A selected set of documents seized from the compound of Osama bin Laden last year sheds new light on the terrorist leader. The documents highlight what was, at times, an apparently difficult relationship between al-Qaida's core group, headed by bin Laden, and its affiliates.
The documents, analyzed and released by the U.S. Military Academy [the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point], show bin Laden in his final years as frustrated with the strategy and tactics of the franchise al-Qaida groups in the Middle East and North Africa.
Nelly Lahoud, one of the authors of an analysis accompanying the released documents, said the papers challenge the widely held assumption of strong unity between bin Laden and the core group of al-Qaida's leaders holed up in Pakistan with him, and their affiliates elsewhere.
“However, bin Laden does come across as outmoded by the new generation of regional jihadi groups. He doesn’t seem to be seeing eye to eye [in full agreement with them]. He’s more methodical in terms of the operations that he would like to plan, whereas he sees them as being kind of too risky, and they’re more enthusiastic than they should be with respect to their operations,” said Lahoud.
Correspondence between bin Laden, associates
The 17 documents released Thursday - 175 pages in the original Arabic - are in the form of letters between bin Laden and his associates between 2006 and 2011. The three longest and most revealing letters are by bin Laden himself, written between 2010 and late April of 2011 - just one week before a raiding party of U.S. Navy commandos killed bin Laden [on May 2, 2011, in Pakistan].
Lahoud cautions that the al-Qaida letters now made public are only a tiny window into al-Qaida and the terrorist leader who was once the world’s most wanted man. In fact, she said, it is not even clear if the affiliate groups ever received the bin Laden letters. Nevertheless, bin Laden is clearly displeased that al-Qaida affiliates undercut their cause by staging attacks that killed fellow Muslims.
Lahoud said bin Laden wanted the affiliate groups to concentrate their efforts on the United States, not on their home countries, where they need public support.
“One of the interesting metaphors he uses is this malignant tree. He wants to focus on the trunk of the tree. He believes the United States is the trunk of the tree, whereas all the other branches are kind of like the apostate Muslim regimes that he considers to be apostates, and NATO or Britain," she said. "And he says we really shouldn’t waste our time on the branches. We should really just try to get rid of the trunk of the tree. Once the trunk is off, the rest will fall.”
Bin Laden often critical of fellow terrorists
One letter has the al-Qaida leader refusing a request by its Somalia-based affiliate al-Shabab for formal union with al-Qaida central. Al-Shabab and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP], based in Yemen, also were scolded by bin Laden for seeking his blessing to declare an Islamic state in their respective countries.
Bin Laden also comes across as sharply critical of fellow jihadists like Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born AQAP figure killed in a U.S. drone strike last year, and the Pakistani Taliban. He was dismissive of lone-wolf attackers in general. Specifically, he singled out Faisal Shahzad, the man who launched the failed 2010 bomb attack in New York City’s Times Square.
Lahoud said bin Laden was critical of Shahzad for, of all things, violating his U.S. citizenship oath.
“He doesn’t mind people who already have citizenship to mount attacks against the United States. But he does mind that those who have acquired citizenship, and therefore have sworn an oath not to threaten the United States, violate their oath,” she said.
Stuart Caudill, a co-author of the report analyzing the documents, said there is no evidence of any alliance between Iran and al-Qaida. In fact, he said, the relationship between Iran and al-Qaida was sometimes even antagonistic because of Iran’s detention of al-Qaida operatives and some members of bin Laden’s family.
Remaining questions, unfulfilled evil
One key unanswered question is how bin Laden managed to evade detection while living for years in Abbottabad, a city not far from Islamabad that has many associations with the Pakistani military. Caudill said the letters provide no answers.
“It’s inconclusive as to what relationship, if any, but based on the documents there’s no references to institutional Pakistani support by members of the government or the security services," said Caudill. "And really the only references to Pakistani intelligence are to avoiding their monitoring, making sure that [al-Qaida hideouts] are not discovered by Pakistani intelligence.”
Lahoud said bin Laden seemed to be genuinely pleased by the Arab Spring, which was then in its early stages. In one letter dated just a week before he died, he called for education and media outreach in the region to make new converts to the jihadi cause.
“His plan was to incite the people who had not yet revolted and exhort them to rebel against the rulers. But mainly we see he wanted to educate and warn Muslims from those who might tempt them to settle for half-solutions. So he doesn’t want people to be sort of tempted by the political process, like the Muslim Brotherhood.”
In another letter, Adam Gadahn, a U.S.-born extremist who calls himself "the American al-Qaida," advised his colleagues in the terrorist network's leadership to disassociate al-Qaida from any other group that mounted an attack in al-Qaida's name without consulting the core leadership. Gadahn also proposed that al-Qaida should mark the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington in a way that would burnish the terrorists' reputation and stature. Bin Laden longed to replicate the 2001 attacks, but he never did.