Nearly a month since Osama bin Laden published his message to “our people in Iraq,” it is worth taking a look at what bin Laden really said versus what the media, Western leaders and some prematurely mirthful pundits claim he said (IntelCenter, October 23). In the most obvious sense, bin Laden’s October 23 statement is a post-Iraq war statement and a further development of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s 2005 message to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (www.dni.gov, July 9, 2005). From al-Qaeda’s perspective the war is over and Islam has won; Washington’s announcement last week that it intends to begin the withdrawal of 3,000 troops, as well as Congress’s recess without renewing war funding, will bolster this perception. Bin Laden’s message is, however, a warning to all Iraqi mujahideen—Sunni and Shiite—that the hardest task is yet to come: namely, the creation of an Islamist state in Iraq.
Bin Laden’s October 23 message builds on the July 2005 letter from al-Zawahiri to al-Zarqawi. At that time, al-Zawahiri told al-Zarqawi that the mujahideen had beaten the U.S.-led coalition and urged him to prepare for U.S. withdrawal, which might, he added, be “precipitous.” Bin Laden’s October message mirrors al-Zawahiri’s in concluding that the U.S. coalition has been beaten, and in stating that the only unknown is the precise moment of its withdrawal. There is nothing in bin Laden’s statement that criticizes the mujahideen for not fighting well—indeed, he refers to “magnificent victories” that make Americans “prisoners of their bases and the Green Zone”—much less anything that suggests they are losing. “The world has stood stunned, amazed, delighted and wonder struck” over the Iraqi mujahideen’s effectiveness and perseverance, the al-Qaeda chief said.
“[W]atching America the tyrannical: watching its legions breaking apart under your strikes, its brigades being wiped out in front of your raids and its battalions being obliterated by the pounding of your squadrons… O people of Iraq … O eminent ones of the Turks, Kurds and Arabs: the affair of unbelief [the U.S. occupation] has been shaken and confused, and the time of his fleeing is nigh, so increase his confusion and disarray, and strike some more at his neck and hit it with a bone-cutting sword. The bearer of the banner of the Cross has increased his soldiers and claimed that he will defeat the soldiers of faith, so be resolute—may Allah be merciful to you—and remember Him much, for he is watching you… You have done well by carrying out one of the greatest of duties which few carry out: repelling the attacking enemy.”
Bin Laden’s words are a bit more hyperbolic than usual, but they match the presiding sense of what he described as the “amazement” that exists among both the mujahideen and Muslims generally over the fact that U.S.-led forces have been beaten so easily in Iraq, and that they are withdrawing with what Islamists surely view as minor losses for a superpower with a population of more than 300 million. And we may already be seeing the insurgents spreading the “confusion” bin Laden called for among U.S.-led forces, whose leaders are perhaps too eager to see victory in statistics that show a slowing of insurgent attacks. Always students of Sun-Tzu, Mao and the great Afghan commander Ahmed Shah Masood, the Iraqi insurgents and their al-Qaeda and other foreign allies are simply not taking on U.S. “surge” forces toe-to-toe—knowing they would be crushed—and are making fewer but more targeted attacks, moving to other areas of Iraq or simply lying low to fight another day . As important—and this was the Masood-model during the Red Army’s retreat—the Iraqi mujahideen have heard U.S. politicians promise withdrawal, and they know U.S. voters favor withdrawal. In this case, they see little sense in aggressively attacking a retreating foe, risk humiliating him, and thereby causing him to reconsider his decision to leave in favor of staying to fight.
After praising the insurgents’ victory, bin Laden delivers the crux of his message and puts it frankly: “But some of you have been tardy in performing another duty which is also among the greatest of duties: combining your ranks to make them one rank as loved by Allah, who said, ‘Truly Allah loves those who fight in His cause in ranks, as if they were a solid cemented structure’.” Bin Laden here is reaffirming al-Qaeda’s consistent post-2003 position on Iraq: (a) the U.S.-led coalition will be evicted because the Iraqi mujahideen will prolong the war and kill unacceptable numbers of U.S. military personnel—thereby causing political discord in America—and (b), in al-Zawahiri’s words to al-Zarqawi, it will be a harder struggle for the insurgents “to fill the void stemming from the departure of the Americans, immediately upon their exit and before un-Islamic forces attempt to fill the void…” Bin Laden, like al-Zawahiri before him, warns the Iraqi mujahideen that the Islamist movement has a wretched record in consolidating victory over infidel forces, and warns them that they must be fully alert to “the full magnitude of the [infidel] conspiracies being hatched against you.”
Even before U.S. forces withdraw, bin Laden explains, “infidelity on all its levels—international, regional and local—is combining to prevent the establishment of the state of Islam” as they effectively did after the Red Army left Afghanistan, once the Taliban took power there and after Hasan Turabi stated his intention to make Sudan an Islamic state. As always, however, bin Laden does not blame these Islamist failures on the infidels; rather, he damns the Islamists for not recognizing that only mujahideen unity can prevent the wasting of military victory. Bin Laden reminds the Iraqi insurgents:
“And the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said: ‘Observe the group and avoid factionalism, for Satan is with the loner and farther away from the pair. Whoever wants the comfort of the Garden must stay with the group… Sticks refuse to break when banded together. But if they come apart they break one by one.’
My brothers, the amirs of the Mujahid groups [in Iraq]: The Muslims are waiting for you to gather under one banner to enforce truth. And when you carry out this act of obedience [to God], the Ummah will enjoy the birth year of the group. And how it longs for this year, and perhaps it will come soon at your hands. So seek—may Allah have mercy on you—to carry out this great lost obligation.”
