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On Point

Al-Qaida's Narrative of Doubt


by Austin Bay
October 4, 2006


Several declassified al-Qaida documents -- one discovered after the June 2006 air strike that killed al-Qaida's Iraqi emir, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi -- strongly suggest al-Qaida's leaders fear they are losing the War on Terror.

On Sept. 18, Iraqi National Security Advisor Muwaffaq al-Rabi released a letter from al-Qaida commander "Atiyah" (a pseudonym) to Zarqawi. West Point's Counter Terrorism Center (ctc.usma.edu) has the letter archived online.

The letter features al-Qaida's usual religious panegyrics, but also contains strong evidence of fear, doubt and impending defeat. It seems five years of continual defeat (and that is what the record is) have shaken the 9-11 certitude of al-Qaida's senior fanatics.

Let's establish the broader context of Atiyah's letter.

Accurate insight into an enemy's assessment of an ongoing war is immensely valuable to political leaders and military commanders. With notable exceptions, such "mid-conflict" insight is also quite rare.

Commanders ask their intelligence teams to determine an enemy's intentions -- what the enemy intends to do, so the commander can counter it. If intel can also assay enemy perceptions and assumptions, so much the better.

During World War II, America and its allies often had the valuable "edge" of such insight. The Allies' ability to intercept and decrypt Japanese and German radio traffic provided not only hard facts about enemy plans, but insight into their high command's perceptions of Allied military and political actions.

Allied decryption capabilities were closely guarded secrets. Protecting them ensured their continued utility.

That's why the National Security Agency and other present-day spy shops release captured al-Qaida communications with great reluctance.

They should be less reluctant. Here's why. Information Age media -- swamped with ideological and political Sturm und Drang -- are a key battlefield in this war.

In America's open society, people constantly take public counsel of the fears. Sowing doubt about current leadership is a fundamental opposition tactic in every democratic election.

Thus America's "narrative of doubt" tends to dominate the global media -- with a corrosive effect on America's ability to wage ideological and political war.

Though war's doubt and uncertainty affect all sides, dictators and terrorists can control their "message." As a result, there is no balance to media portrayal of American doubt.

The American "narrative of doubt" plays into the business model of sensationalist media, which rely on hyperbolic and emotional display to attract an audience. (CNN's Anderson Cooper, with his "show rage" coverage of Hurricane Katrina, is an example.)

Which is why the rare glimpse, like Atiyah's letter to Zarqawi, is truly big news.

"The path is long and difficult," Atiyah writes, "and the enemy isn't easy, for he is great and numerous, and he can take quite a bit of punishment, as well." Atiyah's assessment seems to be a major change in tune and tone. Previous al-Qaida documents touted the Clinton administration's withdrawal from Somalia as the template for American action.

Atiyah adds that al-Qaida's leaders "wish that they had a way to talk to you (Zarqawi) ... however, they too are occupied with vicious enemies here (presumably in Pakistan). They are also weak, and we ask God that He strengthen them and mend their fractures."

Atiyah tells Zarqawi to contact him via a specific Internet site because of "the disruption that exists and the loss of communications." Releasing the letter thus reveals a potential source of new intelligence. Weigh that against what it says about the highly restricted lives of al-Qaida's leaders. Their jihadist cave life is dangerous, and their ability to command is severely curbed -- these men are besieged.

Al-Qaida's leaders also fear they are losing the war for hearts and minds. Atiyah senses a souring of "the hearts of the people toward us." Al-Qaida has long sanctioned the murder of Muslim opponents it labels "corrupt" and apostate. However, Atiyah indicates Zarqawi's terror in Iraq has backfired. Atiyah says killing the popular "corrupt" is "against all of the fundamentals of politics and leadership." He warns "against all acts that alienate."

But it may well be too late.

StrategyPage.com and similar websites noticed in mid-2005 that al-Qaida and insurgent mass murder in Iraq had begun to turn Arab Muslim opinion against the terrorists.

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