The Zawahiri-Zarqawi Letter: Al-Qaeda’s Tactical and Theater-of-War Concerns

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 2 Issue: 21

Debate among analysts about the authenticity of the July 2005 letter from Ayman al-Zawahiri to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi rightly continues [1]. To be clear, I am among those who believe the letter is genuine; and would be surprised—though not shocked—if it turns out a forgery. That said, others are more qualified than I to analyze the letter’s discordant word choices, semantics, and compositional structure, and some of this analysis has already been published in Terrorism Focus. Instead, I would like to look at the letter from the perspective of al-Zawahiri’s post-9/11 emergence as al-Qaeda’s tactical spokesman. Over the past four years, the public roles of al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden have become clearly—but not absolutely—differentiated, with al-Zawahiri’s words targeting a variety of tactical situations and specific “theater-of-war” concerns; bin Laden’s statements, on the other hand, are primarily strategic in nature or focused specifically on the United States. If this apparent division of responsibilities is accurate, it tends to suggest that al-Zawahiri’s letter to al-Zarqawi is genuine.

Tactical Situations

There appears to be two levels at which al-Zawahiri is acting as al-Qaeda’s tactical spokesman. The first is in regard to current events that result from the initiative of others or are unanticipated. These are events that can be turned to the public relations advantage of al-Qaeda and the Islamist movement if al-Qaeda’s media apparatus can address them with dispatch. During the past eight months, there have been least four such occasions al-Qaeda has exploited in this manner; in each case al-Zawahiri played the leading role. The issues were: Islamist prisoners of war; the purported desecration of the Qur’an by U.S. servicemen; Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections; and the earthquake in Pakistan.

—Islamist prisoners: “One might ask: Why all this interest in Guantanamo while there are thousands of Gunatanamos in our countries under U.S. supervision and control? In my opinion, and God knows best, the answer is that it [Guantanamo] reveals the reality of reform and democracy which America claims that it seeks to spread in our [Muslim] countries. This reform will be based on U.S. detention centers—like Bagram, Kandahar, Gunatanamo, and Abu Ghuryab—bombing with cluster bombs and missiles, and installing people like [Afghanistan’s] Karzai and [Iraq’s] Allawi.” [2]

—Qur’an desecration: “[Secretary of State] Rice traveled the universe to teach people the principles of freedom, the arts of justice, and the fundamentals of religious tolerance. The poor woman forgot that her lying is a laughingstock and that her government repeatedly desecrated the Holy Koran to reveal its Crusader rancor against Islam and the Muslims.” [3]

—Afghan elections: “What did they [the Americans] achieve in Afghanistan? They drove out the Taliban government from Kabul to take up positions in the villages and mountains where the real power in Afghanistan is.… They then held elections, which are more a farce than anything else.… While the United Nations objected, for example, to elections in Zimbabwe because the election duration was not enough, it [the UN] remains utterly silent at the elections in Afghanistan which were held under the terrorism of warlords. Ballot boxes remained in the hands of the bandits and America’s agents for 15 days. No one knows anything about these boxes until they appeared at vote counting centers.” [4]

—Pakistan’s earthquake: “We feel deep sadness and sorrow at the news of the disaster that befell the Muslim Pakistanis as the result of the earthquake in Pakistan and Afghanistan yesterday.… The important thing is: I call upon Muslims in general, and upon Islamic charities in particular, to go to Pakistan and assist their Pakistani brothers. They should try to outdo one another in this. They should bear in mind the troubles they will encounter in doing so. We are all aware of the extent of the raging American war against the activities of Islamic charities. We all know the Musharraf government is a branch of the CIA. Despite all this, I call on Muslims to hasten to the aid of their brothers in Pakistan, any way they can, in order to provide as much aid as possible. They should bear in mind the harm (that may come to them) from the Americans and their collaborators.” [5]

