Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had a contentious and troubled relationship with al Qaeda’s affiliates around the world,according to a new study of documents seized during the raid on his compound one year ago. Documents from the bin Laden compound reveal the al Qaeda leader’s frustration with what he saw to be the incompetence of the affiliates, according to the report by the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
The Scope of the Report
It was reported that “thousands of items” were captured from Usama bin Ladin’s compound during the Abbottabad raid. To date, however, only 17 documents have been declassified and provided to the CTC, all of which are hereby released with the publication of this report. They consist of electronic letters or draft letters, totaling 175 pages in the original Arabic and 197 pages in the English translation. They were written over several years. The earliest is dated September 2006 and the latest April 2011, a week before Bin Ladin’s death.
Rather than a source of strength, Bin Ladin was burdened by what he viewed as the incompetence of the “affiliates,” including their lack of political acumen to win public support, their media campaigns and their poorly planned operations which resulted in the unnecessary deaths of thousands of Muslims.
The documents show that some of the affiliates sought Bin Ladin’s blessing on symbolic matters, such as declaring an Islamic state, and wanted a formal union to acquire the al- Qa`ida brand. On the operational front, however, the affiliates either did not consult with Bin Ladin or were not prepared to follow his directives. Therefore, the framing of an “AQC” [Al Qaeda Central] as an organization in control of regional “affiliates” reflects a conceptual construction by outsiders rather than the messy reality of insiders.
If the criticisms of AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] in the documents are not particularly surprising, the concerns Bin Ladin expressed about AQAP [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] will no doubt be revealing to many. It is widely believed that AQAP is a success story from al-Qa`ida’s perspective, especially since it is regularly described by senior U.S. government officials as the “most dangerous” of al- Qa`ida’s affiliates. Yet the documents show that at least in 2010 Bin Ladin was far from being impressed with the brothers in Yemen.” He comes across as critical of both their words and deeds, in particular the group’s attacks in Yemen, its lack of acumen to win the Yemeni people’s support, and the ill-advised public statements of its leaders. In fact, with the possible exception of AQI, none of the other “affiliates” appear to be more of a source of concern for Bin Ladin than AQAP.
Not Friendly With Iran
Relations between al-Qa`ida and Iran appear to have been highly antagonistic, and the documents provide evidence for the first time of al-Qa`ida’s covert campaign against Iran. This battle appears to have been an attempt to influence the indirect and unpleasant negotiations over the release of jihadis and their families, including members of Bin Ladin’s family, detained by Iran.
Unlike the explicit and relatively substantive references to the Iranian regime, the documents do not have such references about Pakistan. Although there are notes about “trusted Pakistani brothers,” there are no explicit references to any institutional Pakistani support. The one instance Pakistani intelligence is mentioned is not in a supporting role: in the course of giving detailed instructions about the passage his released family from Iran should take, Bin Ladin cautioned `Atiyya to be most careful about their movements lest they be followed. More precisely, he remarked that “if the [Pakistani] intelligence commander in the region is very alert, he would assume that they are heading to my location and he would monitor them until they reach their destination.” This reference does not suggest that Bin Ladin was on good terms with the Pakistani intelligence community.
On Their Own
Rather than outright protection or assistance from states such as Iran or Pakistan, Bin Ladin’s guidance suggests that the group’s leaders survived for as long as they did due to their own caution and operational security protocols. While the release of new documents may necessitate a reevaluation of al-Qa`ida’s relations to Iran and Pakistan, the documents for now make it clear that al-Qa`ida’s ties to Iran were the unpleasant byproduct of necessity, fueled by mutual distrust and antagonism.
Arab Spring and the Final Letter
Bin Ladin’s last private letter is dated 25 April 2011. By then, events in the world, as he was observing them on his television screen, were unfolding at a pace that caused him to reassess his worldview. He saw the revolutions sweeping the Arab world to represent a “formidable event” (hadath ha’il), a turning point in the modern history of the umma. At the time he was writing, the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt, Zein al-`Abidin bin `Ali and Husni Mubarak, had fallen. Bin Ladin was convinced that their fall was bound to trigger a domino effect, and “the fall of the remaining tyrants in the region was inevitable.” Thus, “if we double our efforts towards guiding, educating and warning Muslim people from those [who might tempt them to settle for] half solutions, by carefully presenting [our] advice, then the next phase will [witness a victory] for Islam, if God so pleases.”
Conclusion: No Puppet Master
The correspondence includes letters by then-second-in-command Abu Yahya al-Libi, taking Pakistani offshoot Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan to task over its indiscriminate attacks on Muslims. The Al-Qaeda leadership “threatened to take public measures unless we see from you serious and immediate practical and clear steps towards reforming (your ways) and dissociating yourself from these vile mistakes that violate Islamic Law,” al-Libi wrote. And bin Laden warned the leader of Yemeni AQAP, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, against attempting a takeover of Yemen to establish an Islamic state, instead saying he should “refocus his efforts on attacking the United States.” Bin Laden also seemed uninterested in recognising Somali-based al-Shabab when the group pledged loyalty to him because he thought its leaders were poor governors of the areas they controlled and were too strict with their administration of Islamic penalties, like cutting off the hands of thieves. The US said the letters reflect al-Qaeda’s relationship with Iran – a point of deep interest to the US government – as “not one of alliance, but of indirect and unpleasant negotiations” over some al-Qaeda terrorists and their families who were imprisoned in Iran. Nothing in the papers that were released points directly to alleged al-Qaeda sympathisers in Pakistan’s government, although presumably such references would have remained classified. Bin Laden described “trusted Pakistani brothers” but didn’t identify any Pakistani government or military officials who might have been aware or complicit in his hiding in Abbottabad. It wasn’t immediately clear how many of bin Laden’s documents the US was still keeping secret. In a note published with the 175 pages in Arabic that were released Thursday, along with English translations, retired General John Abizaid said they probably represent only a small fraction of materials taken from the compound in the US raid that tracked down and killed bin Laden in May 2011. The US said the documents span September 2006 to April 2011. Bin Laden was proud of the security measures that kept his family safe for many years, the report said. It said bin Laden boasted that his family “adhered to such strict measures, precluding his children from playing outdoors without the supervision of an adult who could keep their voices down.” The report said the Special Forces troops in the bin Laden raid were trained to search the home afterward for thumb drives, printed documents and what it described as “pocket litter” that might produce leads to other terrorists. “The end of the raid in Abbottabad was the beginning of a massive analytical effort,” it said. It said the personal files showed that, during one of the most significant manhunts in history, bin Laden was out of touch with the day-to-day operations of various terrorist groups inspired by Al-Qaeda. He was “not in sync on the operational level with its so-called affiliates,” researchers wrote. “Bin Laden enjoyed little control over either groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda in name or so-called fellow travellers.”