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Al-Zawahiri letter under scrutiny

Independent analysts differ on authenticity of U.S. intercept

By Henry Schuster
CNN

Editor's Note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit and author of "Hunting Eric Rudolph," has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism and efforts to combat them.

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Ayman al-Zawahiri, from a videotape released in September.

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(CNN) -- The letter is a road map to jihad. A lecture about murderous techniques. A plea for money. Full of gossip about the life of a terrorist. And a revealing look inside al Qaeda.

Without indicating how or when, U.S. officials said last week that they intercepted the 6,300-word letter in a stunning intelligence coup.

It is dated July 9 and purportedly signed by Abu Mohammed. That, says the U.S. government, is an alias of Ayman al-Zawahiri, an al Qaeda leader. The letter is addressed to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. (read the letter: Englishexternal link; Arabicexternal link.)

The letter lays out an al Qaeda vision for Iraq and the Middle East, a boastful plan that anticipates an American withdrawal.

But is it for real?

Yes, says the U.S. Office of the National Director on Intelligence.

Almost certainly, say a number of independent analysts and at least one leading Arabic language paper.

No, says an Internet posting believed to be from al-Zarqawi's group: "We in al Qaeda declare that there is no truth to these claims, and they are baseless."

Almost certainly not, say other members of the Arab media.

Verification process

There have been a number of al Qaeda video messages, the most recent from al-Zawahiri coming last month.

You can see it is al-Zawahiri, you can listen to his voice, you can find date markers in his messages. For example, in that video al-Zawahiri makes reference to an article that appeared in the Times of London (and online) on August 11.

Verifying audio tapes is harder. You can't see the person. You rely on listening and knowing the voice, looking for a certain speaking style and by asking those who know the person. For example, there are friends and relatives of Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden who can easily recognize their voices.

The CIA and other agencies also use voice-print analysis to supplement human verification.

There is a track record with the video and audio messages, especially from bin Laden and al-Zawahiri. More than 30 have appeared since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and not a single one has been fake, according to CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen.

Default position

But letters are different, and harder to verify.

There was a letter, said to have been from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, that the United States intercepted and published in early 2004.

"Everything in that letter has come to pass, that is absolutely consistent with what has happened," says Paul Eedle. "That's my starting point."

He's a journalist based in London, fluent in Arabic, who has spent a great deal of time during the past four years listening to and reading the messages of the jihadis, including al-Zawahiri, in their original language. He agrees with Bergen, that al Qaeda doesn't have a record of fake messages.

That's why Eedle has a default position on the letter's reliability: "I'd like to see reasons to disbelieve it."

The U.S. position

The U.S. government is adamant that the al-Zawahiri letter is real for a couple of reasons.

First is the way in which it was obtained. All a Director of National Intelligence spokesman will say for the record is the letter "was obtained in counter-terrorism operations in Iraq" and that "it was intended for Zarqawi." The DNI is sure because of who they got it from, where, and how.

Earlier this year, the U.S. military came very close to capturing al-Zarqawi when they captured a personal computer that had rare photos of him on its hard drive (photos, like audio and video, being easier to compare than letters). (Full story)

The DNI spokesman says the letter was then "looked at by multiple agencies over a protracted time" to verify authorship.

Al-Zawahiri does have a paper trail, as an author and as a computer user (the Arabic version made available by DNI is typewritten). A computer hard-drive obtained in Kabul in late 2001 by the Wall Street Journal contained a number of letters from him. A manuscript of his book, "A Knight Under the Banner of the Prophet," was found at around the same time and published in Asharq Al-Awsat, an Arab newspaper based in London.

The suspicions

Mohannad Hage Ali of the London-based Arabic-language newspaper Al-Hayat, cites the tone of the letter as a reason he doubts its authenticity.

In the letter, al-Zawahiri urges al-Zarqawi to stop the beheadings that were carried out by his group and to downplay his vicious attacks on Iraq's Shiite majority because "we are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds" of the Sunnis.

However, Ali says: "The writer, who is supposed to be Zawahiri, sounds like a moderate with pragmatic views. The most recent tape of Zawahiri shows this is not the case. He is as adamant as ever."

Still, the al-Zawahiri of the recent letter sounds remarkably like the al-Zawahiri from 2001, in both cases saying the jihad could go only so far, and that popular support was crucial.

Others cite instances of bad grammar, a plea for money by the author to send 100,000 (it doesn't say what), and the almost-chatty mention that he is the father of a new daughter named Nawwar, as out of character for al-Zawahiri.

And even though the letter is supposed to be addressed to al-Zarqawi, the last line says, "By God, if by chance you're going to Fallujah, send greetings to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi," another puzzling inconsistency.

At least one skeptical analyst says clues that one would use to verify the letter -- including al-Zawahiri's mention of how his son, daughter and one of his wives were killed by a U.S. bomb in Afghanistan -- were almost too obvious.

The eagerness with which the U.S. military seemed willing to talk about the letter to the media in places like Dubai also aroused suspicion among the already, to put it mildly, wary Arab media.

A bottom line?

The DNI spokesman says U.S. intelligence cannot explain some of these seeming inconsistencies, that the letter is what it is and that confidence in its authenticity is extremely high. He dismisses the jihadis' claim that the letter is a forgery as an expected reaction.

And it should be noted that the terrorism correspondent for Asharq Al-Awsat says the level of detail about problems al Qaeda is having in Pakistan and information about the capture of one of its leaders a few months ago show that the letter is from al-Zawahiri.

Although the DNI says the letter shows just how isolated al Qaeda's senior leadership seems to be, Eedle, the London-based journalist, questions what the United States would have to gain by forging this letter.

"I do think with a document this size, you have to ask yourself just how difficult it would be to fake," he said.

If the letter is authentic, then the details and the insights are invaluable. In the meantime, read it for yourself -- either in English or Arabic -- and let us know what you think.

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