Al Qaeda’s strategists are at loggerheads over the movement’s objectives in Iraq to a degree that will determine the character of its campaign of terror in the short term. First signs of dissent were picked up by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism and intelligence experts in two publications appearing on Sunday, August 29, a book, titled “The Victorious Vanguard,” and Issue 23 of Sawt al-Jihad, a 45-page al Qaeda propaganda organ that comes out every two to three weeks.
Each carries two conflicting commentaries, thus bringing to the surface the fierce debate current between followers of the pragmatic line taken by Osama bin Laden and advocates of the fanatically belligerent doctrine espoused by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Palestinian-Jordanian operations chief of al Qaeda’s war of terror against US forces in Iraq, and moving force behind the foreign hostage-taking and brutal executions that plague the country.
The conflicting views are enunciated by two Saudi publicists: Sheik Abdullah Rashid (for bin Laden) and Abu Abdullah (for Zarqawi). The pair squares off under apparently false names, Rashid laying down the law and criticizing Zarqawi’s actions in Iraq, Abdullah defending them.
Some of the does and don’ts of terrorism as seen by bin Laden may surprise Westerners:
Al Qaeda is forbidden henceforth to kill civilians (!) The Sharia, Islamic canon law, prohibits this on moral grounds. Therefore, murdering civilian Westerners in Saudi Arabia and executing Western hostages in Iraq are against the laws of Islam. How this religious theory fits the group’s practices is unclear. However, the very fact that it is printed in important theological publications must have some significance. Maybe time will show whether it augurs a change.
Collaborators may not be killed. “If we open this door, anarchy will enter as the reigning order and we will never be able to shut it. Everyone will then be target and victim.”
Iraqi soldiers, policeman, and all Iraqi collaborators with the US army may not be harmed.
It is true, Rashid said, that those who collaborate with the occupier are guilty of error, but people who err, with the exception of such leaders as Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi, are not liable to death. Rashid’s words here translate into a sharp drawing of the line by bin Laden against Zarqawi’s men and their car bombing and machine gun assaults on Iraqi police stations and military and police recruitment centers.
There is only one enemy, the US army, and a single goal, which is to drive this enemy out of Iraq.
Al Qaeda fighters are prohibited from attacking non-coalition troops in Iraq. This ban applies also to civilians employed by coalition forces, with the exception of plainclothes intelligence agents. The same immunity should extend to Iraqi civil servants. The slaying of hostages, such as the four American security men burned alive in Fallujah and the South Korean who was executed, was carried out against the tenets of Islamic law. “Men of reason should stand up and speak out loudly against these actions,” wrote Rashid in The Victorious Vanguard.
Although no names are named, this is the first time al Qaeda’s leadership has been appealed to in print to come out publicly against Zarqawi and place clear limits on his actions. .
Warfare in Iraq must also be regulated and the scope of the current bombings, destruction and fires held down, because, as Rashid stresses: “What is happening in Iraq today is nothing less than the destruction of a country, and that is wrong.”
Therefore, too, the wanton destruction of Iraq’s electricity network, telephones, water system and construction sites must be stopped.
There is also a call to wage the war by “modern means” rather than “antiquated tactics.” This too is a backhanded slap for Zarqawi, the praiseworthy “modern means” interpreted by our analysts as referring to the 9/11 attacks on the United States by hijacked airliners, while the “antiquated tactics” are Zarqawi’s use of car bombs.
Another key statement holds out hope. “The Iraqi resistance movement is made up of diverse shades of Islam and many non-Iraqis” – a reference to the foreign fighters most of whom come from Arab countries. “These foreigners are so mixed that we cannot always tell who carried out which attack.” Rashid goes on to say (on behalf of bin Laden): “Allowing Arab foreign volunteers to join the war in Iraq was a mistake because it was at the expense of new fronts against the American enemy.” He then astonishingly tells the foreign fighters to go home:
“The sons of Iraq are quite capable of bearing the onus (of fighting the Americans) alone, in the spirit of the old Saudi adage: “The sons of Mecca have the best knowledge of their own alleys and byways. The Saudi jihad is no less important than the Iraqi jihad.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Islamic experts find bin Laden completely consistent with his original decision back in 2000 to focus on war against “the Crusaders.” The debate has risen over Zarqawi’s digressions from this rule in Iraq. He still insists that the struggle against other targets, such as Muslim heretics like the House of Saud or the Iraqi government in Baghdad, must take second place after the main cause and wait till later. This rationale explains why al Qaeda struck first against the United States on September 11, 2001 and only turned their attention to Saudi Arabia much later.
Zarqawi, on the other hand, believes he can take on the “Crusaders” and Muslim heretics simultaneously.
These points at dispute between the two camps of the fundamentalist Islamic terror group detract no whit from their common resolve to battle the United States, its soldiers and civilians. The argument does however offer American war planners, counter-terror authorities and field commanders some room for maneuver. As word of the pivotal doctrinal dispute percolates through the ranks of al Qaeda operatives and Arab fighters in Iraq, many may defy Zarqawi and desert their battle stations for home. This exodus in the coming weeks would present Washington, the Iyad Allawi government and the US military command with better prospects for subduing the flashpoint centers of the Sunni Triangle north of Baghdad. Dwindling numbers there of al Qaeda would facilitate a ceasefire deal on the same lines as the one reached in Najaf last week with the radical Shiite cleric, Moqtada Sadr, and his Mehdi Army militia.
This alliterative slogan “Satanic Sadr & Sistani” trips smoothly off the tongue in Iraqi Arabic and therefore easily expresses the Baath guerrillas’ profound mistrust, which is vented for the first time now, of the month-long hostilities Moqtada Sadr and his Mehdi Army waged against US forces and the manner in which the bloodshed in Najef was cut short by a deal brokered by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
In a statement distributed this week in Baghdad, Fallujah, Tikrit and Samarra, Baath leaders level harsh accusations against the young Shiite cleric. By adopting Sistani’s basic principle which forbids killing or fighting the Americans, they say he showed his real face. His agenda is termed narrow and self-serving, designed ultimately to support US interests in Iraq.
On the eve of the battle, they claimed Sadr sent messengers to ask for assistance and the advice of Baath officials. “We replied that Najef was not the proper arena for a military campaign against the Americans. The city is cut off from main national resistance centers and therefore a long campaign cannot be sustained.”
Sadr, says the Baathist circular, would not listen. He therefore made it possible for the Americans to manage the confrontation to their advantage and achieve their objectives. “Sadr and Sistani put the lid on this feat by a deal that separated the Shiites from the mainstream of Iraqi national resistance.”
Not even the Sunni-ruled Baath party dares to directly impugn the influential Sistani. Its leaders chose to do so by bracketing him with Sadr under the joint epithet of “satanic”.