Once again, the latest twist in the never ending al-Qaeda saga has taken the West by surprise. It featured a renewed and shocking alliance between Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It is now clear that both men are united. To members and sympathizers of their fight, people scattered around the world, the words of bin Laden and Zarqawi are the notes and verses of a deadly duet sung by the undisputed icons of al-Qaedism, the anti-imperialist ideology born from the ashes of al-Qaeda.
This unexpected show of loyalty comes after a six-month period of sharp criticism vis-à-vis Zarqawi’s relentless use of suicide missions in Iraq. At least this is what Western terrorist experts have been debating, politicians preaching, media broadcasting, and intelligence investigating. This belief has been backed by messages from Ayman al-Zawahri, letters from Abu Muhammad Asem al-Maqdisi (Zarqawi’s spiritual mentor), and speeches by Abu Qatada from Belmarsh prison in England, official declarations distancing al-Qaeda from Zarqawi’s attacks against the Shi’ites in Iraq. Last, but not least, two weeks ago came the report from the son of Sheik Abdullah Azzam (co-founder, with bin Laden, of al-Qaeda), who revealed that Zarqawi had been demoted from emir of al-Qaeda in Iraq to the military commander of the Sunni insurgency.
The Western inability to read the jihadist language, to master its jargon, and to break the al-Qaeda code springs from the unwillingness of our leaders to accept that the jihadist revolution is driven by politics. This is a blind spot in counterterrorist strategy that blurs fact and fiction. As long as we cling to this attitude, al-Qaeda will continue to outsmart us. As long as we create and believe in imaginary scenarios, with or without the help of people on the fringes of the jihadist movements, our fight is doomed. Paradoxically, Zarqawi’s video provides several keys to help unravel the jihadist code of information. If we read it properly, we can predict the next move.
The pledge of loyalty of the jihadist Zorro to Osama bin Laden confirms the unity of the new mujahedin international army, a loosely connected network of people. In his message, Zarqawi accepts the Saudi’s status as political leader and seems content with the role of commander in chief of the Iraqi insurgency. The timing of the two videos, released within 48 hours of one another (but likely to have been prepared almost simultaneously), is nothing more than the confirmation that bin Laden approves of Zarqawi’s conduct in Iraq. Far from criticizing, he supports him. Thus, what we are facing today is not an international movement riddled with infighting, but a compact, united front.
The roles inside the leadership are crystal clear, as is the language. While bin Laden, the spiritual and political leader, talks to the West, outlining the international strategy of the new mujahedin against the Christian and Zionist Crusaders, Zarqawi, the commander in chief in Iraq, addresses the Muslim masses from whom he is recruiting his fighters and presents his action plan in Iraq. Thus, the two videos should be seen as the revolutionary manifesto of the next stage in the jihadist fight, a global struggle with two converging fronts, one in Iraq and the other everywhere else.
Stripping away the rhetoric, what remains is the naked jihadist strategy for the time to come; a plan of action presented using two distinct languages one for the West and one for the East by the two icons, the political and military leadership. Osama bin Laden condemns the ostracism of Hamas inside the Palestinian nightmare, and he mentions specific measures; in short, he talks politics. Zarqawi, his singing partner, refers to the land from Baghdad to Cairo, from the Euphrates to the Nile; this is what Christian fundamentalists call “Greater Israel.” It is this area that Bush wants to reshape with the help of his allies, says Zarqawi. It is this land that he and his followers will defend until “blood flows in our veins.”
Bin Laden makes references to Egypt and Sudan, and he lists the political impediments in these countries to the victory of the revolutionary jihadist movement. He skillfully isolates the responsibility of Western “oppressors” and those of their Muslim allies. The message is clear: there will be no peace in the West and in the East as long as this situation lasts. Zarqawi reminds Muslims of the enemy within, using the Iraqi experience. To defeat them, the model to follow is Iraq. This is the implicit message contained in both videos. Thus, while 9/11 is the blueprint for suicide attacks in the West and in the East, the Iraqi insurgency is the blueprint for the revolution in the Muslim world.
Both models are aimed at destroying the “Crusaders.” This is a key word that identifies the nature of the enemy. Crusaders are no longer Christians and Jews, as specified in bin Laden’s historic 1998 message that led to the attacks against America; today, Muslims can also belong to this infamous group. Thus, Zarqawi specifically accuses Kurds, liberal or secular Sunnis, and the Shi’ites of being Crusaders.
How to read these coded messages? Zarqawi’s reference to the wider definition of Crusaders calls for a new wave of attacks against Coalition forces and Western targets in Iraq. The attack against the Italian contingent in Nasiriya seems to confirm this interpretation. After more than a year in which Zarqawi’s followers have focused their battle against the Shi’ites, foreign troops are once again a primary target. Backing bin Laden’s January message, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq reminds the Iraqis that the West rejected bin Laden’s offer of a truce to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan; he specifically states that Westerners should be punished and no mercy should be shown to them. It is irrelevant that the newly elected Italian government will bring the troops home from Iraq. The dead soldiers in Nasiriya are proof that Italy and the Italians remain enemies. An identical uncompromising message is contained in bin Laden’s video: there will be no mercy for the West. Its aim is to trigger a new wave of suicide missions, to stimulate the emulation effect among Western Muslims.
The al-Qaeda code for the next stage is a plan for a future bleaker and more deadly than what we have yet seen, a plan plotted by a strong and united leadership. It confirms that suicide missions are the most important weapon for the jihadists and that our summer will once again be stained with innocent blood.