The 6,000-word letter purportedly written by Osama
bin-Laden’s deputy Ayman Zawahiri on July 9 lists al-Qaeda’s goals as
far more limited – driving U.S. forces from Iraq, establishing a state
or “emirate” in the country’s Sunni enclaves, resisting outside
assaults, and only later trying to expand into a religious “caliphate”
incorporating surrounding territory.
The proposed “caliphate” could stretch to the
Mediterranean Sea and Egypt, said the letter purportedly sent by
Zawahiri to al-Qaeda’s leader in Iraq, Jordanian-born Abu Musab Zarqawi.
By contrast, Bush said in an Oct. 6 speech that
Muslim extremists intended to use Iraq as a base to “establish a radical
Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia,” while simultaneously
engineering the strategic defeat of the United States.
The alleged al-Qaeda letter states, too, that the
“idea” about the caliphate is not “infallible” and 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.”
Along with its fears that its jihadists might quit
if U.S. troops leave Iraq, al-Qaeda – as reflected in the letter – looks
like a struggling organization under financial and political duress,
holding out hope for limited successes in Iraq, rather than dreaming of
global domination. Al-Qaeda’s leaders are 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.
The letter in Arabic and
an English translation were posted at the Web site of the U.S.
director of national intelligence, John Negroponte, on Oct. 11.
Five days earlier, Bush sought to rally U.S. public
support for his Iraq policy by painting a terrifying picture if Iraq
fell to Islamic extremists.
“With greater economic and military and political
power, the terrorists would be able to advance their stated agenda: to
develop weapons of mass destruction, to destroy Israel, to intimidate
Europe, to assault the American people, and to blackmail our government
Bush envisioned an Islamic terrorist empire
reaching from the Atlantic Ocean on the west to the Pacific Ocean on the
But the disparity between the ambitions cited in
the purported al-Qaeda letter and the claims in Bush’s speech suggests
that the president may be continuing his pattern of exaggerating the
threat posed by his Islamic enemies, much as he hyped allegations of
Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to justify invading Iraq in March
Just as he roused American fears with images of
“mushroom clouds” from hypothetical Iraqi nuclear bombs, Bush now
appears to be presenting a worst-case scenario about the threat from
In his speech, Bush likened al-Qaeda leaders to
historic tyrants, such as Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin, suggesting that
anyone opposed to the Iraq War is inviting slaughter on a massive scale.
But there are few indications that al-Qaeda’s leaders – believed to be
holed up in the mountains along the Pakistani-Afghan border – represent
that level of threat.
Rather than totalitarian leaders on the scale of
Hitler and Stalin in charge of powerful countries, al-Qaeda comes across
in the letter like a marginal movement whose dreams of just gaining a
foothold in Iraq are fragile.
If U.S. intelligence is correct about the letter’s
origin, al-Qaeda’s leaders appear to be the isolated ones, knowing
little about world news and even lacking a reliable means for getting
out their message. The letter’s author – purportedly Zawahiri –
complains that six of his audio statements “were not published for one
reason or another.”
The letter also lectures the foreign jihadists in
Iraq about how offended many Muslims are by the beheadings of Western
captives and the bombings that have killed hundreds of Shiites, the
majority Islamic sect that gained political dominance after the U.S.
invasion and the ouster of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.
“Many of your Muslim admirers amongst the common
folk are wondering about your attacks on the Shia,” the letter said.
“The sharpness of this questioning increases when the attacks are on one
of their mosques.”
[An Internet posting by
Al Qaeda’s Iraq wing denounced the letter as a fake “based only on the
imagination of the politicians of the Black (White) House and their
Reuters reported on Oct. 13.]
Though the “Zawahiri letter” – if real – depicts a
nearly bankrupt movement facing political and physical isolation, Bush
has given the American people another image: al-Qaeda as a menacing
strategic threat bent on first regional and then global domination.
Bush’s argument goes back to his assertions after
the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks that the motive then was hatred of
American freedom and al-Qaeda’s goal was to establish a worldwide
A number of Middle East experts, however, said al-Qaeda’s
goals were much smaller, 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 considered corrupt.
In his Oct. 6 speech, however, Bush again insisted
that the struggle was really about freedom.
“Freedom is once again assaulted by enemies
determined to roll back generations of democratic progress,” Bush said.
“Once again, we’re responding to a global campaign of fear with a global
campaign of freedom. And once again, we will see freedom’s victory.”
