September 12, 2008 | FDD’s Long War Journal

Intercepted Letters from al-Qaeda Leaders Shed Light on State of Network in Iraq

Yesterday, Center for Terrorism Research (CTR) adjunct fellow Bill Roggio posted an important report at the Long War Journal. He noted that a series of letters intercepted by Multinational Forces-Iraq—letters that chronicle the communications between al-Qaeda deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Ayyub al-Masri, and Islamic State of Iraq leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi—sheds light on how “Al Qaeda’s senior leadership has lost confidence in its commander in Iraq and views the situation in the country as dire.” These communications highlight divisions in the organization, the failures in its leadership, and problems with communications and propaganda efforts. The letters were found on April 24, 2008, after U.S. forces killed al-Qaeda in Iraq’s information minister.

We are proud to bring you an exclusive translation of these important documents, courtesy of CTR research fellow Tony Badran. Roggio also contributed to the analysis of the letters. We believe that this translation constitutes an important primary document for understanding the current state of the al-Qaeda network inside Iraq. For the .pdf of the Arabic-language original, click here.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
Center for Terrorism Research
Intercepted Letters from al-Qaeda Leaders
Shed Light on State of Network in Iraq
by Tony Badran








A recently intercepted communiqué consisting of a batch of subject-related letters between the leadership of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and al-Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan offers an interesting window into the struggles AQI is facing, and the infighting within its ranks.

The main theme of this correspondence relates to AQI leader Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, a.k.a. Abu Ayyub al-Masri. It details criticism of his performance, and complaints about his capability to continue in his role. The complaints and criticism come from Judge Abu Sulayman al-‘Utaybi, the former head of the legal system of AQI’s Islamic State. Abu Sulayman had traveled to Pakistan/Afghanistan to personally voice his concerns regarding al-Masri, attesting to the urgency he felt about this issue. We know that al-‘Utaybi was indeed in the area, as he was killed by a U.S. strike in Afghanistan’s Paktia province in May 2008.

The first letter in the batch is from an anonymous al-Qaeda superior to Abu Hamza himself, dated Monday, 3 Rabi’ al-Awwal, 1429 Hijri (March 10, 2008). The author tells Abu Hamza that they had received his brief letter, in which he promised to write a more detailed one. From that brief letter, the author quotes Abu Hamza’s concerned query regarding Abu Sulayman’s charges against him: “We have received a letter regarding Abu Sulayman [which contained] many enquiries and things he said, and before answering the enquiries it contained, I pray that you tell me: did the [paternal] uncle, or the father, or the [maternal] uncle read this letter before sending it? If the answer is no, then please disclose to them its text, as it contains many issues and it’s important that we know that they agree with all of it.” While the letter does not explicitly state who the “father” and “uncles” are, they are clearly coded references to members of al-Qaeda’s shura majlis, or executive council. A military source knowledgeable about al-Qaeda communications has told the Center for Terrorism Research that the “father” refers to Osama bin Laden, the “paternal uncle” is Saif al-Adel, and the “maternal uncle” is Mohammed Islambouli. Al-Adel is the current leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda’s chief strategist, while Islambouli is the current leader of the Egyptian Islamic Group.

The author proceeds to tell Abu Hamza that indeed, “the father, the [paternal] uncle, and the [maternal] uncle, have all seen Abu Sulayman’s words, as I have explained to you, and they have asked of us to write you in order to inquire about these words, claims and accusations, and the matters the brother [Abu Sulayman] mentions and says are errors and a defect.” But the author wants to assure Abu Hamza that the leadership is not yet endorsing all these claims, and directly answers Abu Hamza’s quoted question: “We don’t agree or disagree with anything—there is nothing for us to agree or disagree with to begin with—rather we are ascertaining. Perhaps you mean to ask whether we believe the man in all that he said. The answer is what I had noted to you from the words of the [paternal] uncle when he said: ‘Don’t rush to accept everything the brother [Abu Sulayman] says, until we ascertain and ask Abu Hamza and his brothers and see their opinion and answers.’ And he asked us to write you the most important points that the brother [Abu Sulayman] brought forward and see what your opinion is.”

