Is it real?
by Shaun Waterman
United Press International
WASHINGTON, Oct. 18 (UPI) — President Bush’s unprecedented inclusion in his weekend radio address of a direct reference to a letter he said was written by al-Qaida’s number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, highlights the fascinating insights it appears to offer into the inner workings of the group.
But there are nagging questions about the document — which U.S. intelligence officials say is a private communication between Zawahiri and the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — in the minds of many experts. Indeed, despite the high confidence that those officials say they have in its authenticity, some scholars believe it may be a fake.
And even the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., has cautioned against “reading too much into a single source of intelligence.”
In the letter, Bush said Saturday, “Zawahiri lays out why al-Qaida views Iraq as ‘the place for the greatest battle’ of our day.”
The letter outlines a four-stage strategy for the mujahedin — Islamic holy warriors — in Iraq.
After successfully expelling the Americans, it says, Zarqawi should “Establish an Islamic emirate… over as much territory as you can… in Sunni areas” of Iraq.
This has to be done swiftly, “in order to fill the void stemming from the departure of the Americans” before they can be pre-empted by “un-Islamic forces.”
But the emirate, the letter acknowledges, will be “in a state of constant preoccupation with defending itself”; a state of permanent war with “foreign infidel forces” and their local supporters.
The third stage is to spread the jihad to neighboring countries, and the fourth is all-out war with Israel, though this final stage “may coincide with the one before.”
The Arabic text uses the word Israel, terrorism analyst Stephen Ulph told United Press International.
Ulph, who works with the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, said that typically, jihadists like Zawahiri would use a term like “Zionist entity” to refer to the Jewish state.
“But it could be,” he acknowledged, “that in a private communication, you use it just for brevity.”
Ulph has other reservations about its authenticity — like the way the four stages of the war are spelled out in such detail, when that concept
is part of the shared ideology of contemporary Mujahedin.
That same point was echoed by Raymond Ibrahim, a scholar of Arabic history and language. “That would be a given,” he told UPI. “There’s no reason to set it out in so much detail.”
Ibrahim, who prepared a forthcoming collection of newly translated al-Qaida documents, and who has read a great deal of Zawahiri’s writing, both public and private, said that the style of address was both “too chummy and too deferential.”
Usually, he said, Zawahiri’s tone was “more masterful, more commanding.”
“He is the elder, he is the sheikh,” said Ibrahim of Zawahiri, describing parts of the letter as almost a supplication. “He wouldn’t take that tone.”
At one point, the author urges Zarqawi to cease the televised beheadings which have become his gory trademark — and which “the Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable” — because hostages can be killed just as easily with bullets.
But to demonstrate his jihadi bona fides, the author confides that he “has tasted the bitterness of American brutality,” and that his “favorite wife,” son and young daughter had been crushed when the house they were in was leveled — presumably by the U.S. military — and he does not know where the bodies are.
“Were they brought out of the rubble, or are they still buried beneath it to this day?” the author plaintively inquires.
Ibrahim points out that Zawahiri and Zarqawi are not exactly old friends — some believe they have never actually met.
“His other letters, even to people that he does know very well, don’t have such intimate revelations in them,” he said. “It doesn’t sound too much like him.”
On balance, Ibrahim said, “I tend to think it is a forgery.”
But Yosri Fouda, chief investigative correspondent for the Arabic satellite news channel al-Jazeera, said he believed the letter was probably genuine….