ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
US intelligence has released the text of a letter reportedly written by Osama bin Laden's number two, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahri. According to the US it was intercepted on its way to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. It urges the Iraqis to refrain from attacking Shiites. The Muslim public won't understand such things. And it urges the Iraqis to keep their eye on the big picture beyond expelling the US form their country. Al-Qaeda in Iraq calls the letter a fake and some experts have cast doubts on its authenticity. We asked Jessica Stern about it. She lectures on terrorism at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Ms. JESSICA STERN (Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University): It's not impossible that it's disinformation. But if it is disinformation put out by our government, I'm not very impressed.
SIEGEL: How so? Do you mean you think that it doesn't reflect well enough on the United States?
Ms. STERN: It doesn't serve our agenda. It really makes clear that al-Qaeda has a very long-term goal, that it takes marketing very, very seriously, that Zawahiri is an extraordinary elitist who views the Muslim masses as misguided and ignorant and fairly easy to manipulate.
SIEGEL: One of the key points, certainly among the most newsworthy that have been found in this communication, is al-Zawahiri telling the al-Qaeda people in Iraq or Abu Musab Zarqawi in particular, `Even though you and I understand that Shiite Muslims really are a terrible threat to Islam and they're totally wrong, the mass of the people don't understand that.'
Ms. STERN: The document really goes into detail about how even though the masses are ignorant and we understand that ultimately there will be a battle with the Shia, whom we know collaborate with the crusaders, that we have to go along with their perceptions that these are Muslims for now--that Shia are Muslims.
SIEGEL: So attacking Shiite mosques is just not good public relations?
Ms. STERN: Indeed, it is bad public relations to attack ordinary Shia who are ignorant and, therefore, innocent, he says, and, of course, even worse public relations to attack mosques.
SIEGEL: And one point the author of this document, said to be Ayman al-Zawahiri, says, `This does not change the reality at all, which is that the general opinion of our supporter does not comprehend that and that this general opinion falls under a campaign by the malicious, perfidious and fallacious campaign by the deceptive and fabricated media.'
Ms. STERN: Yes, he talks about how the battle--more than half the battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. `We're in a media battle, in a race for the hearts and minds of our people.'
SIEGEL: He addresses the practice of distributing videos, by the Internet and otherwise, of hostages being executed.
Ms. STERN: Yes, he also calls that very bad public relations, that ordinary people are offended by that. And that while we know that the purported torture by Americans of our people is far worse than the slaughtering of the hostages, nonetheless it's bad PR so don't do it.
SIEGEL: Is there anything in this text beyond what the message is for al-Qaeda in Iraq, anything in it that tells you something or confirms something for you about al-Qaeda that might not have been clear to you until now?
Ms. STERN: What it tells me about al-Qaeda is that they have a very long-term agenda, that the popular view that they're really interested in forcing US troops out of the region is wrong. They have a goal to establish an Islamic state and defend it for every generation until the hour of the resurrection.
SIEGEL: Jessica Stern, thank you very much for talking with us today.
Ms. STERN: Thank you very much.
SIEGEL: Jessica Stern is a lecturer on terrorism at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
MICHELE NORRIS (host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
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