Baathist Origins Of The Zarqawi Letter

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 6

Coalition forces recently captured a seventeen-page letter detailing plans to foment civil war in Iraq before the June 30 deadline for the hand-over of power. Some analysts have suggested the letter is proof of al-Qaeda’s involvement in terrorist attacks in Iraq today, attributing authorship of the letter to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi [1]. A Jordanian operative believed to be planning and carrying out various operations in Jordan and Iraq, al-Zarqawi is generally considered to have close ties to the al-Qaeda affiliated group Ansar al-Islam, which had training camps in northern Iraq prior to the takeover by coalition forces. A careful analysis of the document, however, casts serious doubt on claims that he penned the letter. After closer inspection, it seems more likely that representatives of the former Iraqi Sunni ruling elite–especially members of the Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein’s secret police organization–wrote the letter.


There are several reasons to doubt al-Zarqawi’s authorship of the letter, the first being the most simple. The letter’s style and use of a sophisticated level of Arabic seems to suggest an author with some level of education, while al-Zarqawi is known to have very little formal schooling.

Secondly, conflicting reports surrounding the letter and its capture raise more questions than answers as to the possible author. The document itself has no signature. It was Hassan Ghul, a suspected al-Qaeda member captured in Iraq on January 22, who carried it and who told U.S. authorities that al-Zarqawi wrote it. Officials in Baghdad have said that they believe the letter was drafted in Iraq and was being carried by Ghul to senior al-Qaeda members, most likely in Pakistan or Afghanistan, but differing reports have emerged. Initial information indicated that Ghul was captured by “friendly foreign forces” near the Iran-Iraq border on his way into Iraq to meet al-Zarqawi, thereby excluding al-Zarqawi from the list of possible authors. The New York Times reported that the document was found during a raid on a safe house in Baghdad on January 23.

Most telling, however, is the letter’s content; the document outlines interests and goals discordant with those of al-Qaeda.


Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders generally aim their message at “every Muslim,” making no distinction between Sunni and Shi’a, (though al-Qaeda itself is militantly Sunni). America and Americans are consistently identified as the main enemies of al-Qaeda. In contrast, though the letter encourages members of the Iraqi resistance “to kill and capture them [Americans] to sow panic among those behind them and to trade them for our detained sheikhs and brothers,” the document mainly targets Shi’ites–“the most evil of mankind”–and their holy sites.

Displaying a hatred of the Shi’ites in a way that no previous al-Qaeda related document has done, the letter refers to the Shi’ites as “the overwhelming obstacle, the lurking snake, the crafty and malicious scorpion, the spying enemy, and the penetrating venom.” It blames Shi’ites for “patent polytheism,” “worshipping at graves,” “circumambulating shrines,” “calling the Companions [of the Prophet] infidels,” and “insulting the mothers of the believers and the elite of this nation [i.e., the Sunni].” The author further states that, “Shi’ism is a religion that has nothing in common with Islam.” It is unlikely that al-Zarqawi would vent such venom toward the Shi’ites, since coalition intelligence analysts believe that he received refuge for a time in Iran–the stronghold of Shi’ism.

Authorship by someone other than a person affiliated with al-Qaeda would better explain the ire directed toward Shi’ites in the letter. Indeed, the most logical authors would be Sunni Baathists, whom coalition forces overthrew, placing Shi’ites in the ascendancy. The document specifically criticizes the Shi’ites for trying “to seize upon the crisis of governance and the balance of power in the state, whose features they are trying to draw and whose new lines they are trying to establish through their political banners and organizations in cooperation with their hidden allies the Americans.” It insists that “they [Shi’ites] began by taking control of the institutions of the state and their security, military, and economic branches… They are deeply embedded inside these institutions and branches… They have placed cadres in these institutions, and, in the name of preserving the homeland and the citizen, have begun to settle their scores with the Sunnis…They have liquidated many Sunnis and many of their Baath Party enemies and others beholden to the Sunnis in an organized, studied way.” By contrast, material attributed to al-Qaeda has no such nationalistic overtones. Even when criticizing specific conditions in Saudi Arabia, al-Qaeda’s focus has been on the presence of non-Muslims, not Shi’ite.