Obviously, the four statements quoted above are instances where al-Zawahiri sought to take public advantage of tactical developments. The statements are crisp, have a hard, rhetorical edge, and could have been made by either bin Laden or al-Zawahiri. Al-Zawahiri, however, was chosen to make each of them. In looking at al-Zawahiri’s purported letter to al-Zarqawi, we may be seeing the reverse side of this same tactical coin. In the letter, al-Zawahiri may well be trying to address developing tactical situations that are redounding to the disadvantage of al-Qaeda and the Islamist movement, each of which would ill-serve the Islamists if debated in public. Al-Zarqawi’s intentional and indiscriminate attacks on Shi’as, his beheading of hostages, and his lack of concern for building popular support are three such tactical issues covered in the letter. The last, it can be noted, has long been an issue of major concern to Zawahiri. “The simplest of duties on Muslims in these times,” he wrote in 1994, reminding his readers of the need to cultivate popular support,

“is to support the advocates of righteousness and to back the faithful mujahideen who have shouldered the responsibility of defending this religion and the honor, blood, and money of Muslims.… The portrait of these simple people alerts me every day in [sic-to?] the extent of the negligence of the Islamic movement in uniting with these good people who are in the millions and who care to show their feelings toward the mujahideen without expecting any reward or thanks from them. So, can we reach out to these good people? Can we make them understand that [the] mujahideen are fighting to defend their religion and protect their dignity and honor?” [6]

Theater-of-War Concerns

The purported Zawahiri-to-Zarqawi letter is centrally concerned with what might be called “theater operations” activities in the Iraq-Levant region. Zawahiri urges Zarqawi to be prepared for a precipitous American military withdrawal from Iraq; for establishing a post-U.S. Islamist emirate governed by a coalition of Islamic groups, including Shi’as; and for maintaining the momentum of an Islamist victory by expanding operations into Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, and Egypt [7]. The focus on a particular geographical region of operations in this letter is not a first for Zawahiri. Indeed, al-Zawahiri has been al-Qaeda’s primary spokesman for the organization’s “Pakistan Theater of Operations” since 9/11.

Zawahiri had firmly established his leading role in the handling of al-Qaeda’s Pakistan dossier by early 2003, and has been gradually building an indictment of President Musharraf‘s regime which would appeal—in a manner that at once challenges, shames, and flatters—across the spectrum of Pakistan’s society, from Islamists, to Pashtun and Baluch tribesmen, to semi-secular nationalists, to the military. Al-Zawahiri’s goal is to prompt Pakistani society to “revolt against him [Musharraf] and topple him before he turns you into servants to the Hindus and Crusaders.… Man should not obey any creature if there is disobedience to the Crusader” [8].

—Islamists: “Musharraf is the one who enabled the United States to topple the Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan. Without his great help, the United States would not have been able to do this…. Who stifled the jihad of the Kashmiri people, went back on their right to self-determination, and considered the mujahideen in Palestine as terrorists and feverishly seeks to recognize Israel?” (9)

—Pashtun and Baluch Tribes: “Musharraf seeks to stab the mujahideen resistance in Afghanistan in the back.… The Pashtun tribes—which are free and lofty and which conquered India and defeated the British and Russians—have given and still give the biggest support to the mujahideen in Afghanistan. They were assisted in this honorable duty by the dear and kind Baluch tribes, which have sent heroes to support Islam. These were headed by the Baluchi Pakistan heroes Aimal Kansi, may God have him rest in peace, Ramzi Yusuf and Khalid Shaykh Muhammad, may God speed their release from prison. Therefore America commissioned Musharraf with the task of taking revenge on the border tribes, especially the valiant and lofty Pashtun tribes, in order to contain this popular support for jihad against its crusade.… Musharraf, however, pretends to forget that these tribes, which have defended Islam throughout its history, will not bow to any treasonous U.S. slave. [10]

