October 21, 2005,
The arguments over that Zawahiri letter suggests we don’t know our enemy.
On October 8, 2005, the U.S. government unsealed a letter allegedly written by Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama Bin Laden’s deputy, to “the Emir (prince) of al-Qaeda in Iraq,” Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The letter’s authenticity was largely questioned; as reported by Reuters on October 14: “U.S. intelligence officials who released a letter purporting to be from an al Qaeda leader to Iraq insurgency leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi this week said on Friday they could not account for a passage that has raised doubts about the document's authenticity”.
A Los Angeles Times op-ed titled “Fake Letter, Real Trouble,” said that "there are reasons to doubt that it is authentic.” The main question over authenticity appears to arises from a passage that concludes the letter: “By Allah, if by any chance you are going to Fallujah, send greetings to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.” If the letter is written from Zawahiri to Zarqawi, the reports implicated, why does the former ask the latter to send regards to himself? How could Zawahiri, the purported writer of this letter, forget that it was already addressed to Zarqawi?
In spite of these and similar doubts, Reuters quoted a spokesman for John Negroponte, U.S. director of national intelligence, who acknowledged that the greetings passage did appear confusing, but that the intelligence community was confident the letter was authentic. Other terrorism experts suggested that perhaps the letter was not addressed to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, but rather to abu Musab al-Suri, also known as Mustafa Setmarian Nasser, al Qaeda ideologist and expert on urban warfare.
Media representatives, U.S. government officials, and experts who doubt the credibility of the letter may have jumped to the wrong conclusion. The greetings in the passage in question, if anything, strongly confirm the letter’s authenticity. What all these pundits are sometimes missing is a familiarity with the vernacular of the jihadi community.
Since November 2004, following battles with the Coalition Forces in Fallujah, jihadis on the Internet have been widely using a slogan that was borrowed from a poem. The poem included the following lines:
It will be destroyed on the arrogant son of an arrogant
You who rule countries by his infidels
You can kill flies with chemicals
You who are riding the fast thing
By Allah, where are you going to?
If you are going to Fallujah
Send my regards to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi
And all the jihadis in his group . . .1
The poem has caught on in jihadi circles. Members of hundreds of online jihadi forums, not just ones directly connected to the insurgents in Iraq, had posted and discussed it. Some of these discussions are down now, but others are still active. Examples are the Jihadi Palestinian Forum where the poem has been posted since November 15, 2004, and the Yemen Youth Forum, which still features an active link.
Because of its success, music was composed for the poem that was then circulated as a song and posted on jihadi message- boards and websites all over the world. An example is the Arabic Saudi Forum, a very popular forum, which posted links to the audio on December 14, 2004.
On November 14, 2004 ,the Buradh jihadi message board posted a new thread titled “By Allah, if by chance you are going to Fallujah, send greetings to Abu Musab al-zarqawi.” The entire al-Ghamidi poem was posted, but the focus of discussion was the slogan. Likewise, on January 23, 2005, a member of a Palestinian forum signing as “Muhammad the engineer” posted a new thread, with the same title. Shortly thereafter, the slogan turned into a synonym for Zarqawi’s “great war” against the “crusaders.”Some message-board members even use it as a signature and in response to al Qaeda communiqués. The slogan is also frequently used in greetings, blessings, or, as in Zawahiri’s letter, as concluding statements.
The sentence with which Zawahiri closed his letter to Zarqawi, is, in fact, that slogan: “By Allah, if by any chance you are going to Fallujah, send greetings to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.” Not only is it reasonable for him to conclude his letter to Zarqawi thus, but it also demonstrates that he is well-informed on the very latest developments in the jihadi community.
As for the suggestion that the addressee is in fact al-Suri rather than Zarqawi, in the body of the letter Zawahiri makes note of beheadings in Iraq: This could only apply to Zarqawi, as no beheadings are attributed to al-Suri.
An erroneous interpretation of the letter is a typical example of how superficial understanding of the al-Qaeda network and its workings continues to imperil the war on terror. Wrong conclusions based on partial or incorrect information can lead to wrong decisions, tactics, and strategies. The fight over the letter is bad news: The West just doesn't know it's enemy.
Rita Katz is the author of Terrorist Hunter and the director of the SITE Institute.
1 The poem in its entirety, in the original Arabic, can be found on SITE Institutes Web site, http://siteinstitute.biz/videos/clips/SITE_Institute_Fallujah_Poem.pdf