WASHINGTON, Oct. 18 (UPI) -- President Bush's unprecedented inclusion in his weekend radio address of a direct reference to a letter he said was written by al-Qaida's number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, highlights the fascinating insights it appears to offer into the inner workings of the group.
But there are nagging questions about the document -- which U.S. intelligence officials say is a private communication between Zawahiri and the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi -- in the minds of many experts. Indeed, despite the high confidence that those officials say they have in its authenticity, some scholars believe it may be a fake.
And even the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., has cautioned against "reading too much into a single source of intelligence."
In the letter, Bush said, "Zawahiri lays out why al-Qaida views Iraq as 'the place for the greatest battle' of our day."
The letter outlines a four-stage strategy for the mujahedin -- Islamic holy warriors -- in Iraq.
After successfully expelling the Americans, it says, Zarqawi should "Establish an Islamic emirate... over as much territory as you can... in Sunni areas" of Iraq.
This has to be done swiftly, "in order to fill the void stemming from the departure of the Americans" before they can be pre-empted by "un-Islamic forces."
But the emirate, the letter acknowledges, will be "in a state of constant preoccupation with defending itself"; a state of permanent war with "foreign infidel forces" and their local supporters.
The third stage is to spread the jihad to neighboring countries, and the fourth is all-out war with Israel, though this final stage "may coincide with the one before."
The Arabic text uses the word Israel, terrorism analyst Stephen Ulph told United Press International.
Ulph, who works with the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, said that typically, jihadists like Zawahiri would use a term like "Zionist entity" to refer to the Jewish state.
"But it could be," he acknowledged, "that in a private communication, you use it just for brevity."
Ulph has other reservations about its authenticity -- like the way the four stages of the war are spelled out in such detail, when that concept is part of the shared ideology of contemporary Mujahedin.
That same point was echoed by Raymond Ibrahim, a scholar of Arabic history and language. "That would be a given," he told UPI. "There's no reason to set it out in so much detail."
Ibrahim, who prepared a forthcoming collection of newly translated al-Qaida documents, and who has read a great deal of Zawahiri's writing, both public and private, said that the style of address was both "too chummy and too deferential."
Usually, he said, Zawahiri's tone was "more masterful, more commanding."
"He is the elder, he is the sheikh," said Ibrahim of Zawahiri, describing parts of the letter as almost a supplication. "He wouldn't take that tone."
At one point, the author urges Zarqawi to cease the televised beheadings which have become his gory trademark -- and which "the Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable" -- because hostages can be killed just as easily with bullets.
But to demonstrate his jihadi bona fides, the author confides that he "has tasted the bitterness of American brutality," and that his "favorite wife," son and young daughter had been crushed when the house they were in was leveled -- presumably by the U.S. military -- and he does not know where the bodies are.
"Were they brought out of the rubble, or are they still buried beneath it to this day?" the author plaintively inquires.
Ibrahim points out that Zawahiri and Zarqawi are not exactly old friends -- some believe they have never actually met.
"His other letters, even to people that he does know very well, don't have such intimate revelations in them," he said. "It doesn't sound too much like him."
On balance, Ibrahim said, "I tend to think it is a forgery."
But Yosri Fouda, chief investigative correspondent for the Arabic satellite news channel al-Jazeera, said he believed the letter was probably genuine.
"It is Zawahiri's style, linguistically and ideologically," he said.
Fouda also explained an odd phrase in the letter, right at the end, where the author sends his "greetings to all the loved ones... and the rest of the folks I know," closing with "especially: By God, if by chance you're going to Fallujah, send greetings to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi."
As a number of commentators have pointed out, this is a rather odd thing to say in a letter supposedly addressed to Zarqawi, and an official authorized to speak for the director of national of intelligence told UPI "We don't know what to make of that sentence."
"It is poetry," explained Fouda, saying the form sprung from southern Egyptian folk tradition. "When people were leaving these isolated communities, their companions would gather round and sing to them 'By God, if by chance you're going to such-and-such place, send greetings to such-and-such a person.'
"It is like a quotation. He is not asking Zarqawi to send greetings to himself."
Nonetheless, the fact that intelligence officials, having published the letter, could offer no explanation of this odd statement, bemused some observers.
Ben Venzke, a terrorism analyst who consults with U.S. agencies, told UPI, "One could reasonably anticipate... that question coming up. It seems strange that they have not prepared a response."
Fouda added that the passage illustrated perfectly the need for "people who understand the culture as well as the language" to be involved in the interpretation of such documents.
In his statement last week, Rep. Hoekstra was not trying to cast doubt on the authenticity of the letter, said intelligence committee spokesman Jamal Ware.
"His intention was to warn that this was a single piece of intelligence" upon which it was unwise to rely too heavily. "He would like to see some additional corroboration," said Ware. "It's not definitive."
"There will be significant discussion over the coming days and weeks as to its exact nature," Hoekstra said in his statement, saying that the "alleged communication" was "under review" by intelligence officials.
This open-ended assessment was in notable contrast to the tone taken by an official authorized to speak for the office of the director of national intelligence.
"Numerous agencies studied (the letter) over a protracted period of time," he said. "We have the highest confidence in its authenticity."
"'Who knows?' is the short answer," said terrorism analyst and author Peter Bergen when asked if the letter was genuine. He added that it seemed politically consistent with Zawahiri's other writings.
Ulph agreed that without more information about the provenance of the document, it was impossible to be sure about its authenticity one way or the other. "It's a just a gut feeling," he said of his skepticism.
He pointed out a number of odd things about the Arabic manuscript, a typewritten document placed as a PDF file on the Web by the director of national intelligence.
For example, the @ sign appears after the name of Mohammed -- where one would expect to see the Arabic phrase "peace and blessings be upon him."
"It almost looks like some kind of macro," said Ulph, using the technical terms for a keyboard shortcut that produces a pre-programmed phrase of text in a word processing application.
Officials have remained tight-lipped about the source of the letter, and intelligence experts say that such information, involving sources and methods, would be very tightly held, especially if it involved so-called signals intelligence -- eavesdropping on telephone, Internet and e-mail communications.
Ulph said it would be useful to see the original document. "Is what they've put up there (on the Web) an image of the actual letter?"
The official authorized to speak for the director of national intelligence would not address the question of whether the image was that of the original letter.
"All I can tell you is, what you see is what we got," said the official. "Nothing has been added or taken away."
Whatever their view of the letter's authenticity, all of the half-dozen experts consulted by UPI agreed that the letter -- if real -- offered a fascinating and novel insight into the inner world of al-Qaida's second-in-command and chief ideologue.
In part two, what the letter tells us about al-Qaida, Zawahiri, and looming splits in the global jihadi movement.