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Tip Of The Terrorist Iceberg

This column was written by Dan Darling.


In the course of the campaign against international terrorism, the United States and its allies have uncovered hundreds of documents authored by both leaders and members of al Qaeda and allied terrorist networks. These documents, which currently reside in a classified database known as HARMONY, contain everything from loose papers to personal letters to bureaucratic documents to official statements and threats issued by al Qaeda and its allies. These documents, which contain important information with regard to the inner workings of al Qaeda, its leading personalities, field commanders, clandestine terrorists, and rank-and-file members, have been completely beyond the public access until now.

In late 2005, the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point was given 28 declassified documents from the HARMONY database in order to help the CTC "provide an analysis of potential network vulnerabilities and conflicts of interests within the organization" in order to support the efforts of U.S. military planners. The CTC's detailed analysis on how best to exploit al Qaeda's operational vulnerabilities is well worth reading in its own right. But what is far more interesting is the information contained in the declassified HARMONY documents that hints that there is far more to come.

For instance, take Document #: AFGP-2002-601693, titled "Status of Jihad" by the HARMONY database. In it, an individual using the kuniyat (assumed name) of Abu Mus'ab writes to one Abu Mohammed, which the translator speculates — based on references to his release from prison — as likely being Abu Muhammad Asem al-Maqdisi, the preferred kuniyat of Iraqi insurgent leader Abu Musab Zarqawi's mentor, Isam Mohammad Taher al-Barqawi.

According to the substance of the letter, Abu Mus'ab has apparently fallen out of favor with Abu Qatada, a London-based cleric who, prior to his arrest, was widely considered to be bin Laden's most senior representative in Europe. In the letter, Abu Mus'ab is seeking Abu Mohammed's support. Having met Zarqawi himself, Abu Mus'ab claims that the future Iraqi insurgent leader agrees with him that the al Qaeda-backed Muslim insurgencies fighting in Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir, and Tajikistan are in fact made up of polytheists and supporters of secular democracy because of their willingness to seek an accommodation with secular powers, a point of view that has apparently.

According to Abu Mus'ab, this has led to Zarqawi being accused of takfir (declaring Muslims to be kafir or infidels) by other al Qaeda members.

This anecdote is interesting because it goes toward establishing a factual basis for the widely-reported rift between Zarqawi and the rest of the al Qaeda leadership – prior to his public pledge of allegiance to bin Laden in October 2004.

Nevertheless, analysts looking in the HARMONY documents for evidence to support their contention that Zarqawi was not part of al Qaeda prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq will be sorely disappointed. According to Abu Mus'ab, Zarqawi refrained from joining the other man "because of his love for leadership and the organization"— with "the organization" here almost certainly referring to al Qaeda.

To support his position, Zarqawi produced a 200-page research paper by senior al Qaeda ideologue and terror theoretician Abu Musab al-Suri (also known as Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, captured by U.S. forces in Pakistan in November 2005). At the letter explains, this lengthy paper "said that it is permissible to fight under the banner of infidelity . . . supporting his opinion with quotes from here and there."

This is an interesting revelation given the traditional image of Zarqawi as an avowed fanatic; it may explain why he has been able to so easily establish alliances with secular Iraqi Baathists and Shiite Iranian Revolutionary Guardsmen without compromising his beliefs. According to Abu Mus'ab, Zarqawi believed the Taliban governor of Jalalabad to be an infidel, yet Zarqawi continued to cooperate with the Afghan theocracy until its collapse.

Even more interesting is the portrait of al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri, who Abu Mus'ab respectfully refers to in his letter as "the doctor." In addition to making the claim that al-Zawahiri had ceased involvement in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad by 1995 (but that his departure was not announced in the group for unspecified reasons), Abu Mus'ab also claims that al-Zawahiri went to both Iraq and Iran following the domestic end of the Egyptian Islamist campaign.

Here he echoes an earlier passage in his letter where he notes that some jihadis "went to Saddam, others went to Iran and so on." The terminology used in the translation makes it difficult to assess whether al-Zawahiri's search for state support occurred during the initial suppression of Egyptian Islamist violence in the 1980s or following the renewed campaign in the 1990s. The 9/11 Commission's final report notes, in equally cryptic fashion, that al-Zawahiri "had ties of his own to the Iraqis." Similarly, Dr. Nimrod Raphael's biography of al-Zawahiri contends that in the face of accusations of embezzling in the late 1980s "the need for funds forced him to seek assistance from Iran."

Abu Mus'ab's letter to Abu Mohammed serves as a useful insight into the inner workings of the al Qaeda network. It highlights the fact that some of our Islamist enemies are even more extreme in their views than Zarqawi or bin Laden.

Access to primary source material, such as HARMONY's database of internal documents, can be of immense value to terrorism experts, analysts, academics, and the general public without harming intelligence operations. The declassification of further internal al Qaeda documents should only be encouraged.

Dan Darling is a counterterrorism consultant for the Manhattan Institute Center for Policing Terrorism.

By Dan Darling
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