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Originally published Monday, October 2, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Sharp words to al-Zarqawi shed light on bin Laden's inner circle

Six months before the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in June, a senior al-Qaida figure warned him in a letter that he risked removal as al-Qaida's...

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Six months before the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in June, a senior al-Qaida figure warned him in a letter that he risked removal as al-Qaida's leader in Iraq if he continued to alienate Sunni tribal and religious leaders and rival insurgent groups.

The author of the Dec. 11 letter, who said he was writing from al-Qaida headquarters in the Waziristan region of Pakistan, was a member of Osama bin Laden's high command who signed himself "Atiyah." The military's Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, which last week released a 15-page English translation of the Arabic document made public in Iraq, said his real identity was "unknown."

But counterterrorism officials said they believe he is Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, 37, a Libyan who joined bin Laden in Afghanistan as a teenager during the 1980s. He has gained considerable stature in al-Qaida as an explosives expert and Islamic scholar.

After becoming acquainted with al-Zarqawi in the western Afghan city of Herat in the late 1990s, he became al-Qaida's main interlocutor with the fiery Jordanian.

Atiyah's name does not appear on any published U.S. government list of known or suspected terrorists.

But his biography, as described by counterterrorism officials who agreed to discuss him on the condition they not be named, offers a rare glimpse into the cadre of loyal senior aides who escaped with bin Laden into the mountainous Afghan-Pakistani border region in the fall of 2001.

The letter, the first document to emerge from what the military described as a "treasure trove" of information uncovered from Iraqi safe houses at the time of al-Zarqawi's death, provides new details of a debilitated al-Qaida leadership-in-hiding, locating it in Waziristan.

"I am with them," Atiyah writes al-Zarqawi of the high command, "and they have some comments about some of your circumstances."

Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, said last week he believes bin Laden and his top lieutenants are on the Afghan side of the border.

U.S. military and intelligence officials have long believed the al-Qaida leadership is hiding in one of the tribal provinces on the Pakistan side of the border. Atiyah's letter, if accurate, would confirm their location at the time it was written.

Atiyah bemoans the difficulty of direct communications between Waziristan and Iraq and suggests it is easier for al-Zarqawi to send a trusted representative to Pakistan than the other way around.

The "brothers," he writes, "wish that they had a way to talk to you and advise you, and to guide and instruct you; however, they too are occupied with vicious enemies here.

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"They are also weak," he continued, "and we ask God that He strengthen them and mend their fractures. They have many of their own problems, but they are people of reason, experience and sound, beneficial knowledge. ... This letter represents the majority of, and a synopsis of, what the brothers want to say to you."

Deemed authentic by military and counterterrorism officials, Atiyah's letter adds context to events in al-Qaida's often rocky relationship with its Iraqi subsidiary, shedding new light on the depth of the organization's concern over al-Zarqawi and the limits of its control over him.

An earlier letter to al-Zarqawi, written in July 2005 by bin Laden deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, made some of the same points in more formal and less pointed words. But it appeared to have little effect.

In September 2005, al-Zarqawi released an audiotape accusing Sunni leaders and Shiites of cooperating with U.S. forces and promising their certain death.

Atiyah's letter begins with warm personal words for al-Zarqawi. "I am setting this out as an introduction," he says, because the rest of his letter "will be primarily about the negatives and cautioning against things that are perilous and ruinous."

Al-Zarqawi had been placed in a position of high responsibility, Atiyah continues, but needed to expand his circle of advisers in Iraq and listen more to those with a better sense of al-Qaida's wider political objectives.

If his words led al-Zarqawi to wonder if he were being asked to step down, Atiyah writes, the response would be "not necessarily." But, he continues, "it is a possibility if you find at some point someone who is better and more suitable than you."

Atiyah orders him not to make "any decision on a comprehensive issue" without consulting bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and the other "brothers." Al-Zarqawi should improve his relationship with other Sunni insurgent groups in Iraq and be more judicious in using the al-Qaida name in his operations.

Atiyah refers to a bombing in Jordan ordered by al-Zarqawi as the kind of operation that requires consultation. He urges the utmost caution "against attempting to kill any religious scholar or tribal leader who is obeyed, and of good repute in Iraq from among the Sunnis, no matter what."

After they have succeeded in driving out U.S. forces and dismantling the Iraqi government, he writes, "then we can behave differently."

"Know that we, like all mujahedeen, are still weak. ... We have not yet reached a level of stability. We have no alternative but to not squander any element of the foundations of strength or any helper or supporter."

Atiyah's December missive seemed to produce at least temporary results. In January, al-Zarqawi's organization, al-Qaida in Iraq, announced it was melding operations with other Sunni insurgent groups under a new umbrella organization called the Mujahedeen Shura Council.

But any hopes of appealing to Shiites — seen by al-Qaida as an interim necessity that would be abandoned once U.S. forces were ejected — was eliminated when al-Zarqawi-affiliated forces blew up an important Shiite shrine in Samarra in February.

A number of Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province have also been killed this year under the Shura Council banner.

Since al-Zarqawi's death in June in a U.S. air raid near the Iraqi city of Baqouba, his successor, Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, has appeared more in tune with al-Qaida's wishes and has reached out to Sunni tribal and religious leaders.

Competing for their support with the U.S.-backed Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, al-Muhajer on Thursday issued a public appeal for their forgiveness and pledged to respect their scholarship and status.

Atiyah is no longer in Waziristan, according to U.S. officials who declined to speculate on his whereabouts. But they said he was not in U.S. custody and expressed certainty he is alive.

Asked what priority they attach to his capture, one official said, "He is an important figure. ... The world would be a much safer place with him off the streets."

The official said Atiyah is one of a number of senior al-Qaida figures whose names have not been made public. "We knew about him," he said. "There are a lot of key al-Qaida people that might not be on lists for the general public or the press."

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