Politics & Policy

Faking It

Seeing things in the Zawahiri-Zarqawi letter that aren't there.

Bruce B. Lawrence, a professor of Islamic studies at Duke University, is in the snare of conspiracy theorizing in Tuesday’s Los Angeles Times, arguing in an op-ed that the letter sent this summer by al Qaeda deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri to the network’s Iraq chief, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, is probably fake and will eventually blow up in the Bush administration’s face. His rationale is loopy.

Lawrence, who has depth in the writings of al Qaeda leaders, does not contend that the letter seems unlike things typically said by Zawahiri. Rather, he points to five pieces of what he regards as circumstantial evidence of fraud: (1) the three-month delay between the time the letter was written and when it was released; (2) the Sunni Zawahiri’s suggestion that Zarqawi ease up on attacks against Shiites and even collaborate with these traditional rivals; (3) the fact that Zarqawi seems to have ignored this counsel; (4) Zawahiri’s request for $100,000; and (5) the seeming oddity that a letter obviously addressed to Zarqawi concludes by telling the addressee (whom Zawahiri does not name outright) to send greetings to Zarqawi. These things don’t come close to implying fraud, neither on their own nor taken together.

First, the letter is dated July 9, but we don’t when it was intercepted. For obvious intelligence reasons, there is always a delay between interception and public release–as there was when a letter from Zarqawi to Osama bin Laden was intercepted in early 2004.

Second, al Qaeda has been collaborating with Shiites (such as Hezbollah) for over a decade, and–as Zawahiri stressed to Zarqawi–has reason to fear a backlash from Shiite Iran if it overdoes the sectarian violence because the mullahs are harboring scores of high-ranking al Qaeda members (probably including one of bin Laden’s sons).

Third, Zarqawi has always gone his own way and often had uneasy relations with al Qaeda’s hierarchy. They embraced him because he is ruthless and effective, not because they are crazy about him. Moreover, he has long had his own relationships with Iran and Hezbollah, and thus has his own ideas (which may differ much from Zawahiri’s) about how far he can go against the Shia without risking Iranian reprisals. (The Iranians may not like the anti-Shiite terrorism, but they will abide it to the extent its effect is to cause problems for the American occupation, which is militant Islam’s goal.) Plus, Zawahiri acknowledged in the letter that Zarqawi was on the ground in Iraq while he was not, and thus Zarqawi knows the situation best.

Fourth, while al Qaeda’s leadership is on the run (and thus not easy to send a check to), worldwide jihad fundraising is pouring into the site of the great battle, Iraq–where it is undoubtedly being pooled with piles of Oil-for-Food money. It should thus come as no surprise that Zarqawi’s circumstances allow him to dispense funds while Zawahiri’s are desperate.

Finally, the ostensibly strange “send greetings to Zarqawi” is easily explained. The substance of the 6,000-word letter leaves no doubt that Zarqawi was the intended recipient. But the letter ends by telling the unnamed addressee to say “Hello” to Zarqawi in Fallujah. This plainly is misdirection. Zawahiri probably does not know where Zarqawi is, and was plainly trying to confuse anyone who might intercept the letter. Plus, to lock onto Lawrence’s theory for a moment, if someone was trying to forge a letter from Zawahiri to Zarqawi in order to help the Bush administration (Lawrence’s transparent bottom line) why would that someone sow doubt about whether the letter was really intended for Zarqawi in the first place? That would defeat the purpose of the purported fraud.

The letter appears to be the real deal. The professor needs to go back to the drawing board.

Andrew C. McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

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