The author frames this inquiry as a necessary precautionary procedure: “Checking on the conditions of our brothers, so if there is some error, we would perform our duty in advising, repairing, and supporting … and whatever else our religion requires of us towards our brothers and our work and our huge consignment. If it comes out that what the brother [Abu Sulayman] mentioned was not true, then we thank God and we would have done our duty in full.”“No doubt that details are required and setting the record straight on all counts, for the brother [Abu Sulayman] may have mixed truth and falsehood, and so it is necessary to provide details and to give whoever is in the right his due in word, judgment and action. For we, dear brother, await your detailed letter (the boring details; leave nothing out). So send it by the way of Aram, and tell him to pass it to Khalil, as usual, and press upon him to hurry, and God willing, it will reach us easily… We also would like to reiterate our request that you write us complete detailed reports about your current conditions.” However, he also makes clear that they require a full and detailed report, a request he proceeds to make repeatedly and emphatically in the following lines:

The author adds a couple of other requests: “Also, the brothers are requesting your skills in the domain of hunting, and I have sent that request to you repeatedly!! They are also requesting (the [maternal] uncle asked that I write to you about this) your skills in the domain of thermal bombs—their production and everything relating to them.” Al-Masri is known as an expert bombmaker. He then concludes by urging Abu Hamza: “By God, do not delay in corresponding and communicating, and let the brother minister (the minister of information) send us especially your detailed and accurate news, both good and bad, so that we remain in the very clear picture. And send our greetings to Abu ‘Umar [al-Baghdadi] and everyone.” Abu Nizar, the al-Qaeda minister of information referred to here, was the courier of these letters; U.S. forces found the correspondence after Abu Nizar was killed in Baghdad in April 2008.

The author also appends a number of previous letters (including one which he identifies as being from the [paternal] “uncle”) that may not have reached Abu Hamza—which might explain the references to unanswered repeated requests, and the urgent sense of a serious problem in communication.

The first letter the author reproduces, “in case it didn’t open,” is dated Monday, 9 Dhul Qi’da (November 19, 2007). In it, the author relates an urgent missive from “your joyous [al-sa’id] [maternal] uncle informing you that the father says: ‘As for so and so (he mentioned your honorable name), let him gather information on the Halliburton company, as it has moved its headquarters to the United Arab Emirates and its owners must visit it after they exit the White House. So they and their headquarters should be dealt with as necessary while mindful of protecting the neighbors against the damages of the action.’ And he is asking what has been done on the first project (the al-sa’id project).”

Then after relaying a greeting to “your honorable sheikh Abu ‘Umar [al-Baghdadi] and the rest of the beloved around you” the author brings up the matter of Abu Sulayman al-‘Utaybi, who at the time was apparently en route to meet the leadership, and provides background on Abu Sulayman’s charges against Abu Hamza: “We have a question: about the brother sheikh Abu Sulayman al-‘Utaybi, for he is on his way to us as we’ve been informed. He has recently arrived and sent word to us, and perhaps he might arrive to us in the next few days, with God’s help, and so we would like to ask you about him: why did he leave you and come [here]? Is it perhaps something bad or some problems? What is your recommendation on the brother? … What was the reason that you dismissed him from his work?

Once again reflecting the problems in communication with Abu Hamza, the author reminds him not to forget to write, “for we are awaiting your news and reports about your conditions and the rest of the situation in your battlefield. And all our previous requests, we are still waiting [for answers] on them.” Perhaps sensing a problem in the command structure in Iraq, the author sought to exhort Abu Hamza to “always remember, that, by God, no matter how big the enemy gets, it will not cause you any harm, God willing, as long as you stay on the straight path … for what’s always important is us and our internal rank and its cohesion.”

Following this short letter, the author reproduces the message containing a summary of Abu Sulayman’s most important remarks in criticism of Abu Hamza referenced earlier. This letter is dated January 25, 2008.

