ON JULY 9, Ayman al Zawahiri, the No. 2 man in al-Qaeda, wrote a 6,000-word letter to Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the al-Qaeda chieftain in Iraq.
Captured by U.S. forces and analyzed by the intelligence community, the letter was posted last week on the Web site of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (www.dni.gov).
Democrats and journalists scoff at President Bush's claim that Iraq is the central front in the war on terror. Zawahiri agrees with Mr. Bush:
"I want to be the first to congratulate you for fighting battle in the heart of the Islamic world, which was formerly the field for major battles in Islam's history, and which is now the place for the greatest battle of Islam in this era," he told Zarqawi.
Zawahiri outlined a four-part incremental strategy.
The first stage is to expel the Americans from Iraq.
The second stage is to establish a caliphate - a Taliban-style dictatorship - within Iraq.
The third stage is to expand the caliphate to Iraq's neighbors.
The fourth stage is to destroy Israel, and to expand the Islamist dictatorship to Egypt and Lebanon.
If Zarqawi could have a telephone conversation with Zawahiri without the National Security Agency listening in and a cruise missile interrupting it, he'd probably say that expelling the Americans is easier said than done.
Zawahiri tacitly acknowledges this, but holds out hope we'll cut and run of our own accord:
"Things may develop faster than we imagine. The aftermath of the collapse of American power in Vietnam - and how they ran and left their agents - is noteworthy. Because of that, we must be ready starting now, before events overtake us."
Even if the Americans left tomorrow, al-Qaeda isn't powerful or popular enough to take over, Zawahiri concedes.
So there should be a coalition government that al-Qaeda could later subvert.
Which leads to the point of Zawahiri's letter. He gently admonishes Zarqawi for using tactics that alienate the Iraqi populace.
"Among the things which the feelings of the Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable are the scenes of slaughtering the hostages."
Ever the humanitarian, Zawahiri suggested Zarqawi just shoot them instead:
"We can kill the captives by bullet. That would achieve that which is sought after without exposing ourselves to the questions and answering to doubts. We don't need this."
Zawahiri agrees the Shia are heretics who must be dealt with:
"The collision between any state based on the model of prophecy with the Shia is a matter that will happen sooner or later."
But dealing with the Shia should wait until al-Qaeda is stronger, because attacks on Shia civilians are alienating even Sunni Muslims:
"Many of your Muslim admirers amongst the common folk are wondering about your attacks on the Shia. The sharpness of this questioning increases when the attacks are on one of their mosques My opinion is that this matter won't be acceptable to the Muslim populace however much you have tried to explain it."
The attacks are impractical:
"Can the mujahideen kill all of the Shia in Iraq? Has any Islamic state in history ever tried that?"
Zawahiri reminds Zarqawi that 100 al-Qaeda leaders are in Iran.
"Even if we attack the Shia out of necessity, then why do you announce this matter and make it public, which compels the Iranians to take counter measures? And do the brothers forget that both we and the Iranians need to refrain from harming each other at this time in which the Americans are targeting us?"
If after Zarqawi crawls out from under the rubble left by the cruise missile strike and re-establishes the telephone conversation hypothesized above, he might tell Zawahiri that he attacks Shia civilians primarily because those are the only people he can get at.
Attacks on U.S. and Iraqi soldiers have been sending his fighters to Allah rather faster than they've wanted to go.
I suspect Zawahiri intuits this. His letter - which he ends with a plea for money - is an astonishing confession of weakness.
Yet this is how Douglas Jehl described it in the New York Times:
"Mr. Zawahiri told Mr. Zarqawi that the American occupation of Iraq has provided Islamic militants with a historic opportunity to win popular support."
Al-Qaeda is getting creamed militarily and politically in Iraq. But as Zawahiri reminded Zarqawi: "More than half this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media."