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Zawahiri: Iraq is the Center of the War on Terror By: Dr. Walid Phares
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, October 13, 2005

The letter between al-Qaeda's second leader, Zawahiri, and its leader in Iraq, al-Zarqawi, has forced the media to come to a conclusion it should have reached long ago: jihadists really do want to make a stand in Iraq. Moreover, those of us who have followed them know, despite the media's breathless coverage that these are new disclosures, this is not a new strategy.

In fact, the letter appears to be more than a person-to-person letter, but a communication from the commander to the whole of al-Qaeda. I base this assumption on my personal experience. When U.S. media showed significant interest in the Zawahiri letter addressed to Abu Mus’aab al-Zarqawi, I attempted to monitor the jihadist chat rooms regarding the so-called letter. To my surprise, the next day a letter was being read in a couple chat rooms. It was a lengthy text of about 30 minutes. All of the points summarized in the daily media were included, but the oral paragraphs were much longer. The “moderator” said he was reading the letter from the “doctor”; hence I assumed it to be the same letter. The moderator also mentioned that this document was around in August, but I had no way to confirm that.

My first conclusion though was that the so-called letter - or a copy - was indeed released internally within the Tanzeem (organization) for dissemination and “discussion.” That day, I had no evidence about the first date of the internal release, nor who released it to the network all the way to the “rooms.” Was it released back in July or after, since segments of the letter surfaced during this time period in the Western press? It seemed to me that, although Zawahiri’s letter was on the face of it “personal” and directed to Abu Mas’aab, this letter (or pieces of it) was nevertheless circulated among the jihadists before it was publicized gradually in the U.S. and the broader West. Was there a reason? Until the government posted the entire translation of the text on the web yesterday, the situation was somewhat peculiar: was it meant to be sent only for the eyes of Abu Mus’aab? I am not sure anymore. For a Zawahiri letter to be read by the room(s) moderators and “descended” on to the cadres, shows the initial intent of he writer(s) and the sender(s). Ironically, while some paragraphs of the letter were surfacing through the media, the (alleged) entire text of the letter – or at least a much longer version – was circulated within the jihadist community online. While pieces were appearing in the U.S. press, the entire letter was read in the chat rooms.

In any event, the moderator a week ago didn’t seem to be reading some extremely secret letter, but a “strategic document” from al doctor, a reading repeated in a newly formed ghurfa (room). The reading was followed by an interesting Q-and-A session about the “rules of engagement.” As reported in the Western press, the issues of beheading, attacks against the Shi’ites, and the issue of focus on American forces were the heart of the “debate.” This is a telling feature of the original importance of the letter: it had the shape of a confidential and personal letter but its content is written as policy guidelines for terrorist cadres. Hence, regardless of the internal “enigma” the document raises important points:

One, the document seems to be a “policy” directive sent by al-Qaeda’s high command to the most critical battlefield of the Jihadists: Iraq. Two, and more importantly, the main points made within the Western media were about the strategic plan ordered by al-Qaeda in the Middle East and the centrality of Iraq in al-Qaeda’s planning. The Washington Post article, based on fragments of the letter wrote:

The letter of instructions and requests outlines a four-stage plan, according to officials: First, expel American forces from Iraq. Second, establish a caliphate over as much of Iraq as possible. Third, extend the jihad to neighboring countries, with specific reference to Egypt and the Levant – a term that describes Syria and Lebanon. And finally, war against Israel.

What strikes seasoned observers of terrorism is that none of this is revolutionary news. I wasn’t at all surprised to read that letter, but I was surprised to see the press treating the substance as a brand new or explosive material. The so-called four-stage plan has been common knowledge amongst jihadists and even “digested” on al-Jazeera: defeating the U.S. in Iraq, declaring the caliphate in the most extended Sunni areas in Iraq, then moving beyond that realm has been a classic plan for some time. A reader of Islamist geopolitics would understand that “extending the jihad” towards Egypt and the Mashreq (translated by Levant) - meaning Syria, Lebanon and Jordan - is the equivalent of spreading within the Sunni realm of the region. The latter move, according to earlier Salafist analysis, should culminate with a clash with the Jewish state. We’re talking about the Muslim Brotherhood old song: nothing really innovative, but certainly new to our public, once translated and published.

The article adds as a basis for the revolutionary character of Zawahiri’s letter: “I want to be the first to congratulate you for what God has blessed you with in terms of fighting in the heart of the Islamic world, which was formerly the field for major battles in Islam’s history, and what is now the place for the greatest battle of Islam in this era.” What seems to be a scoop in the eyes of many in the media is the daily bread of jihadists. Every single day of every week, some emir, imam, terrorist cell, or talking head on al-Jazeera or in a chat room reconfirm what Zawahiri wrote in his letter.

The Washington Post article said: “U.S. officials say they were struck by the letter’s emphasis on the centrality of Iraq to al-Qaeda’s long-term mission.” Why would the officials be “struck?” What is stunning about the centrality of Iraq to al-Qaeda? Is Iraq central to the jihadi global offensive worldwide? Of course it is.

Baghdad has been the direct objective of Osama bin Laden at least since February 2003, when he asked his jihadists to be ready for the big moment. He openly announced that Saddam will fall, and that they should move on the “second capital of the Caliphate.” A good reading of the jihadi thinking and literature, even when Saddam was in power, would leave you with one conclusion: with or without the removal of Saddam, al-Qaeda and the Salafists targeted Baghdad. The place has a value of its own, deeply rooted in Muslim history and in the Islamist vision of the renewal. The real question in our so-called American debate should be about the strategy to stop the terrorists from achieving this goal, not about “re-discovering” their intentions.

This letter should not raise eyebrows that the jihadists have designs on Iraq and Baghdad: that is old news.

If the Zawahiri letter is important, it is because of its clarification of what was always the grand design of the jihadis, not because it is revealing some deep secret. The letter is important because it was written by the number two of the organization and states clearly what are the strategic intentions, even though they were announced, discussed and applied long ago. In short, the public has them now in English and signed by Doktor Ayman personally. It cuts down tons of poor interpretations of the jihadist wars in the region, including the false explanation that jihad terror was born “because” of the removal of Saddam Hussein.

If anything, the conversation provoked by this letter should have been about the steps we can take to enable the Iraqis to resist al-Qaeda’s strategy. That is the dialogue the world desperately needs for us to engage.

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Dr Walid Phares is the author of the newly released book Future Jihad. He is also a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington DC.

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