After extending greetings to him and to Abu ‘Umar, the author begins by asking whether Abu Hamza received the letter he had sent weeks earlier regarding “the arrival of the judge [Abu Sulayman] to us,” disclosing that, to his surprise, the intermediary had told him that “the encrypted files did not open” so he had to resend them, causing delay. “I now await your reply, and perhaps it is on its way, God willing.”

He then starts with the account of Abu Sulayman’s visit: “What’s new now is the following: Brother Abu Sulayman did indeed arrive to us, and your [maternal] uncle and I, along with some brothers from the shura, sat with him and took the message he wanted to convey to the [paternal] uncle and the father, from what he had written and what we gathered from him orally, and we discussed with him and checked with him on the details, and we sent up the report to the sheikhs up there, and the [paternal] uncle’s reply was in short: do not rush in accepting everything the brother [Abu Sulayman] says, until we ascertain, and we ask Abu Hamza and his brothers and see their opinion and answers.… Maybe the brother [Abu Sulayman] is being unfair or is carrying a grudge, or something else, and he asked us to send you the most important points the brother [Abu Sulayman] brought forward and see what your opinion is.”

Deeply concerned but unsure what to make of Abu Sulayman’s account and charges, the author notes that the leadership requests an urgent detailed report. Abu Hamza is told to “very quickly write us a report on your conditions and your assessment of the situation in the current stage, and if it is true that there is a setback and a defect and big errors and influential persons inside the [Islamic] State who are corrupt corruptors, as the brother [Abu Sulayman] is saying, and so on. So how can we help you fix things, propose practical and feasible solutions and please be as quick as possible. Swiftness is a must, if a large defect is found, to repair with firmness, and we will cooperate in that.”

The author then proceeds to list Abu Sulayman’s most critical charges: that al-Masri is a weak, ineffective, and isolated leader; that he rashly declared the Islamic State of Iraq; that he promoted corrupt men to leadership positions; and that his propaganda strategy is a failure.

“He [Abu Sulayman] has remarks on Abu Hamza, briefly that he is too weak to handle this great responsibility, and that he occasionally displays a weakness when facing certain problems or when making certain decisions, and he [Abu Sulayman] criticized some of his policies, most importantly the matter of the amnesty granted to the criminals of the tribes who went back and formed the Awakenings, despite the fact that the brothers, he says, knew their guile and their deceitful plan, and so such people should not have been granted amnesty. He [Abu Sulayman] also mentions Abu Hamza’s tendency to exaggerate and to be influenced by the talk of sedition and of the Mahdi in particular … and he builds on these things … and regards them as facts!”

“He [Abu Sulayman] considers the declaration of the [Islamic] State, in the manner with which it was declared and formed, to have been a mistake, and that there was exaggeration (to a degree which could be called lying) in what was said in terms of the presence in and support for it among the heads of the tribes.”

“He [Abu Sulayman] says that there are influential men in the [Islamic] State, among them ‘Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Falahi’ the deputy of the Emir of the faithful, as well as Muharib al-Jubouri (who was martyred, God rest his soul) and others (he mentioned several names), who do adhere neither to our thought nor to our method, but are totally against us and are not righteous but corrupt corruptors.… He [Abu Sulayman] says: those are the biggest danger of all, because they corrupt the organization and the [Islamic] ‘State’ from the inside, intellectually, methodologically and ethically, as well as in terms of public relations and so on. He [Abu Sulayman] also says: Abu Hamza is weak in facing their danger, and he was not in possession of the firmness required to remove them or deal with them properly, and Abu Hamza sometimes argues on their behalf, and when he does not find a way to argue on their behalf, he closes the matter and does not wish anyone to talk to him about them… etc. And among those whom he [Abu Sulayman] mentioned by name: ‘the sharia judge of the Karmah region—Abu Hajir— … this man is very deceitful, and I am responsible for this word, and he has deviant views reaching the level of blasphemy…’ Here ends the text of the words of the brother the judge.”

