Al Qaeda's top deputy urged the leader of his Iraq branch in July to prepare for the inevitable U.S. withdrawal by carrying out political as well as military actions, and he lectured him that he risked being shunned by an Islamic world angered over his gruesome and not "palatable" killings of fellow Muslims, according to an intercepted letter released yesterday by the U.S. government.
The 6,000-word letter from Osama bin Laden's chief lieutenant, Ayman Zawahiri, to Iraqi insurgent leader Abu Musab Zarqawi amounts to a detailed portrait of al Qaeda's long-term goals in Iraq and the Middle East, and includes a striking critique of how Zarqawi has gone about waging his war against not only U.S. troops but also Iraqi civilians. The letter was posted yesterday on the Web site of Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte -- www.dni.gov -- after senior intelligence officials released excerpts of it last week.
Invoking the specter of the United States abruptly abandoning Iraq as it did to Vietnam, Zawahiri counseled immediate political action: "We must take the initiative and impose a fait accompli upon our enemies, instead of the enemy imposing one on us."
The missive also suggests the degree to which al Qaeda's leadership remains eager to assert its prerogatives with Zarqawi, who has become the increasingly public face of the movement when Zawahiri and bin Laden are in hiding. Although the letter does not contain a direct reference to Zarqawi until a cryptic greeting to him at the end, a senior intelligence official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity said "it's absolutely certain" it was meant for Zarqawi, declining to elaborate on how U.S. officials made that conclusion. The letter was dated July 9, but the official would not say whether it had been sent. "We obtained it in the course of counterterrorism operations in Iraq," he said.
Throughout, Zawahiri -- the Egyptian doctor who fused his own Islamic movement with bin Laden's al Qaeda in the late 1990s and is believed to operate now as the group's top commander -- comes across as a strategist trying to rein in a guerrilla operating at odds with the movement's political goals. The official said that in its repeated criticism of Zarqawi, the letter also amounts to a reproof from "an al Qaeda elder to an occasionally hotheaded field commander."
"He comes down like a ton of bricks on what has happened tactically," the official said.
"This is not a rant. It is more chilling in a sense because it's so well-argued, clean and calm," the official added. "There's a high political content. Zawahiri calls for political action equivalent to military action."
Zarqawi has been high on the list of most wanted insurgents since last year after he pledged allegiance to bin Laden, but in recent months U.S. military commanders have given even greater urgency to disrupting his network of foreign fighters and Iraqi supporters. The network is still thought to constitute only a fraction of the Iraqi insurgency in numbers, but it is credited with carrying out a disproportionately large share of the violence, as a result of suicide bombings often aimed at Shiite civilians to foment sectarian strife.
But Zawahiri urged Zarqawi in the letter to change that formula and refocus on politics. When the United States leaves, al Qaeda must be ready to claim as much territory politically in the inevitable void that will arise, he writes. Zawahiri called that stage the setting up of an "emirate," in as much of Sunni-dominated Iraq as possible, to be followed by the longer-term goal of a "caliphate," reuniting the historical Islamic empire centered in modern-day Egypt, Lebanon and Israel.
Zawahiri also questions Zarqawi's targeting of Iraqi Shiites, telling him bluntly that the "majority of Muslims don't comprehend this" and wondering whether such targeting is a "wise decision" given the need to wage war against the United States and the current Iraqi government. And even if Shiite leaders should be targeted, Zawahiri asks, "why were there attacks on ordinary Shia?"
He also told Zarqawi that fellow Muslims "will never find palatable" the televised scenes of hostage beheadings that have earned Zarqawi the sobriquet "sheik of the slaughterers." among like-minded fighters. In the media battle "for the hearts and minds" of the Islamic world, Zawahiri said, such tactics will not work.
Zawahiri has spoken before about the broad plans of the al Qaeda movement. In a book smuggled out of Afghanistan in December 2001, Zawahiri said the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks "would be nothing more than disturbing acts" if they "do not serve the ultimate goal of establishing the Muslim nation in the heart of the Islamic world." In the 2001 volume, he said the first goal should be to strike Americans and Jews "in our Muslim countries."
In the new letter, Zawahiri said the Muslim masses "do not rally except against an outside occupying enemy, especially if the enemy is firstly Jewish and secondly American."
In an unusual reverse, the letter asks Zarqawi to send money to al Qaeda, saying many of its "lines have been cut off," and that "we'll be very grateful to you" for financial help.
Staff writer Bradley Graham contributed to this report.