It’s a match made in (virtual) mujahideen paradise: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his group al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (Unity and Holy War), swearing loyalty to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda on the Internet.
Now that’s a real October surprise. The “Zarqawi” letter, in Arabic, goes straight to the point: “Oath of loyalty of leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi towards the Sheikh of the Mujahideen, Osama bin Laden.” It is signed by “Zarqawi”. It qualifies bin Laden as the supreme jihad commander. And then the most intriguing part: it implies that al-Qaeda had finally recognized the merits of Zarqawi’s strategy. “Slowly our honorable brothers in al-Qaeda began to understand the strategy of al-Tawhid wal-Jihad in the land of two rivers … and they began to rejoice over our program.” That’s odd: if al-Qaeda thinks Zarqawi is so effective, it should consider joining al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, and not the other way around.
Washington officials say the letter may be an al-Qaeda warning call before an imminent major attack against the United States. Cynics say the letter – showing up only two weeks before the presidential election – may be a warped endorsement of President George W Bush on the heels of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s (according to whom not voting for Bush means supporting terrorism).
The letter mentions that Zarqawi and al-Qaeda had been talking “for eight months”. This connects to the still-unexplained story of a “Zarqawi” courier captured last February in Iraq before delivering a message to bin Laden. The message, an e-mail, was retrieved; but “Zarqawi”, at the time, seemed to be more interested in fomenting civil war in Iraq than in ganging up with bin Laden.
This latest letter shows up right at the beginning of Ramadan – the Muslim holy month – and the imminence of another devastating US attack on Fallujah. Certainly it could be interpreted as a rallying call to all members of the Sunni resistance. The letter simultaneously showed up online on an Islamist Internet forum regularly connected to al-Tawhid wal-Jihad and a newsgroup close to al-Qaeda. And it makes sense in terms of the history of Islam: in times of jihad, regional commanders end up pledging allegiance to a supreme commander.
But the letter doesn’t make sense when one considers the bitter strategic split between Jordanian Zarqawi and bin Laden. This is the first time ever that al-Tawhid wal-Jihad has even considered abdicating its ruthless sovereignty. The al-Qaeda nucleus is a mix of hardcore Saudi Wahhabis and the Egyptians of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Islamic Jihad. Zarqawi’s group contains basically Jordanians, Palestinians and Syrians. They are Salafis, Islamic purists. The incompatibilities are not only ideological, but also methodological: al-Qaeda never attempted kidnappings or beheadings of Muslims. On the other hand, the black and orange brigades in Iraq are growing – these are disgruntled Sunni Iraqis increasingly attracted by the hardcore methods of al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, whose symbol is black and orange.
European Union experts from a counter-terrorism special cell in Brussels tell Asia Times Online, “We are working on the possibility that the letter may be an attempt to justify the current offensive by Iyad Allawi’s government against the Sunni insurgency.” That’s also the predominant popular view in the Middle East. But counter-terrorism experts also worry about the likelihood of a code message for al-Qaeda fighters – assuming the letter is authentic. The Brussels experts are particularly intrigued by the mention of Ramadan as the “month of gifts and triumphs”. Fundamentalisms are mutually attractive. The key consequence of Bush, a born-again Christian, invading secular Iraq has been the convergence of all sorts of Islamic fanatics in Mesopotamia. As much as apocalyptic Christians view the “war on terror” as a mission from God, apocalyptic Islamists would view “Zarqawi’s” allegiance to al-Qaeda as transcending a mere war and placing the whole thing as a do-or-die clash of civilizations.
In the end, this could be merely another US intelligence “black operation”. Allawi wants Fallujah to hand him Zarqawi. Fallujah tribal leaders say Zarqawi is not in the city. Now, with alleged “proof” in writing of a Zarqawi-bin Laden link, there are no holds barred to leveling Fallujah. This October surprise from “the land of two rivers” is far from being the last.