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Giving Osama What He Really Wants

By Robert Parry
October 21, 2006

The Republican National Committee has released a new campaign ad to rally the GOP base and other voters by showing threatening quotes from al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden followed by the pitch: “These are the stakes. Vote Nov. 7.”

President George W. Bush has flogged the same theme in lashing Democrats who favor a military withdrawal from Iraq.

“If we were to follow the Democrats’ prescriptions and withdraw from Iraq, we would be fulfilling Osama bin Laden’s highest aspirations,” Bush said at an Oct. 19 campaign speech in La Plume, Pennsylvania. “We should at least be able to agree that the path to victory is not to do precisely what the terrorists want.”

But these appeals from the RNC and Bush ignore U.S. intelligence information indicating that what al-Qaeda really wants is for the United States to remain bogged down in Iraq so the terrorist band can use the American occupation to recruit and train a new generation of jihadists, who can then be deployed against targets outside Iraq.

In effect, Bush and bin Laden share a common goal in Iraq. They both want U.S. forces to “stay the course.”

Recently disclosed internal al-Qaeda communiqués make clear that bin Laden’s terrorist band is counting on a long-term U.S. occupation of Iraq to build its movement.

In a letter, dated Dec. 11, 2005, a senior al-Qaeda operative known as “Atiyah” lectured the then-leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, on the necessity of taking a long view and building ties with elements of the Sunni-led Iraqi insurgency who have little in common with al-Qaeda except hatred of the Americans.

Atiyah told Zarqawi that “the most important thing is that the jihad continues with steadfastness and firm rooting, and that it grows in terms of supporters, strength, clarity of justification, and visible proof each day. Indeed, prolonging the war is in our interest.” [Emphasis added.]

The “Atiyah letter” – like a previously intercepted message attributed to al-Qaeda’s second-in-command Ayman Zawahiri – suggests that a U.S. military pullout in 2005 or earlier would have been disastrous for al-Qaeda’s militants in Iraq, which are estimated at only about 5 to 10 percent of the anti-U.S. fighters.

Without the U.S. military presence to serve as a rallying cry and a unifying force, the al-Qaeda contingent faced disintegration from desertions and attacks from Iraqi insurgents who resented the wanton bloodshed committed by Zarqawi’s non-Iraqi terrorists.

The “Zawahiri letter,” which was dated July 9, 2005, said a rapid American military withdrawal could have caused the foreign jihadists, who had flocked to Iraq to battle the Americans, to simply give up the fight and go home.

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

The “Atiyah letter,” which was discovered by U.S. authorities at the time of Zarqawi’s death on June 7, 2006, and was translated by the U.S. military’s Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, also stressed the vulnerability of al-Qaeda’s position in Iraq and the need to buy time.

“Know that we, like all mujahaddin, are still weak,” Atiyah told Zarqawi. “We have not yet reached a level of stability. We have no alternative but to not squander any element of the foundations of strength or any helper or supporter.” [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Al-Qaeda’s Fragile Foothold.”]

Into al-Qaeda's Hands

So, by extending the U.S. occupation of Iraq – rather than looking for an early exit – Bush has played into al-Qaeda’s hands. Indeed, looking back over Bush’s almost six years in office, his actions – or some might say his blunders – have repeatedly benefited bin Laden’s strategies.

Not only did Bush fail to react to U.S. intelligence warnings about the 9/11 attacks, he then failed to finish off bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders in the battle of Tora Bora in December 2001.

Then, with al-Qaeda needing a respite, Bush shifted American focus to attack the secular government of Iraq, one of al-Qaeda’s regional enemies. That bought time for al-Qaeda to regroup, recover and reorganize.

But the biggest boon for al-Qaeda was Bush’s invasion of Iraq in March 2003, which served as a major recruiting tool for Islamic radicals. The U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, written in April 2006, confirmed this fact, calling the Iraq War the “cause celebre” that spread militancy throughout the Muslim world.

Bin Laden also reciprocated, providing a crucial political boost to Bush in the final days of Campaign 2004.

On Oct. 29, 2004, with Bush in a tough fight for a second term, bin Laden took the extraordinary personal risk to break nearly a year of silence and release a videotape that superficially denounced Bush but was interpreted by CIA analysts as a backdoor way to help Bush win.

“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, which draws heavily from CIA insiders.

Suskind wrote that CIA analysts had spent years “parsing each expressed word of the al-Qaeda leader and his deputy, 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 abuse 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.”

As their internal assessment sank in, 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.

Bush’s campaign backers, however, took bin Laden’s videotape at face value, calling it proof the terrorist leader feared Bush and favored Democrat John Kerry.

In a pro-Bush book entitled Strategery: How George W. Bush Is Defeating Terrorists, Outwitting Democrats and Confounding the Mainstream Media, right-wing journalist Bill Sammon devoted several pages to bin Laden’s videotape, portraying it as an attempt by the terrorist leader to persuade Americans to vote for Kerry.

“Bin Laden stopped short of overtly endorsing Kerry,” Sammon wrote, “but the terrorist offered a polemic against reelecting Bush.”

Sammon and other right-wing pundits didn’t weigh the obvious possibility that the crafty bin Laden might have understood that his “endorsement” of Kerry would achieve the opposite effect with the American people.

Bush on bin Laden

Bush himself recognized this fact. “I thought it was going to help,” Bush said in a post-election interview with Sammon about bin Laden’s 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 Strategery, Sammon also quotes Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman as agreeing that bin Laden’s videotape helped Bush. “It reminded people of the stakes,” Mehlman said. “It reinforced an issue on which Bush had a big lead over Kerry.”

But bin Laden, a student of American politics, surely understood that, too.

Now, as the Republicans face the prospect of losing control of the U.S. Congress, Bush and the RNC are not waiting for bin Laden to show his face again to – in Mehlman’s words – remind American voters “of the stakes.” Only a couple of weeks before the Nov. 7 elections, Bush and the RNC are doing it for bin Laden – and in the scariest possible terms.

“If we were to leave Iraq before the job is done,” Bush said at that Pennsylvania campaign stop, “the enemy would follow us here to America. We know this, because that’s what the terrorists tell us.”

“These are the stakes,” declared the RNC’s new ad.

But an examination of what “the terrorists tell us” suggests that al-Qaeda would be delighted to keep bleeding the U.S. military in Iraq, while exploiting the widespread anti-Americanism in the Muslim world that the war has engendered to recruit tens of thousands of young jihadists.

With so many new terrorists in training, there’s also no reason to think that the enemy will have to wait for the United States to leave Iraq before sparing a few for attacks outside Iraq or – in Bush’s words – to “follow us here to America.”

What is at stake in the Nov. 7 elections is whether Bush will continue to have a free hand in prolonging the war in Iraq and possibly spreading the conflict to other nations, such as Iran and Syria.

As for Iraq, despite the mounting death toll and the deepening chaos, Bush told the Pennsylvania campaign rally: “There is one thing we will not do. We will not pull out our troops from Iraq before the terrorists are defeated. We will not pull out before Iraq can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself.”

If those are Bush’s standards for withdrawal, it looks to be a very long war indeed.


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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