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Al-Qaeda's 'Simon Says'

By Robert Parry
September 6, 2006

A common refrain from Republican leaders is that Americans must take the public statements of al-Qaeda seriously and then do the opposite. It’s a kind of reverse “Simon Says.” If al-Qaeda says leave Iraq, American soldiers must stay; if al-Qaeda says defeat George W. Bush and his party, Americans must return them to office.

Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman revived this theme last week as the Bush administration ratcheted up criticism of Democrats as terrorist “appeasers.” Mehlman cited public statements by al-Qaeda leaders about their plans to drive Americans from Iraq and then make it a base of terrorist operations.

“We ought to not ignore when they say they’re going to do that,” Mehlman said in arguing that withdrawing from Iraq would play into al-Qaeda’s hands. [Washington Post, Aug. 31, 2006]

President George W. Bush has made similar points while urging Americans to “stay the course.” For instance, earlier this year, Bush told a crowd in Nashville, Tennessee, that America’s only option in Iraq was “victory.”

“I say that because the enemy has said they want to drive us out of Iraq and use it as safe haven,” Bush said. “We’ve got to take the word seriously of those who want to do us harm.”

Bush returned to this theme of how Americans must take al-Qaeda’s words seriously in a Sept. 5 speech that essentially accepts the view of neoconservative hardliners who insist that the United States has no choice but to fight World War III with radical Islamists.

Making Sense?

But does that make sense? Should Americans take al-Qaeda’s public pronouncements so seriously that this relatively small terrorist band is given a kind of jujitsu veto power over U.S. politics and foreign policy? Or should Americans assess a situation on their own and make judgments as to what’s best for the United States?

Al-Qaeda wouldn’t be the first extremist group to exaggerate its own influence and the likelihood of accomplishing its outlandish goals – in hopes that overreaction by an adversary will help it become what it otherwise never could be.

During the Cold War, it was common for some fringe leftist group to show up at a broad-based political rally, take a photo of its few members holding a banner, and then pretend that the group was responsible for the large turnout. The group also might issue some demands that few took seriously.

Indeed, the best that such a fringe group might hope for was that the authorities would act as if the group really were significant, thus elevating its notoriety among other activists who then would become potential recruits.

Similarly, al-Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden have benefited from President Bush’s insistence on exaggerating their importance.

After the 9/11 attacks, the vast majority of Muslims shared the world’s revulsion at al-Qaeda’s actions. Even in Iran, hundreds of thousands of Iranians marched in sympathy for their longtime adversaries in the United States. Syria provided U.S. intelligence help in hunting down terrorists.

But Bush’s blunderbuss “war on terror” – which heavily targeted Muslims – turned around that initial wave of support, allowing al-Qaeda to sell itself as the defender of the Islamic world and regain a measure of respectability.

Meanwhile, back in the United States, Bush got a reverse bounce by presenting himself as the leader who would protect America from the supposedly vast international reach of al-Qaeda. At, we have referred to this mutually beneficial relationship as the “The Bush-Bin Laden Symbiosis.”

Public Statements

But there remains the question of whether – as Ken Mehlman warns – the American people “ought not to ignore” what al-Qaeda is saying. One answer is that the appropriate U.S. reaction would depend on the circumstances surrounding al-Qaeda’s statements.

If, for instance, al-Qaeda leaders are making public declarations, especially those directed at the American public, their statements probably should be discounted because they could have a secondary intent, i.e. the jujitsu influencing of U.S. opinion. Greater weight might be given to intercepted internal al-Qaeda messages.

So, for instance, when bin Laden broke nearly a year of silence on the Friday before the U.S. election in 2004, his tirade against Bush might best have been viewed as an attempt to manipulate the American voters. Most likely, bin Laden, a student of U.S. politics, understood that he could send voters to Bush by attacking Bush.

Privately, CIA analysts reached exactly that conclusion as did Bush. “Bin Laden certainly did a nice favor today for the President,” said deputy CIA director John McLaughlin in opening a meeting to review secret “strategic analysis” after the videotape had dominated the day’s news, according to Ron Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine.

Suskind wrote that CIA analysts had spent years “parsing each expressed word of the al-Qaeda leader and his deputy, [Ayman] Zawahiri. What they’d learned over nearly a decade is that bin Laden speaks only for strategic reasons. … Today’s conclusion: bin Laden’s message was clearly designed to assist the President’s reelection.”

