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Bin Laden letters reveal isolation, contradictions

Documents raise more questions

Analysis by N.V. Maximenko


The 17 Osama bin Laden documents released last week represent only a fraction of the estimated 6,000 obtained in May 2011 from the al-Qaeda (AQ) leader’s Abbottabad compound after his death.

Some analysts said they don’t provide a complete picture of AQ’s structure and operations, especially because the record has gaps and because it is unclear who wrote some of the documents and to whom they were addressed. But the letters reveal some new details, and much can be inferred from them based on past AQ statements and events in recent years.

Bin Laden isolated

In the letters, written by bin Laden and other terrorist leaders, his isolation is apparent. In one letter, dated August 26, 2010, bin Laden appears frustrated that audio and video messages he sent out from his hiding place to international media had been delayed or never released.

In another instance, bin Laden was unaware of plans to carry out a major bombing in a large Western city by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), one of a number of so-called AQ affiliates.

The expulsion of AQ from Afghanistan forced bin Laden to hide. Although AQ had already begun promoting so-called affiliates, once on the run and in isolation, AQ was increasingly forced to rely on such affiliates to continue attacks. But at the same time, the AQ leadership, concerned for its own security, saw its influence over such groups diminish.

The letters convey bin Laden’s view of himself as a great, righteous leader and proponent of true Islam. He had such messianic views of himself long before he was forced into hiding, but the letters suggest that, in isolation, he appeared not only unable to drop the notion that he could control the course of Islamic militancy in hiding but also failed to recognise that leaders of other groups had their own ideas, goals and egos.

In a December 2010 letter to TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud, Mahmud al-Hasan (Atiyyatullah) referred to what “we believe are clear legal and religious mistakes which might result in a negative deviation from the set path of the Jihadists Movement in Pakistan,” suggesting that bin Laden and the AQ leadership knew – or had decided – what the correct path was.

In the same letter, Atiyyatullah, bin Laden’s chosen successor, contends that those who call AQ members from Arab and other countries in Afghanistan and Pakistan “guests” do so for political reasons. He also claims that “al-Qaeda is an Islamist Jihadist organisation that is not restricted to a country or race, and that we in Afghanistan swore allegiance to the Emir Mullah Umar who allowed us to carry out Jihad.”

It should be noted that, while Mehsud and the TTP would co-ordinate and carry out operations with AQ, they never swore allegiance to the group.

Internal and external differences

In that firm but polite letter to Mehsud, and in other letters, the difficulties bin Laden and other AQ leaders had with affiliate organisations are revealed.

Within the AQ leadership, three “schools of thought” developed over how to deal with the affiliates. Some called for AQ to distance or dissociate itself from groups whose leaders would not consult with AQ but acted in its name.

Others argued inclusion of regional jihadi groups under the AQ umbrella would effectively expand the organisation.

Bin Laden took a third position, wanting to maintain communication with “brothers” everywhere, urge restraint and provide advice even if it fell on deaf ears, but without granting them formal unity with AQ.

A key concern for bin Laden was preserving AQ’s “brand,” which he feared was being sullied by the killing of innocent Muslims in the name of jihad. In one letter he states the need to issue apologies and explanations for the deaths of innocent Muslims. However bin Laden and other AQ leaders seemed not to realise that such words would never replace a loved one, and that most people are concerned with day-to-day survival – something that becomes difficult if the family breadwinner is killed or wounded in a militant attack.

Again, the TTP was considered one of the key problem affiliates in this area, and nearly provoked a public confrontation with AQ’s leadership over its indiscriminate attacks on Muslims and its public pronouncements. This led Abu Abd al-Rahman and Abu Yahya al-Libi to write to Mehsud to express displeasure with the group’s “ideology, methods and behaviour.”

Relations with regional states

The released documents provide no evidence of Pakistani institutions having any ties to or expressing support for AQ. In several letters, bin Laden and others make it clear that they are concerned for “talented jihadists still in Waziristan” and that it was important to find countries other than Pakistan and Afghanistan where fighters could take refuge. There is also concern about diligent Pakistani officials making it difficult for militants to cross the Afghan-Pakistani border.