A recent opinion poll of Iraqis demonstrated that 56 percent of that country’s population believes that the situation is better today than a year ago, while 71 percent said they thought they would be even better off a year from now [3]. Ex-Baathists have the most to lose from such sentiments, especially when their fellow Sunnis, who are not active in resistance but are rather enjoying a new life, share such hope for the future. Thus, the letter includes a condemnation of “Iraqi brothers” who “still prefer safety and returning to the arms of their wives, where nothing frightens them.” The author takes issue with the type of resistance most common now in Iraq, lamenting that the “jihad unfortunately [takes the form of] mines planted, rockets launched, and mortars shelling from afar.” He encourages more violent resistance, insisting “that safety and victory are incompatible, that the tree of triumph and empowerment cannot grow tall and lofty without blood and defiance of death, that the nation cannot live without the aroma of martyrdom and the perfume of fragrant blood spilled on behalf of God”–or on behalf of the former elite, as is more likely the case.


That the “al-Zarqawi letter” was most probably not written by al-Zarqawi does not preclude possibility that the true author would want to link himself with al-Qaeda. The letter may well have been an offer of cooperation to al-Qaeda’s leaders. At least one senior coalition official in Baghdad shares this view, referring to the letter as essentially a “business proposition” to al-Qaeda in the hope of receiving assistance and support [4]. A document recently discovered in the files of the Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) supports this argument. It discloses a list of IIS agents described as “collaborators”, including “the Saudi Osama bin Laden” [5]. It therefore would seem natural for former IIS members to ask assistance from al-Qaeda.

The author also stresses that they (local, not “immigrant mujahideen”) are responsible for major strikes against coalition forces and Shi’ites so far, claiming to have “completed 25 [operations] up to now, including among the Shi’a and their symbolic figures, the Americans and their soldiers, the police and soldiers, and the coalition forces.” Reading the letter as a request for al-Qaeda’s cooperation, such assertions would indicate the author’s willingness to accept help–but not dominance–from outside, a point about which members of Saddam Hussein’s regime would be expected to be most sensitive. In keeping with this interpretation, the letter states that “immigrant mujahideen” would be welcome in Iraq, but in small numbers, explaining “the country has no mountains in which we can take refuge and no forests in whose thickets we can hide.” Furthermore, the letter warns that though “many Iraqis will honor you [immigrant mujahideen] as a guest and give you shelter as a peaceable brother,” but “as for making his house into a base for launching [operations] and a place of movement and battle, this is rarer than red sulfur. For this reason, we have worn ourselves out on many occasions sheltering and protecting the brothers. This makes training the green newcomers like wearing bonds and shackles.”


So while at first glance analysts may attribute this extraordinary letter to al-Zarqawi or some other al-Qaeda affiliate, a deeper analysis casts serious doubt on this thesis. Vehement hatred of the Shi’ite, coupled with the nationalistic overtones of the letter and an apparent desire to reinstitute the former regime, point to Baathist remnants and their sympathizers as the author. Moreover, an interpretation of the letter as an overture to al-Qaeda, calling for help but warning against a massive influx of “immigrant mujahideen,” fits well with the theory that the origins of the document are more likely Baathist than al-Qaeda.


1. For this and all other references and quotes from the letter appearing in this article, a transcript can be found at the CPA web site:

2. World Islamic Front Statement Urging Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders, World Islamic Front, Federation of American Scientists, February 23, 1998.

3. Terror Is Losing, The New York Post, by Paul Wolfowitz, March 19, 2004.

4. Too true to be good? by Ramsey Al-Rikabi, Al-Ahram Baghdad correspondent, Al-Ahram Weekly Online : 12-18 February 2004 (Issue No. 677). Located at:

5. Iraq-al Qaeda link, Washington Times, Inside the Ring, March 19, 2004.

Evgueni Novikov is a Senior Fellow of the Jamestown Foundation.