became a cause celebre that attracted thousands of recruits to militant Islam, young men who saw their mission as fighting a defensive jihad against the Christian invaders, much as their ancestors fought the Crusaders centuries ago. In Iraq, these recruits received training and were battle-tested.

For three years, the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq has been a gift to al-Qaeda that keeps on giving, also helping bin-Laden rehabilitate his image with fellow Muslims who were horrified by the excessive violence used in attacking civilians in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.

The ‘Truce’

While it is possible that bin-Laden is sincere when he offers the Americans a “truce” if they leave Iraq, some analysts have suggested bin-Laden made that offer so other Muslims would be less critical of him if he launches a future attack inside the United States.

But bin-Laden also could have a more complex agenda: The “truce” offer gets him some credit with fellow Muslims as a peacemaker even though he knows the Americans will reject it and Bush will dig in his heels even deeper on Iraq.

If that scheme plays out, the U.S. military will remain stuck in the Iraqi quagmire for the foreseeable future; al-Qaeda can continue rebuilding its forces by using Iraq as a recruiting poster; and some terrorists might still be spared for another attack inside the United States.

With so much for bin-Laden to gain, there’s strong reason to doubt that he is really that eager for the United States to quit Iraq. While al-Qaeda certainly would get a propaganda windfall if the powerful U.S. military retreats from Iraq, al-Qaeda could expect many more dividends if the Americans remain bogged down there.

Contrary to Bush’s advice on heeding the words of the enemy, a wiser U.S. strategy might discount what bin-Laden publicly tells Americans to do. Like the crafty Brer Rabbit, he might really be hoping for the opposite.


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 secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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