“He [Abu Sulayman] criticizes the media policy of the [Islamic] State, and that there is exaggeration in it ‘to the degree of lying’. He also criticizes Abu Hamza’s decision to use the archival footage of the Tawhid and Jihad Group, and to reissue whatever possible from it under the name of the [Islamic] State. And he [Abu Sulayman] says: there’s almost nothing new there now, rather it’s all old from the archive but presented as though it were new operations, and this is fraud and a concealment of the truth.… He [Abu Sulayman] mentions examples of this, such as the video of the brother who planted the mine under the tank (the second one, not the first one), and among the examples of outright lies which he mentioned—according to what he says, of course—is the storming of the Badoush prison. He said there was no storming to begin with. Rather, it was a fixed operation through some policemen in the army of the apostates who were given sums of money…. There was no raid or anything!!! The same with the matter of Sabrine al-Janabi, and that fifty men or so came forward for her, he said that all this has no truth to it. Rather, the brothers quickly discovered that she was a rafidiyah [Shiite] woman. Similarly with the al-Anbar operation (Ramadi), which Abu ‘Umar had mentioned in one of his sermons and said that a hundred mujahideen pledged to die and descended on Ramadi and controlled it… etc. He [Abu Sulayman] said that all this was not true and the truth is that Abu Hamza, in a moment of anger at the brothers—because of the sedition of those corrupt influential men—determined that the brothers descend on Ramadi despite the grave danger. And so they descended and most of them were killed, and some were captured and a few managed to escape, and the operation had no value worth mentioning. Rather, its result was very negative, and he [Abu Sulayman] mentioned other examples…”

– “Overall, he [Abu Sulayman] says: Abu Hamza is almost absent from the details of what goes on in the battlefield and the sectors and what his soldiers are doing, because he is totally isolated, barely seeing or seen by anyone, except a very select few, to give him wishes of course, but this has an effect on his view of things and of reality. The reports that are sent to him from the emirs of the regions, districts and sectors mention only the positives and the cheerful and uplifting things, and they don’t mention the negatives and the problems as they really are. He [Abu Sulayman] said, more than one sector emir has stated that to me!”

These were the most important points that were being focused on, according to the author. “He [Abu Sulayman] of course mentioned much,” he wrote, “but in our opinion, the most important thing and the biggest danger—if true—is the existence of the corrupt influential men who have become leaders in the [Islamic] State, and they are of corrupt method and religion, and they spread calls that deface al-Qaeda and its method.”

And once again he asked Abu Hamza to reply quickly, assuring him cooperation in order to solve any problem: “Let us confront any problem that might exist in all frankness, honesty and transparency.”

The author asked for a specific clarification from Abu Hamza on his “opinion and understanding of the Signs of the Hour and the Mahdi [ed.’s note: Islamic eschatology] and what the brother [Abu Sulayman] mentioned about you, and that you build on these things.… This is very dangerous and corrupts policy and leadership. If you have done something of the sort, please explain to us in all clarity and transparency so that we can offer advice and discuss. We warn you against singularity and haste. God bless you.” And in an attempt to reassure Abu Hamza, the author tells him “God’s kindness is greatwe don’t despair, for it is possible to repairbut the most important thing is reliance on God and trust in Him, as well as honesty and determination.”

A couple of questions then follow: First, “How is your relationship with Ansar al-Sunna (they have lately renamed themselves Ansar al-Islam)? What is your assessment of them? Is it possible to employ them with your brothers in a joint solution for the current problems and difficulties? Please write us in detail about your relationship with them and your assessment of them and their condition and size and everything that relates to them.” Ansar al-Islam, referenced here, has sworn its allegiance to Osama bin Laden—but Ansar al-Islam and AQI have been at odds over leadership and strategy in Iraq. The second question was: “How are things and conditions on the ground especially in Diala, Mosul and Baghdad?”

The author expresses concern over the unity of command, and fears a breakdown in communication if al-Masri or Baghdadi are killed or captured. “God forbid something should happen to you or to Abu ‘Umar, who would we write to after you, and with whom would we communicate? What is your arrangement of things? From now on, we want you to put us in touch directly with Abu ‘Umar so that we would write directly to him and he to us, as well as with some of the others brothers of recognized competence who are with you, one or two. This is very important and your joyous [al-sa’id] [maternal] uncle and the brothers have asked this of me.”