Bush also made the historical observation that
“over the past few decades, radicals have specifically targeted Egypt
and Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and Jordan for potential takeover.” Bush
could have added Algeria, too.
But the larger point is that in all these cases the
radicals were defeated. That’s why al-Qaeda leaders have been forced to
flee their homelands. Bin-Laden is a Saudi; Zawahiri is an Egyptian;
Zarqawi is a Jordanian. In the late 1990s, bin-Laden was even banished
from the Sudan, forcing him to seek refuge in the remote Afghan
This history could support an analysis that Muslim
societies can handle these extremist movements if the United States and
other Western powers don’t get too directly involved. That analysis, in
turn, could justify a policy shift in which U.S. and British forces
withdraw from Iraq, thus removing the lure for foreign suicide-bombers
and enabling Iraqis – both Sunni and Shiite – to deal with Zarqawi’s
The “Zawahiri letter” seems to share that view,
albeit expressed in the fear that a prompt departure of U.S. troops
might cause young jihadists to lay down their weapons and give up the
Indeed, an argument could be made that al-Qaeda’s
leadership and hard-liners in the Bush administration are serving to
bolster each other. While Bush and his neoconservative advisers argue
that U.S. forces can’t leave Iraq now, al-Qaeda’s leaders are worried
that a sudden U.S. withdrawal might precipitate a collapse of their
jihadist forces in Iraq.
The Bush administration also has failed to make
clear the distinctions between the foreign jihadists, the fraction of
the fighters in Iraq whose tactic of choice is the suicide bomb, and the
much larger Sunni-led insurgency, which is battling over more
traditional political grievances and fighting mostly with small arms and
With U.S. forces acting as allies of the Shiites,
the Sunnis are not in position to turn on the foreign jihadists who also
are fighting the Americans and the Shiites. If American troops left,
however, not only would many young jihadists be deprived of their chief
motivation for suicide-bombing but the Sunnis would no longer find the
Zarqawi remnants very useful. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Iraq
& the Logic of Withdrawal.”]
Stay the Course
Back in the United States, seeking to revive public
enthusiasm for the war, Bush and his neocon advisers are reprising the
strategy of late 2002 and early 2003, using over-the-top threat analyses
to whip the U.S. public and the news media into a war frenzy.
Before the Iraq invasion, leading U.S.
publications, including the New York Times, played up dubious claims
about Iraq’s alleged WMD, while Bush’s supporters lashed out at anyone
who questioned Bush’s case for war. Some pro-war enthusiasts drove
trucks over Dixie Chicks CDs because one of the singers had criticized
In the months after the invasion, even though the
WMD wasn’t found, Bush continued to have a relatively free hand in
misrepresenting facts about the Iraq War. For instance, four months
after the invasion, Bush began revising the history about whether
Hussein let in United Nations weapons inspectors before the invasion.
Hussein had acquiesced to a resumption of the UN
inspections in fall 2002, but Bush forced the inspectors out in March
By July 2003, however, Bush began claiming that he
had no choice but to invade Iraq because Hussein had shown “defiance”
and had not let the U.N. inspectors in. Though Bush repeated this false
claim again and again, no one in the U.S. news media challenged him.
[For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “President
Bush, With the Candlestick …”]
There is also a longer history of neoconservatives
getting political mileage out of overstating foreign threats. In the
1970s and early 1980s, the neocons exaggerated Soviet strategic power to
justify a massive U.S. arms buildup. They did it again when leftist
governments in Nicaragua and Grenada were pitched to the American people
as grave dangers to the United States.
Amid the triumphalism around the Soviet Union’s
collapse in 1991, few American analysts bothered to reexamine the issue
of whether the communist bloc was in terminal decline by the mid-1970s,
as some intelligence experts believed, and thus whether the U.S. arms
buildup in the 1980s was a waste of money.
Instead, the neoconservatives enshrined as
conventional wisdom that the arms race of the 1980s and the military
assaults on leftist regimes in places like Nicaragua and Grenada brought
the Soviet Union down. [For details on this history, see Robert Parry’s
Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]
If the purported “Zawahiri letter” is real – as the
U.S. intelligence community asserts – the discrepancy between that image
of al-Qaeda, subsisting on the political fringes, and Bush’s portrait of
an immensely powerful al-Qaeda suggests that Bush and the neocons are
back at the game of scaring the American people.