Al-Qaeda Agonistes

Report Middle East

Al-Qaeda Agonistes

October 13, 2005 4 min read
Acting Senior Vice President, Research
Kim R. Holmes, oversaw the think tank’s defense and foreign policy team for more than two decades.

After months of speculation that al-Qaeda is reconstituting itself and gaining strength because of the war in Iraq, new evidence suggests that it actually may be in trouble. An intercepted letter to Abu Musab Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaeda's Iraq faction, from Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, suggests that serious divisions exists in al-Qaeda's leadership. The letter even suggests that al-Qaeda is running short of cash; Zawahiri asks for money because "many lines have been cut off." If Saturday's referendum on the Iraqi constitution is successful-and the deal reached this week with some Sunni leaders makes that even more likely-we could be seeing the beginning of the end of Zarqawi and his terrorist allies as a political force in Iraq.

Zawahiri's letter makes it clear that al-Qaeda's political strategy in Iraq is bankrupt. No insurgency can succeed without gaining at least some support from the people. This is not happening across Iraq. Zarqawi's brutal tactics of beheadings and suicide bombers are alienating Muslims not only in Iraq but throughout the world. Even if Zarqawi were to succeed in running U.S. forces out of Iraq, he has no political base from which to challenge other strong forces in Iraq that want no part in his fantasies of creating a Sunni Caliphate in the Middle East.

Zawahiri, in fact, tacitly admits in his letter that democracy's appeal in Iraq is growing-and that Zarqawi is at least partly to blame. Zawahiri clearly believes the terrorists' brutal tactics are undermining popular support for al-Qaeda in Iraq. "We don't need this," he says bluntly. Scolding Zarqawi mercilessly, he reminds him that "Popular support from the Muslim masses in Iraq and surrounding Muslim countries" is the "strongest weapon which the mujahedeen enjoy." "In the absence of this popular support," he continues, "the Islamic mujaded movement would be crushed in the shadows, far from the masses who are distracted or fearful…"

Nor does Zawahiri believe that Zarqawi's strategy of attacking Shiites is working. He warns against "highlighting the doctrinal differences [among the Muslim sects] which the masses do not understand." Zawahiri concedes that Shiism is a "danger to Islam" and that a collision with any state that is led by Shi'a is inevitable. But "the majority of Muslims don't comprehend this and possibly could not even imagine it." For that reason, he sharply questions Zarqawi's attacks on Shitte mosques and holy sites.


Zarqawi has to be humiliated by this letter. Bin Laden's deputy begs Zarqawi to take "political actions" equal to military actions, and he urges him to pay more attention to the propaganda struggle taking place in the media. He is aware that trying to turn Muslim against Muslim is backfiring and alienating the very people bin Laden is trying to enlist in his global jihad. There will be no victory for the jihad unless terrorist activities enjoy at least a modicum of sympathy from Muslims themselves, both worldwide and inside Iraq.


This is why the vote this week on the Iraqi Constitution is so important: If it succeeds, it will be a tremendous blow to al-Qaeda's strategy of divide and rule in Iraq. As David Rivkin and Lee Casey explain in their analysis of the draft constitution, Zarqawi and bin Laden fully recognize the threat that the draft constitution poses to their global plans to build a Muslim caliphate governed by Sharia law:


To the extent that the Iraqi constitution does not comport with these premises-in that it does not disenfranchise non-Muslims, does not create legal distinctions between believers and non-believers or between Sunnis and Shiites, and treats Sharia as an important, but not the exclusive, source of author­ity-the document works to undermine the two doctrinal premises at the very heart of the jihadist movement. Notably, the fact that this is accom­plished not through a purely 'secular' constitution, like that of Turkey, but in an avowedly Islamic con­text-supported by the senior Shiite clergy at least-renders it that much more important. [1]


Therein rests the hope for democracy in all Muslim countries. If a constitution respectful of Islam can embrace not only the freedom of all Islamic groups but also of all people, then the dark dreams of jihadist terrorists will never be realized.


Suicide bombings may increase. Some Sunni Arabs may boycott the referendum. But if this constitution passes, a clear and compelling alternative to al-Qaeda's nihilistic program will exist for a significant majority the Iraqi people. The terrorist strategy of spreading mayhem will be shown to be politically impotent.


Even if the referendum passes, it will not, however, mean the end of all our problems or that American troops can then come home. It will still take a long time-possibly years-to build up the capacity of the new democratic government to defend itself against internal and external enemies. Democracy and freedom will always have enemies, and we can expect them to be more resilient in the Middle East than in some other parts of the world. But in Iraq, at least, they are showing themselves to be political amateurs of the highest order. And that is, finally, good news indeed.


Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D., is Vice President of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies and Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

[1] David B. Rivkin, Jr., and Lee A. Casey, "The New Iraqi Constitution," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1879, September 16, 2005, at


Kim Holmes

Acting Senior Vice President, Research