Is al-Zawahiri’s Letter to al-Zarqawi a Fake?

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 2 Issue: 19

On October 6, U.S. intelligence in Iraq revealed the existence of a 13-page letter, dated July 9, 2005, from al-Qaeda’s number two Ayman al-Zawahiri and addressed to al-Qaeda’s leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The message contained a number of interesting features, including a request for financial support and an expression of pessimism as to impending defeat in Afghanistan, with key leaders lost and their sources of funding “severely disrupted.” Yet, al-Zawahiri’s comments on the global aims of jihad and disapproval of al-Zarqawi’s targeting of the Shi’a in Iraq have drawn the most attention. While conceding that a clash between the Sunni-dominated movement and the Shi’ite community in Iraq is inevitable, al-Zawahiri takes issue in the letter with al-Zarqawi’s filmed decapitations of prisoners, which are circulated to the media and released on the Internet. He highlights the public relations damage inflicted by this, saying “the general opinion of those who support us do not understand” the policy. Instead, he urges sensitivity in regard to the role of the media in the struggle, where half the battle against the Americans is being played out.

As far back as February, according to U.S. counter-terrorism officials, bin Laden was urging al-Zarqawi to diversify his targeting (for instance by getting involved in attacks inside the United States). In recent months, however, al-Zarqawi’s group has clearly placed an emphasis on the targeting of Shi’as. Indications of an overt anti-Shi’a campaign first hit the media this summer with the publication of an extensive e-book (Salsalat al-I’dad lil-Jihad, “Preparation for the Jihad Series”), which included calls for violence on all but “true Muslims,” a group that “does not include Shi’ites.” Later, on September 14, al-Zarqawi issued an audio-tape on the jihadi forums in which he overtly declared “total war” on the Shi’a, drawing criticism even from hardline Sunni Islamic leaders, including the Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq and the influential Syrian ideologue Shaykh Abu Baseer al-Tartousi. Sunni resistance groups also issued a joint communique underlining how they confined their attacks to “the occupation and those who assist it.” The sensitivity of al-Qaeda to public opinion in the Middle East is not new, and was part of the controversy raging in Saudi Arabia at the acceleration of the armed confrontations where the number of innocent Muslims killed in the attacks was causing a negative reaction. After the publication of several treatises explaining their position, the Mujahideen subsequently made exaggerated efforts to demonstrate their care in not targeting civilians.

As the world’s media was mulling over the letter, jihadi supporters were downloading al-Zarqawi’s audio recording entitled “La yadurruhum man khadhalahum” (They are not harmed by those who forsake them) in which he roundly rejected the criticism of his targeting of Shi’ites. He argued against the alien frames of reference, in that “Islam does not differentiate between civilians and military (targets) but rather distinguishes between Muslims and infidels.” Muslim blood, he concedes, is inviolable, but the blood of an infidel is “allowed, no matter what he does or where he is.” Al-Zarqawi also rejected the tendency to avoid the term ‘jihad,’ arguing that the term ‘resistance’ is not specific to Islam and that the aims of jihad are far deeper than mere expulsion of the enemy (

The letter from al-Zawahiri also reminds al-Zarqawi that the jihad does not end with the expulsion of U.S. forces, but continues in the struggle to install an Islamic Caliphate in Iraq against calls for a secular regime. To achieve this, it emphasizes, the movement needs to be more politically astute and maintain popular support. The stages of the “global” struggle are spelled out for him: expulsion of the American forces from Iraq; establishment of a Caliphate system in the country; extension of the jihad to neighboring countries and war against Israel.

This letter presents a number of problems. To date there has been no clarification as to how the letter was intercepted, and despite high official confidence of its authenticity, verified by “multiple sources over an extended period of time,” there is little in the way of independent corroboration offered. Further questions are raised by the content. While the message of global jihad’s aims is consistent with other documents outlining al-Qaeda strategy, it is remarkable that a letter between the two al-Qaeda leaders should spell this out in such an explanatory way, as if these basic details, shared as common knowledge among mujahideen, were the subject of some doubt. Indeed, the text is conspicuous for the way in which it seems to counter, almost point for point, the objections raised by Western critics of the coalition campaign in Iraq, in that:

–al-Qaeda’s aims are not confined to “resistance” of a foreign invader;

–the war would not end with American withdrawal but extend to neighboring states and to Israel;

–the “foreignness” of the mujahideen in Iraq may be a de-legitimizing factor;

–al-Qaeda has actually resigned itself to defeat in Afghanistan;

–the organization is experiencing difficulty in communications; and

–funding has become a problem for the organization.

Aside from the oddness in appending a call for financial help after criticizing one with whom relations have never been close, there is simply the problem of the form of the letter. The opening greeting, the customary blessing “Peace and blessings upon the Messenger of God,” is followed by the phrase “and on his Family,” a formula which is more often encountered among Shi’a salutations–the Shi’a emphasizing respect to the house of the Prophet in the way that Sunnis generally do not, and Salafists never. The letter is certainly dismissed by al-Zarqawi himself. In a posting on October 13 on the al-Hesba forum, he rejected it as “without foundation, except in the imagination of the leaders of the Black House and its servants,” and argued that it simply indicated “the clear bankruptcy which the infidel camp has been reduced to.” Consequently al-Zarqawi urges the mujahideen “to ignore this cheap propaganda” ( Indeed, in view of the surprising lack of jihadi forum comment on a high-level communication that should be of immense significance and controversy, and pending further confirmation of origin, it would be wise to treat the letter with skepticism.