Page 2 of 2   <      

Letter Gives Glimpse of Al-Qaeda's Leadership

Zarqawi had been placed in a position of high responsibility, Atiyah continues, but needed to expand his circle of advisers in Iraq and listen more to those with a better sense of al-Qaeda's wider political objectives. If his words led Zarqawi to wonder if he were being asked to step down, Atiyah writes, the response would be "not necessarily." But, he continues, "it is a possibility if you find at some point someone who is better and more suitable than you." Sharia law, he reminds, requires that "proper fitness be ordained."

Atiyah orders him not to make "any decision on a comprehensive issue" without consulting bin Laden, Zawahiri and the other "brothers." He said Zarqawi should improve his relationship with other Sunni insurgent groups in Iraq and be more judicious in using the al-Qaeda name in his operations.

Atiyah refers to a bombing in Jordan ordered by Zarqawi as the kind of operation that requires consultation. He urges the utmost caution "against attempting to kill any religious scholar or tribal leader who is obeyed, and of good repute in Iraq from among the Sunnis, no matter what." After they have succeeded in driving out U.S. forces and dismantling the Iraqi government, he writes, "then we can behave differently."

"Know that we, like all mujahiddin, are still weak. . . . We have not yet reached a level of stability. We have no alternative but to not squander any element of the foundations of strength or any helper or supporter."

Atiyah's December missive seemed to produce at least temporary results. In January, Zarqawi's organization, al-Qaeda in Iraq, announced it was melding operations with other Sunni insurgent groups under a new umbrella organization called the Mujaheddin Shura Council. But any hopes of appealing to Shiites -- seen by al-Qaeda as an interim necessity that would be abandoned once U.S. forces were ejected -- was eliminated when Zarqawi-affiliated forces blew up an important Shiite shrine, the golden-domed al-Askari mosque in Samarra, in February. A number of Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq's Anbar province have also been killed this year under the Shura Council banner.

Since Zarqawi's death in a U.S. air raid near the Iraqi city of Baqouba in June, the new leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, has appeared more in tune with al-Qaeda's wishes and has reached out to Sunni tribal and religious leaders. Competing for their support with the U.S.-backed Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, al-Muhajer on Thursday issued a public appeal for their forgiveness and pledged to respect their scholarship and status.

Atiyah is no longer in Waziristan, according to U.S. officials who declined to speculate on his current whereabouts. But they said he was not in U.S. custody and expressed certainty that he is still alive. Asked what priority they attach to his capture, one official said: "He is an important figure. . . . The world would be a much safer place with him off the streets."

The official said that Atiyah is one of a number of senior al-Qaeda figures whose names have not been made public. "We knew about him," he said. "There are a lot of key al-Qaeda people that might not be on lists for the general public or the press." Rita Katz, whose Washington-based SITE Institute monitors extremist Web sites, said she believes that Atiyah is a "top al-Qaeda strategist" who frequently appears on a password-protected site under the name of Louis Atiyah Allah. "He's the one the jihadists go to when they have a question. He tells them what to do, what fatwahs to provide. He communicates with the jihadi online community."

The counterterrorism official declined to say whether the government believes Louis Atiyah and Atiyah Abd al-Rahman are the same person.

Atiyah's journey from Libya to a prominent position in the al-Qaeda hierarchy began like that of many young Muslims who traveled to Afghanistan to join the Afghan mujaheddin fighting a Soviet military occupation in the 1980s. Many were recruited and organized there by bin Laden, a charismatic Saudi who had joined the mujaheddin cause. U.S. officials said Atiyah was principally based around the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad.

In the early 1990s, after a brief return to Saudi Arabia, bin Laden transferred his operations to Sudan. The 1991 U.S. action against Iraq had given him a new cause, and his al-Qaeda organization, formed of the foreign recruits he had organized in Afghanistan, declared war against the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf.

As bin Laden organized in Sudan, Atiyah went to Algeria, where he is believed to have fought with the Armed Islamic Group (known as GIA, its French initials).

When the Taliban took power in Kabul in 1996, bin Laden returned to Afghanistan, where Atiyah joined him in establishing terrorist training camps. After his release from a Jordanian prison, Zarqawi arrived in Afghanistan in 1999. Although he had only a tenuous relationship with al-Qaeda, Zarqawi took bin Laden's money to set up his own training camp near Herat to prepare to overthrow the Jordanian government in Amman.

It was in Herat, U.S. officials believe, that a relationship was established between Zarqawi and Atiyah.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Zarqawi traveled to Iran and then to northern Iraq. After U.S. forces invaded Iraq in March 2003, he leveraged his al-Qaeda connections to gain legitimacy and adherents to an anti-U.S. insurgency. In October 2004, he changed the name of his burgeoning organization to al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Atiyah's liaison role was "more a function of his long-term ties to al-Qaeda and his relationship with the al-Qaeda central leadership and their interest in seeing him assume this role as opposed to a close relationship with Zarqawi," a counterterrorism official said.


<       2

© 2006 The Washington Post Company