The author concludes with a final question, bringing up once again the reference to Halliburton made earlier: “Have you anything to tell me with regards to the previous letters of the father concerning Halli… and that state [ed.’s note: the United Arab Emirates] and others (the subject of your joyous [al-sa’id] [maternal] uncle, for he has asked me to follow up on the matter with you and ask you)?”

The last document in the batch is an appendix entitled “the doctor’s letter” and it is a signed letter by Ayman al-Zawahiri to Abu ‘Umar al-Baghdadi dated March 6, 2008.

The letter begins with Zawahiri relaying his and Usama Bin Laden's greetings to Abu 'Umar and “the beloved brother Abu Hamza al-Muhajir and all your brothers and loved ones.” Then, after assuring him that all is well on their end and that the people of the Jihad are advancing and winning and America and its allies and apostates are in defeat,” Zawahiri quickly moves to the heart of the letter, which involves three main points:

“1- It’s not hidden from you what the Danes have committed in renewing their assailment on the person of the prophet, peace be upon him, even when they don’t dare to mention the Jews in a negative manner, or else they would be subjected to punishment and imprisonment, according to their laws, not to mention persecution in their jobs and work. This is but a form of the raging Crusader war against Islam and its people. Sheikh Usama Bin Laden—may God preserve him—has tasked me to urge and exhort you to focus whatever effort you or those with whom you contact abroad can muster on the Danes, in order to champion the person of the prophet, peace be upon him. We also pray that you clarify this in your talks and your media.” Zawahiri then draws on the Qur’an for scriptural support, quoting verse 40 of Sura 9: “If you do not aid him, God certainly aided him when those who disbelieved expelled him, he being the second of the two, when they were both in the cave, when he said to his companion: Grieve not, surely God is with us. So God sent down His tranquility upon him and strengthened him with hosts which you did not see, and made lowest the word of those who disbelieved; and the word of God, that is the highest; and God is mighty [and] wise.”

The second point is a series of “advice and suggestions” from Bin Laden:

“a. The sheikh—may God preserve him—advises you to set up a department in the bureau for the affairs of the mujahideen in the Islamic State of Iraq, part of its duties would be the following:

(1) To look for hidden capabilities among the brothers who have joined the [Islamic] State and activate them, by gathering detailed questionnaires from each member in which he would clarify his age, health condition, experience, level of education and the commendations he has received, the areas where he excels, and so on, and what ideas he has to develop the work and support the Jihad, and what advice he has for the [Islamic] State and its leaders, bearing in mind the various security aspects to safeguard the information for the safety of the brothers. Also, only nicknames are to be used in identifying them.

(2) To develop the expertise of the brothers in the various required fields through the available capabilities and accessible means.

(3) To identify the gaps in required expertise in terms of quality and quantity.

b. Seek to appoint some qualified brothers to set up a higher legal council and form a higher sharia court for the Muslims in general, including the mujahideen, which would not follow the State or any of the groups, and whose task is to rule in disputes by applying the provisions of Sharia, so that justice would prevail and security would settle and disputes would disappear.

c. Advancing the strong and faithful in general wardships and important jobs, and training the others in finance and the like.

d. As for what concerns external support, the brothers in the State must include in their communiqués the required needs and expertise and to specify their quantities. We in turn will confirm in our communiqués what you have requested.”

The third and last point once again brings up the matter of Abu Sulayman al-‘Utaybi and his charges against Abu Hamza:

“The brothers had previously sent you a letter concerning the arrival of the brother Abu Sulayman al-‘Utaybi, the former judge with you, and that he has claimed certain things, which we have sent you, and we have asked you to please answer them so that we leave no suspicion that could be raised here and there. Because the good brother says that he is telling us these things as an advice to the Muslims. Moreover, he does not believe in discussing them with our brothers, and so we want to have a full response from you about them, so that God might lift the ambiguity and remove suspicion and bring us together over what He loves and what pleases Him.”

The letter ends with Zawahiri’s greetings to Abu ‘Umar and Abu Hamza and all the brothers and loved ones.