He also urges care in ensuring that bin Laden couriers and family could not be followed to his hiding place.

Other countries in the region were also unwilling to co-operate with AQ unless forced to do so through high-profile kidnappings or in the rare instance where it served their interests. And bin Laden’s efforts to reunite with members of his family were delayed because other countries did not want to work with him.

Bin Laden’s writings suggest the group’s leaders survived for as long as they did through caution, security protocols and a low profile. In one letter, bin Laden notes that the children in his compound had been instructed to keep their voices down and that an adult always accompanied them in the yard to ensure they didn’t attract attention.

Muddled strategy

For bin Laden, according to the letters, the big picture was to carry out terror attacks on the West and coalition forces in Afghanistan, an act he believed would weaken the West, freeing local Islamic movements to rise up and form Islamic states.

One idea, resulting either from his isolation or his certainty in his own infallibility, was a plan to shoot down airliners carrying a key coalition commander and a Western head of state. Success, he said, would plunge the West into chaos and destroy the international coalition’s ability to oppose militants in Afghanistan. But there is no evidence that AQ had the arms and intelligence resources to plan and carry out such a scheme.

As the Arab Spring swept across the Middle East and Maghreb in 2011, bin Laden recognised it as a historic event. In a letter dated April 25, 2011 – one week before his death – he wrote: “What we are witnessing these days of consecutive revolutions is a great and glorious event, and it is most probable, according to reality and history, that it will encompass the majority of the Islamic world with the will of Allah.”

But bin Laden dismissed the Muslim Brotherhood and similar Islamist groups as pursuing “half solutions” by seeking participation in the political process and held out hope that “there is a sizable direction within the Brotherhood that holds the Salafi doctrine, so the return of the Brotherhood and those like them to the true Islam is a matter of time, with the will of Allah.”

A letter from September 2006, however, states that, despite the problems with affiliates, and misgivings about local struggles, bin Laden wanted regional groups to wage local conflicts to distract the West from AQ’s “external work,” namely, planning and carrying out attacks on the West. Clearly, bin Laden under-estimated the resources and resolve of the West and Middle Eastern governments to thwart AQ’s plots.

Media campaign needed

Although bin Laden was concerned by growing public opposition to the militancy, he nevertheless seemed optimistic that a sophisticated communications program and media strategy would sway public opinion. In an October 2010 letter he called communications “a principal element of the battle.”

In a letter written between July and October 2010, bin Laden wrote that a centralised media spokesman “would seek to improve the aptitude of the brothers contributing in the media section; he would also provide advice in general for those issuing the statements, lectures, books, articles and those who comment on the Jihad films.”

Bin Laden was worried about what he considered to be amateurish and badly timed public statements released by leaders of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which led him to suggest centralising media releases.

Nor was bin Laden happy with Inspire, AQAP’s English-language magazine, intended to motivate English-speaking Muslims to launch random attacks. He warned of its “dangerous consequences,” presumably due to the poor planning of the operations it promoted.

But if bin Laden’s view of what media could accomplish was unrealistic, it was based in part on his own misinterpretation of support in Islamic countries and of the information provided to him.

In a letter believed to have been written by AQ media spokesman Adam Gadahn after January 2011, the writer presents information about Western media distorted by his own pro-AQ views. Focusing on media strategies, he suggests several radio and TV networks and individual journalists with whom AQ could work to draw attention to the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Yet, if the writer was Gadahn, he seemed to expect that AQ’s view of events and their justification for the attacks would be presented without question.

But a reference in one letter suggests that a key goal of a centralised communications programme also was to portray the AQ affiliates and the central AQ leaders as a single, united force, a myth other released letters dispel.

With only a small, tantalising glimpse of the treasure seized from bin Laden’s compound, making sense of bin Laden, and a more thorough understanding of AQ, will become possible only as more documents become available.

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