Letter Gives Glimpse of Al-Qaeda's Leadership
Monday, October 2, 2006
Six months before the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in June, a senior al-Qaeda figure warned him in a letter that he risked removal as al-Qaeda's leader in Iraq if he continued to alienate Sunni tribal and religious leaders and rival insurgent groups.
The author of the Dec. 11 letter, who said he was writing from al-Qaeda headquarters in the Waziristan region of Pakistan, was a member of Osama bin Laden's high command who signed himself "Atiyah." The military's Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, which last week released a 15-page English translation of the Arabic document made public in Iraq, said his real identity was "unknown."
But counterterrorism officials said they believe he is Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, a 37-year-old Libyan who joined bin Laden in Afghanistan as a teenager during the 1980s. He has since gained considerable stature in al-Qaeda as an explosives expert and Islamic scholar. After becoming acquainted with Zarqawi in the western Afghan city of Herat in the late 1990s, he became al-Qaeda's main interlocutor with the fiery Jordanian.
Atiyah's name does not appear on any published U.S. government list of known or suspected terrorists. But his biography, as described by counterterrorism officials who agreed to discuss him on the condition that they not be named, offers a rare glimpse into the cadre of loyal senior aides who escaped with bin Laden into the mountainous Afghan-Pakistani border region in the fall of 2001.
The letter, the first document to emerge from what the military described as a "treasure trove" of information uncovered from Iraqi safe houses at the time of Zarqawi's death, provides new details of a debilitated al-Qaeda leadership-in-hiding, locating it in Waziristan.
"I am with them," Atiyah writes Zarqawi of the high command, "and they have some comments about some of your circumstances."
Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, said on a visit to the United States last week that he believes bin Laden and his top lieutenants are on the Afghan side of the border. U.S. military and intelligence officials have long believed that the al-Qaeda leadership is hiding in one of the tribal provinces on the Pakistani side of the border, and Atiyah's letter, if accurate, would confirm their location at the time it was written.
Atiyah bemoans the difficulty of direct communications between Waziristan and Iraq and suggests that it is easier for Zarqawi to send a trusted representative to Pakistan than the other way around. The "brothers," he writes, "wish that they had a way to talk to you and advise you, and to guide and instruct you; however, they too are occupied with vicious enemies here.
"They are also weak," he continued, "and we ask God that He strengthen them and mend their fractures. They have many of their own problems, but they are people of reason, experience and sound, beneficial knowledge. . . . This letter represents the majority of, and a synopsis of, what the brothers want to say to you."
Deemed authentic by military and counterterrorism officials, Atiyah's letter adds context to events in al-Qaeda's often rocky relationship with its Iraqi subsidiary, shedding new light on the depth of the organization's concern over Zarqawi and the limits of its control over him.
An earlier letter to Zarqawi, written in July 2005 by bin Laden deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, made some of the same points in more formal and less pointed words. But it appeared to have little effect. In September 2005, Zarqawi released an audiotape accusing Sunni leaders and Shiites of cooperating with U.S. forces and promising their certain death.
Atiyah's letter begins with warm personal words for Zarqawi. "I am setting this out as an introduction," he says, because the rest of his letter "will be primarily about the negatives and cautioning against things that are perilous and ruinous."