—Nationalists: “As a result of Musharraf’s treason to [sic] the Muslims in Afghanistan an agent government was set up in Kabul. That government brought the Indians to Pakistan’s western border. Thus, Pakistan’s security is now threatened from the east and the west.… Musharraf is also the one who transformed the Pakistani nuclear program from a power to defend Pakistan into a burden on it. He transformed the Pakistani nuclear program from a fierce fighter that defends Pakistan into a disabled weakling that needs care and help. He also transformed it from a means of Pakistan’s strength, independence, and protection of its sovereignty and dignity into a pretext for submission and subservience and slavery to its [U.S.] tyranny.” [11]

—Military: “I also appeal to the Pakistani army and say to it: O poor army, in what miserable situation did Musharraf put you? The Indians are in front of you and behind you in Afghanistan. Musharraf is destroying your natural shield, namely, the border tribes, by preoccupying you fighting with them. At the same time, he deprives you of your nuclear weapons. So, will you remain silent until Pakistan is divided again and until Islamabad falls down like Dhaka? … Are the Indian armies that used to kill Muslims yesterday at the orders of the British the same [as the] Musharraf forces that kill Muslims in Afghanistan and tribal areas nowadays at the orders of the Americans? Do the Musharraf soldiers not provide the Crusaders with the information, bases, and airports and supply them with food and fuel to imprison, torture and kill the Muslims or violate their dignity in Pakistan and Afghanistan?” [12]


The goal of this article is, once again, to suggest another way to analyze the authenticity of the purported Zawahiri letter of July 9, 2005. While the letter appears to be genuine, it remains purely speculative and I cannot discount the work of several excellent analysts who have minutely examined the letter’s text and lean toward believing the letter is a forgery. It is, however, important to note that the themes and goals of the letter are clearly consonant with al-Zawahiri’s post-9/11 role as al-Qaeda’s spokesman for evolving breaking tactical situations and for theater-specific concerns and operations. In this light, it is at least possible that the unusual tone, textual structure, and word choice found in the letter are mostly the result of the letter being intended for private consumption rather than public use. This possibility is increased by the fact that Western analysts have not seen previous exemplars of private and top level al-Qaeda leadership communications.

Michael Scheuer served in the CIA for 22 years before resigning in 2004. He served as the Chief of the bin Laden Unit at the Counterterrorist Center from 1996 to 1999. He is the once anonymous author of Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror and Through Our Enemies’ Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America. Scheuer is a regular contributor to Terrorism Focus.


1. “Letter from al-Zawahiri to al-Zarqawi, 9 July 2005,”, 11 October 2005.

2. “Al-Zawahiri Statement on Guantanamo Prisoners, U.S. ‘Reform’,” al-Jazeera Television, February 20, 2005.

3. “Al-Zawahiri’s Message on U.S. Desecration of the Koran,” Global News Network (Internet), September 27, 2005,

4. “Al-Zawahiri Denies U.S. Achievements in Afghanistan, Criticizes Elections,” al-Jazeera, September 19, 2005.

5. “Al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri Calls on Muslims to Give Aid to Earthquake Victims in Pakistan,” al-Jazeera Television, October 23, 2005.

6. “Syrup and Sugar for Shaykh Ayman al-Zawahiri,” al-Mujahideen Magazine, No. 18, 1994, reprinted in Alneda (Internet), June 7, 2002.

7. “Letter from al-Zawahiri to al-Zarqawi, July 9, 2005,”, October 11, 2005.

8. “Statement by Ayman al-Zawahiri,” al-Jazeera Televsion, September 2, 2005.

9. “Statement by Ayman al-Zawahiri,” Al-Arabiyah Television, September 28, 2003, and “Ayman al-Zawahiri’s March 4, 2004 Address to Pakistanis,” Global News Network (Internet,), 22 October 2005,

10. “Ayman al-Zawahiri’s March 4, 2004 Address to Pakistanis,” Global News Network (Internet,), October 22, 2005,

11. “Statement by Ayman al-Zawahiri,” Al-Arabiyah Television, September 28, 2003.

12. “Ayman al-Zawahiri’s March 4, 2004 Address to Pakistanis,” Global News Network (Internet,), October 22, 2005,