Cracking al Qaeda's code
That is not the only passage that appears to have had consequences. The author also advises Sunni jihadists in Iraq to put aside their historic differences with the Shiites and "if possible draw them into combat with the Americans." According to Lia, in September 2003, when the document was purportedly written, such counsel represented a pragmatic shift in al Qaeda policy, which previously reflected Wahhabi-style Islam's contempt for Shiites as takfir, or apostates. But to make such an authoritative decision--and one that appears to have been heeded--suggests that the author had credible standing.
Even without subsequent events in Spain and Iraq seeming to confirm the document's authority, "Jihadi Iraq" provides other hints of its legitimacy, say Lia and Hegghammer. For example, its reference to the Mujahideen Services Center appears to be an intentional echo of the Mujahideen Services Bureau, the predecessor of al Qaeda set up in Pakistan during the anti-Soviet struggles in Afghanistan. And the paper is dedicated to Yusuf al-Ayiri, who was considered a direct link between bin Laden and the jihadist movement in the Arabian peninsula before he was killed by Saudi security forces last June. Al-Ayiri also ran what was once the premier al Qaeda Web site, Alneda, and arguments from his tracts on holy war are quoted throughout "Jihadi Iraq."
Fingerprints. Many experts argue that the use of insider references and coded language, often deriving from Islamic theology and history, is one way of signaling and responding to directions within the jihadist network. "I think there is a set of fingerprints and symbols that identify statements as authoritative," says David Cook, a professor of religious studies at Rice University who has studied the evolution of radical Islamist thought since the defeat of the Taliban. Indeed, the man who appeared on videotape to claim responsibility for the Madrid bombings identified himself as Abu Dujana al-Afghani, which Lia and Hegghammer say may echo the document's reference to Abu Dujana, a companion of the prophet Mohammed known as a particularly fierce fighter.
Not everyone buys this textual parsing, however. Adam Dolnik, a fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore, told the British online magazine Spiked that the references to the Services Center and al-Ayiri were "not particularly telling." Analysts at the Central Intelligence Agency also found the article unremarkable, "a document like any number of other documents," says one intelligence official. Even Weimann notes that Global Islamic Media is not thought to be one of the official al Qaeda Web sites.
But at the very least, "Jihadi Iraq" complicates the accepted wisdom that began to form shortly after the destruction of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan--that the radical Islamist threat is now not so much from al Qaeda, the organization, but from a growing movement of loosely affiliated groups. Just last month, Ambassador J. Cofer Black, the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator, testified before Congress that antiterrorism operations had decimated and isolated the al Qaeda leadership, resulting in what Black calls "a lack of clear strategic direction" within the jihadist movement.