WASHINGTON — On a day when much of the capital's attention was focused on leaked excerpts of an intelligence estimate report that suggested the Iraq war was creating more jihadists, the military quietly released an intercepted letter from Al Qaeda complaining that the terrorist organization was losing ground in Iraq.
The letter, found in the headquarters of Al Qaeda's leader in Iraq, Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi, after he was killed on June 7, was sent to Zarqawi by a senior Al Qaeda leader who signs his name simply "Atiyah." He complains that Al Qaeda is weak both in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and in Iraq.
A former jihadist who fought in Algeria in the 1990s, Atiyah appears from the text to be speaking for Al Qaeda's Shura Council — the group's decision-making panel chaired by Osama bin Laden. In the letter, he sharply criticizes Zarqawi's leadership, saying he alienated key allies necessary for the implementation of jihad in Iraq.
"Know that we, like all the Mujahidin, are still weak," he wrote in the letter dated December 11, 2005. "We are in the stage of weakness and a state of paucity. 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."
That assessment from Al Qaeda is in stark contrast to the key findings of a declassified national intelligence assessment released to the public by President Bush yesterday. While the National Intelligence Estimate says America has disrupted Al Qaeda's global leadership, it cautions, "Although we cannot measure the extent of the spread with precision, a large body of all-source reporting indicates that activists identifying themselves as jihadists, although a small percentage of Muslims, are increasing in both number and geographic dispersion."
The NIE, first reported Sunday by the Washington Post and the New York Times, has turned into a political football because of the initial reports suggesting that the Iraq war has become a major recruiting point for Al Qaeda and other jihadi terrorists. While conceding that Iraq is a rallying cry for Muslim fundamentalist terrorists, the key judgment of the declassified elements of the document also says that winning the war in Iraq would likely reverse the recruitment effect.
"The Iraq conflict has become the ‘cause celebre' for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of U.S. involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement," it says. "Should jihadists leaving Iraq perceive themselves, and be perceived, to have failed, we judge fewer fighters will be inspired to carry on the fight."
The newly released Al Qaeda letter and the declassified conclusions of the NIE are part of a political battle here just five weeks before the mid-term congressional elections.
For the last month, Democrats have sought to portray the Iraq war as a key failure in the wider war on terror. To that end, Democratic leaders yesterday urged the White House to release all 30 pages of the NIE. The calls for declassification have also been joined by Senator Roberts, the Republican chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence who hails from Kansas.
The letter from Atiyah dated December 2005 reflects Al Qaeda leadership's unease about Zarqawi's Iraq strategy. For example, Atiyah shares his experience as a jihad leader of the failed Armed Islamic Group in Algeria and warns that the same fate could befall Al Qaeda in Iraq. Atiyah repeatedly urges Zarqawi to overlook infractions from other senior Sunni religious clerics, while admitting that the Sunni clerics and not Al Qaeda are the real leaders of Iraq's Sunni Muslim community. "The long and short of the matter is that the Islamic theologians are the keys to the Muslim community and they are its leaders," he writes. "This is the way it is, whether you like it or not."
This clear understanding of the important influence of the mullahs is important. The letter was signed just four days before political parties representing those very theologians participated in national elections in Iraq on December 15. Zarqawi and Al Qaeda opposed every election in Iraq. The letter was also written while a broader coalition of Sunni terrorists was forming that subsumed Zarqawi's organization.
Atiyah seems to sense what was to come. He warns Zarqawi: "If you appear before the community in the guise of a pariah to the class of religious scholars, contradicting them, disrespecting them, and insulting them, then you will lose the people and you will fail in any call" to religion "or political act."
The letter from Atiyah also provides further evidence that Al Qaeda's global leadership is based in Waziristan, a tribal area on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan that the Musharraf military government has recently abandoned to be policed by tribal leaders. In June, Pakistan's military signed a ceasefire with tribal leaders in south Waziristan and a similar accord was reached in north Waziristan in September.
Atiyah writes: "I command you, my brother, and I am your brother and I have nothing except these words that are between the two of us and God as the third party, that you send messengers from your end to Waziristan so that they meet with the brothers of the leadership, and the rational and experienced people and the shaykhs here, because you have a greater chance to send messengers (brothers that you choose) than your brothers have here."
Atiyah goes on to say that Zarqawi's couriers are preferred because "you have the ability to enlist guys and men who have not been exposed, and who can move about and carry messages and convey responses to you and such."
Referring to the triple bombings in Amman, Jordan, last November, Atiyah writes, "Readying the brothers and mobilizing them and preparing them to be messengers between you and the leadership here is more important than preparing and sending the brothers for some operations like the recent operation of the hotels in Amman!"
Atiyah also confirms that a letter publicized last fall to Zarqawi from Ayman al Zawahiri was authentic, even though Zaraqwi's organization and some intelligence analysts here said at the time it was a fake.