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'Al-Qaeda Letter' Belies Bush's Iraq Claims

By Robert Parry
October 14, 2005

A letter that U.S. intelligence attributes to al-Qaeda’s second-in-command undercuts George W. Bush’s latest claims that the terrorist organization has plans for conquests reaching halfway around the world and targeting America’s freedom.

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.

Bleak Picture

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 into isolation.”

Bush envisioned an Islamic terrorist empire reaching from the Atlantic Ocean on the west to the Pacific Ocean on the east.

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 2003.

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 Islamic extremism.

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 slaves,” Reuters reported on Oct. 13.]

Menacing Threat

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 totalitarian system.

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 mountains.

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 depleted forces.

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 fight.

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 booby traps.

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 the president.

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 2003.

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.


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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