Jami Miscik, CIA deputy associate director for intelligence, expressed the consensus view that bin Laden recognized how Bush’s heavy-handed policies – such as the Guantanamo prison camp, the Abu Ghraib scandal and the war in Iraq – were serving al-Qaeda’s strategic goals for recruiting a new generation of jihadists.

“Certainly,” Miscik said, “he would want Bush to keep doing what he’s doing for a few more years.”

The CIA analysts were troubled by the implications of their own conclusions. “An ocean of hard truths before them – such as what did it say about U.S. policies that bin Laden would want Bush reelected – remained untouched,” Suskind wrote.

Even Bush recognized that his struggling campaign got a boost from bin Laden. “I thought it was going to help,” Bush said in a post-election interview about the videotape. “I thought it would help remind people that if bin Laden doesn’t want Bush to be the President, something must be right with Bush.”

In the last days of Campaign 2004, Bush’s supporters exploited bin Laden’s attack against Bush, calling it an “endorsement” of John Kerry. Pollsters recorded a jump of several percentage points for Bush, from nearly a dead heat to a five- or six-point lead. On Election Day, Bush won by an official margin of less than three percentage points.

Internal Worries

While casting a very suspicious eye on al-Qaeda’s public remarks, Americans might give greater weight when they learn of al-Qaeda’s internal discussions from intercepted communications describing the group’s assessments of its real problems and potential.

For instance, a 6,000-word letter purportedly written by Osama bin Laden’s deputy Ayman Zawahiri in mid-2005 and sent to Abu Musab Zarqawi expressed concern about an early U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq.

The letter, which was reportedly intercepted by U.S. intelligence, showed Zawahiri suggesting strategies to keep Zarqawi’s foreign jihadists from simply deserting the field and leaving Iraq once the Americans were gone.

“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,” the letter said, according to a text released by the office of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence.

Zawahiri suggested that al-Qaeda leaders in Iraq talk up the “idea” of a caliphate along the eastern Mediterranean as a way to avoid a collapse of the Iraqi theater of operations if the Americans left, according to the letter.

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 back in hiding, presumably along the Afghan-Pakistani border.

Yet, even with this fretful letter in hand, Bush warned Americans in fall 2005 that al-Qaeda planned to follow up any U.S. withdrawal from Iraq by turning the country into a base to “establish a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia.” Bush said such an “empire” would spell the strategic defeat of the United States. [See’s “Osama’s Briar Patch.”]

In his Sept. 5 speech, Bush returned to this alarmist view. “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.”

Apocalyptic Vision

But how realistic is Bush’s apocalyptic vision?

In the so-called “Zawahiri letter,” al-Qaeda comes across as a marginal movement worried about the reaction of many Muslims to its brutal tactics. Al-Qaeda even lacked a reliable means for getting out its messages. Zawahiri complains that six of his audio statements “were not published for one reason or another,” the letter said.

Though the “Zawahiri letter” depicts a nearly bankrupt movement facing political and physical isolation, Bush gave the American people another image: al-Qaeda as a menacing strategic threat preparing for first regional and then global domination.

Many Middle East experts, however, say al-Qaeda jihadists represent less than 10 percent of the Iraqi insurgency, which is dominated by disaffected Sunnis fighting to stop their own marginalization in a country they have long dominated.

Al-Qaeda has been tolerated by many of these Iraqi Sunnis out of desperation and expediency. If the Americans left, al-Qaeda could find itself in trouble not only because the jihadists will have lost their “fighting zeal,” as the “Zawahiri letter” fears, but because Iraqis of all sects might want to rid the country of these violent foreign interlopers.

Middle East experts also have noted that al-Qaeda’s goals always have been relatively modest: seeking to punish the United States for its interference in the Muslim world, its positioning of military bases in Saudi Arabia and its support for Arab governments that Islamic fundamentalists consider corrupt.

But – in the five years since 9/11 – al-Qaeda also has learned that its popularity has risen among disaffected Muslims in large part because of the excesses in the “war on terror” carried out by the United States and its allies, including Israel.

Al-Qaeda now realizes that its greatest strength is the overreaction of its American adversaries in the Bush administration.

So whatever al-Qaeda leaders say publicly about their intent – or when Bush’s advisers say Americans must do the opposite of whatever al-Qaeda supposedly wants – the American people might want to take the whole business with a large grain of salt.

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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