Bin Laden goes on to urge “sincere people of knowledge and virtue”—Islamist scholars not in the Arab rulers’ pay and control—to help the mujahideen to rectify their “faults and lapses,” and to “engender reconciliation between every two parties in dispute, and they must judge between them according to the law of Allah.” Bin Laden also instructs the Iraqi insurgents to seek the masses’ support and active assistance, implicitly reminding the mujahideen of al-Zawahiri’s 2005 warning to al-Zarqawi that “in the absence of this popular support, the Islamic mujahid movement would be crushed in the shadows … our planning must strive to involve the Muslim masses in the battle, and to bring the mujahid movement to the masses and not to conduct the struggle far from them.” Finally, bin Laden warns the Iraqi fighters to “beware of your enemies, especially the hypocrites who infiltrate your ranks to stir up trouble among mujahid groups.” Bin Laden is here referring to Saudi officials or agents who deliver advice, money and weapons to the Iraqi mujahideen in a way that favors the groups that are most Wahhabist in their orientation and therefore most disruptive of efforts to promote insurgent unity. Bin Laden has long believed this kind of Saudi activity prevented the formation of an Afghan mujahideen regime after the Soviets’ defeat (Through Our Enemies’ Eyes, pp. 53-54).
The tone of bin Laden’s appeal to the Iraqi mujahideen is beseeching and fretful; there is little in it to suggest he believes unity is forthcoming. As noted, bin Laden believes the support of Saudi Arabia, other Arab regimes and Iran for their Iraqi favorites works against unity. He also believes that those he calls the “rulers’ clerics” will deceive the mujahideen as to their religious obligations and thereby obstruct unity. He may also believe that there has been too little preparatory work in laying the groundwork for a post-U.S. Islamic state. My Jamestown colleague Lydia Khalil recently and cogently argued that al-Qaeda’s pivotal part in forming a wartime Islamic government in Iraq was a “blunder,” and she may well be right. Al-Qaeda’s decision to do so, however, was a calculated gamble based, as al-Zawahiri explained to al-Zarqawi, on the fear that without political “fieldwork starting now , alongside the combat and war” there would be no chance of quickly installing a post-occupation Shura council … elected by the people of the country to represent them and overlook the work of the authorities in accordance with the rules of the glorious Sharia.” The wartime government may now seem a blunder, but it was not a capricious act. It was an effort to avoid the disastrous Afghan experiences of 1989 and 1996.
Bin Laden’s near-pessimism regarding the post-U.S. unity of the Iraqi mujahideen also derives from his realization that some substantial portion of their disunity is the result of the actions and attitudes of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who is now a thankfully—from al-Qaeda’s perspective—dead hero. Al-Zarqawi’s attempt to force himself into the leadership of the Iraqi insurgency, his zeal in taking credit for most resistance activities, his decision to televise the beheading of captives and his indiscriminate slaughter of Shiites, whether or not they were working for the U.S.-backed regime, all undercut what must be regarded as the always limited potential for Shiite-Sunni cooperation after the occupation ends. Al-Zarqawi’s actions also alienated many neutral and anti-American Sunnis and led to the transitory success of the so-called “Awakening” programs in Anbar Province and elsewhere; at day’s end, Iraqi Sunnis will reconcile with al-Qaeda and other foreign fighters because they will need non-Iraqi Sunni assistance to avoid annihilation by the Shiites.
Thus, the negative aftershocks of al-Zarqawi’s tenure as al-Qaeda’s chief in Iraq have begun to be tempered, but still pose tall hurdles in the path of both intra-Sunni and Sunni-Shiite unity; indeed, had al-Zarqawi lived longer his impact may have been more harmful to al-Qaeda than that of the Pakistani army, which al-Zawahiri claims has done the most damage to al-Qaeda since 2001. While al-Qaeda appears to be playing its more traditional role in supporting but not dominating the Iraqi insurgency since al-Zarqawi’s death, the wounds he opened in the mujahideen ranks continue to bleed. Bin Laden seems to recognize this and the best he can do in response is exhort his fighters to avoid al-Zarqawi-like behavior that widens rifts in insurgent ranks. “And before concluding,” bin Laden said in a rather dispirited tone, “I advise myself and the Muslims in general, and the brothers in [the] al-Qaeda organization everywhere in particular, to beware of fanatical partiality to men, groups and homelands. The truth is what Allah (the Most High) said and what the Messenger (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said, and everyone’s statement is to be accepted or rejected except the Messenger’s (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him): his order is to be accepted with pleasure.” Although left unsaid, bin Laden clearly is worried that once again the mujahideen and Muslims generally will, in al-Zawahiri’s words, allow themselves to be “robbed of the spoils” because of disunity, and be unable to prevent others from moving in to “reap the fruits of their labor.”
1. Several U.S. officials have forthrightly said that the declining number of attacks should not yet be considered indicative of permanent success. For example, Major General Mark P. Hertling, commander of the coalition’s multi-national division in northern Iraq, told the media on November 19 that northern Iraq was now experiencing the highest level of violence in Iraq and that “the enemy is shifting there” because of the surge forces present in Anbar province and the Baghdad area. Hertling added that “there are certainly [insurgent] cells remaining in all the key cities” in the north. In addition, retired General Montgomery Meigs, director of the U.S. counter-IED program, said that IED attacks were falling faster than U.S. casualties from such attacks because the insurgents have grown proficient in the use of IEDs against U.S. forces (AFP, November 19; USA Today, November 20).
Michael F. Scheuer is a former CIA employee. In his 22-year career, he served as the Chief of the Bin Laden Issue Station (aka “Alec Station”), from 1996 to 1999, the Osama bin Laden tracking unit at the Counterterrorist Center. He then worked again as Special Advisor to the Chief of the bin Laden unit from September 2001 to November 2004. Scheuer resigned in 2004.
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