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Bin Laden sought to rename al-Qaeda to counter negative perceptions
A letter on bin Laden’s personal computer confirms he was aware of damage name wrought on numerous Islamic causes
Analysis by Rajeh Said in London
Osama bin Laden lived largely in isolation after he went into hiding in Abbottabad, Pakistan in 2006, according to statements from family members who were taken into custody by Pakistani authorities after bin Laden was killed by a team of U.S. Navy Seals on May 2.
While he was physically isolated from the outside, bin Laden understood what was going on in the world. He was well aware that his organisation had become synonymous with terrorism and was alienating people instead of drawing support.
That is the conclusion U.S. officials drew from a letter they said bin Laden prepared on his computer, which was confiscated along with several other documents from his home in Abbottabad. The letter reveals that bin Laden was cognizant of the need to "re-brand" al-Qaeda to include changing the organisation's name so the new name would not carry the stigma attached to the old one.
It's not known if bin Laden sent the letter to other al-Qaeda leaders. Whether or not he successfully dispatched the letter before his death, the letter confirms that the al-Qaeda leader was aware of the damage the organisation wrought on numerous Islamic causes or else he wouldn't have considered changing its name.
Bin Laden aware of damage to al-Qaeda
Bin Laden was apparently aware that al-Qaeda had sustained serious damage, and not just as a result of military strikes against it throughout the world, notably the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas where al-Qaeda is believed to maintain its headquarters. Bin Laden said in the letter that he no longer knew who the leaders of al-Qaeda were because most of the individuals he knew had been killed or apprehended. More than anything else, the practices of al-Qaeda's own members are what caused the greatest damage to the organisation.
The practices of the al-Qaeda in Iraq affiliate alienated a large segment of their base of support that was supposed to provide it with protection. Such was the case with the Sunni insurgent groups who preferred to co-operate with the Americans rather than throw support to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former emir of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia.
The same applies to many of the practices of the organization's branches around the world, which are now being viewed as a threat to Muslims themselves, as a result of bombings that often claimed the lives of innocent Muslims, even if the targets of those bombings were government officials, or in some cases, foreign tourists.
There is no doubt that bin Laden was also aware that al-Qaeda's actions not only pit a wide segment of ordinary Muslims against it, but also compelled prominent jihadi theorists to take tough stances against the organisation. A prime example is Dr. Fadl, the jihadi theorist whose books were used by al-Qaeda in its training camps. Other well-known jihadis turned against al-Qaeda including figures in Egypt (the leaders of the Islamic Group), Libya (the leaders of the Islamic Fighting Group), and Saudi Arabia (a group of known religious leaders whom the authorities presented on television to explain the reasons behind rescinding their support of al-Qaeda).
Bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders may have initially thought that some of the criticism was unfair or that it was a product of coercion because the critics were being detained by the authorities. He must have realised at a later stage that the criticism directed at his organisation by those parties was based upon a conviction that its practices are wrong, and more importantly, that their criticism was disastrous to the organisation.
But would a name change be of benefit if the organization does not change its practices?
The public perception of al-Qaeda is not affected by a name change
In reality, there are numerous living examples illustrating that superficial changes do not lead to real change unless they are accompanied by substantial changes.
In the 1990s, the "Armed Islamic Group" was a name that instilled terror into the hearts of Algerians. The organisation had committed – or claimed responsibility for – a series of crimes and indiscriminate bombings during that decade. The group's violent tactics undercut the legitimacy of carrying arms against the government.
At that point in time, a number of leaders of the militant group decided to split from the group with the aim of changing course and ending the policy of killing civilians. The splinter group discovered that would not be possible if they continued to operate under the name Armed Islamic Group, prompting them to change the name of their organisation to the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (also known by the French acronym GSPC) in 1999.
When the GSPC was founded, the damage to jihad had reached an advanced stage, which negated the benefit of creating a new organisation to continue a standing policy that had proven to be a failure (the policy of continuing to fight the regime and declaring it infidel).
A section of the GSPC leadership, including the former emir, Hassan Hattab, attempted after 2001 to pursue reconciliation with the government and end the fighting, but a rival section of the leadership refused and took over the reins of the group. In 2003 the rival faction began integrating the group in stages with al-Qaeda and the global jihad network.
The same pattern occurred in Iraq where the local al-Qaeda affiliate sustained severe damage as a result of al-Zarqawi's practices, especially the indiscriminate bombings. Under pressure from senior al-Qaeda leadership in Waziristan, al-Zarqawi agreed to change the name from al-Qaeda to the Mujahideen Shura, an organisation that paved the way for the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq between 2006 and 2007.
However, changing the name to the Mujahideen Shura and operating under the umbrella of the Islamic State of Iraq did not mean much because the tactics in the field had not changed, even after al-Zarqawi's death in 2006. The policy of suicide bombings that kill innocent citizens continued even though the targets were Iraqi government soldiers or foreign troops.
Apparently the al-Qaeda leadership in Yemen was aware of bin Laden’s concept of a name change, or at least a "confluence of ideas" existed between them, even if no direct communication took place.
It has been recently observed that al-Qaeda no longer operates under the name Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, opting to call itself Supporters of Sharia instead, a move clearly aimed at garnering public support from citizens who would not be inclined to say if they are opposed to Sharia.
It is not clear whether the Supporters of Sharia name will effect any change in al-Qaeda's practices, and reports from Yemen do not indicate that fundamental changes are occurring. Al-Qaeda previously issued judgments against individuals convicted of violations according to the group's interpretation of Islamic law.
The new emir of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, may had already received bin Laden’s message before his death. But even if he hadn’t received it, he likely has become aware of it after its content was published in the media. Would the new emir of al-Qaeda resort to changing the name of the organisation, as proposed by bin Laden, or would he continue to operate under the old name?
Whatever his decision, he is no doubt aware that al-Qaeda's practices, under any name, are no longer acceptable to a large segment of jihadis who previously supported the organisation, nor are they acceptable to the average Arab citizen who could change a ruling regime without recourse to al-Qaeda. There are those who believe that this organisation was probably one of the factors that contributed to the ruling regimes maintaining a tight grip on power over the years.