The Atlantic Monthly November 2004

With theologians at the center of terrorist strategy, “forensic theology” is rapidly becoming a valuable intelligence tool

by Stephen Grey


Inside the Green Zone in Baghdad last winter I watched a coalition adviser study a 4,200-word communiqué purported to be from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian suspected of links to al-Qaeda, whose network has claimed responsibility for the recent spate of beheadings and is the United States’ most wanted enemy in Iraq. The essence of the screed had already been broadcast by the media: the author promised to draw the Iraqi people “into the furnace of battle,” in order that “a real war will break out, God willing.” The analyst, however, had little interest in the political content of the communiqué. An Arabist and a scholar of Islam, he was scrutinizing the language and religious references in the text in an effort to determine whether it was in fact written by al-Zarqawi. Many commentators believed that it had been put together by others—perhaps an intelligence agency or the Iraqi National Congress—in order to give credence to U.S. accusations of foreign involvement in terrorist actions within Iraq.

The analyst, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, disagreed. “This definitely fits Zarqawi’s profile,” he told me. “He is a highly educated man. This is real scholarship.” He pointed to references to Ibn Taymiyya (1268—1328), a Syrian religious leader who declared jihad on the Mongols—who had taken much of the Middle East from the Arabs—even though the Mongols were by then Muslims themselves. In doing so Taymiyya had invoked a philosophy used by militants today to justify attacks on fellow Muslims. “It’s just the sort of person that I expect Zarqawi is reading,” the analyst said. “Taymiyya was also perniciously anti-Shiite.”

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