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