From our Abbottabad correspondent …

Letters from Abbottabad, cover of CTC publicationBy Nigel Inkster, Director of Transnational Threats and Political Risk

Yesterday, a small sample of documents seized from Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad was released by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point. The 17 documents and notes were found on thumb drives, memory cards or the hard drive of bin Laden’s computer by the US Navy Seals who found and killed the terrorist leader last year.

The 17 documents published are part of a cache of more than 6,000, and the criteria for choosing them have not been made clear. However, it would be a reasonable assumption that the documents not released are in some way of operational use. The earliest letter is dated September 2006, the latest April 2011, and some are undated. Except for those addressed to bin Laden, ‘it cannot be ascertained whether any of these electronic letters actually reached their intended destinations’, the CTC cautions.

Some commentators have speculated that the selection of documents published may reflect an effort to portray al-Qaeda and its erstwhile leader in a particular light. There may be some truth in this, but the picture of al-Qaeda that emerges from the correspondence is broadly in line with that discernible from other open-source information – namely of an organisation that is, in the words of US Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan, ‘a shadow of its former self’, struggling largely without success to impose control on affiliated groups and maintain relevance in a rapidly changing world.

Perhaps the most surprising conclusion to emerge from the material is the extent to which, despite his seclusion, bin Laden was able to maintain extensive contacts with a wide range of individuals and affiliated groups, even if his ability to influence their conduct may have been limited. His wishes were invariably expressed in restrained and courteous language – ‘it would be nice if’- but there is little to suggest, either in the documents themselves or in the observable behaviour of those to whom the documents were directed, that those wishes were heeded.

Several key themes emerge from the translated documents. These include:

  • An acute awareness of the counter-productive nature of attacks on Muslims and civilians. Such behaviour has ‘cost the mujahideen no small amount of sympathy among Muslims. The enemy has exploited the mistakes of the mujahideen to mar their image among the masses.’ Some al-Qaeda leaders are particularly critical of the indiscriminate violence of al-Qaeda in Iraq and of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (whom they also accuse of poaching al-Qaeda operatives). Bin Laden was dismissive of the so-called ‘tartarrus’ argument excusing the deaths of Muslims seen as shielding the enemy. This is interesting in view of the elaborate theological legitimation of such deaths produced by al-Qaeda ideologue Abu Yahya al-Libi apparently at the behest of Ayman Zawahiri in 2009.
  • Fundamental differences of strategic approach between bin Laden and the leaders of affiliated groups. Bin Laden objects to the efforts of Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), to establish an Islamic state in Yemen. He characterised this as both premature and counterproductive, arguing that the overwhelming focus of jihadist efforts should be on the ‘far enemy’, namely the United States. Bin Laden expressed an ambition to replicate 9/11 and asked one associate to identify candidates from the Gulf States who could be sent there for aviation training. He also advocated attacking US interests in non-Islamic states such as South Korea.
  • A preoccupation with media policy and image. One document written by the late Adam Gadahn, AQ’s US-born former media specialist, discusses in great detail plans to release messages by AQ leaders to mark the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Bin Laden himself wrote of plans to rebrand his movement. He acknowledged that the AQ ideology remained attractive to many young Muslims but also highlighted the credibility gap arising from the movement’s failure to deliver operational outcomes commensurate with its ideological appeal. He also acknowledged that ‘as for jihadist forums, it (sic) is repulsive to most Muslims or closed to them’. He regretted that AQ had missed opportunities to emphasise the movement’s solidarity with the Palestinians.
  • Evidence of divisions within the ranks of the AQ leadership. In one document, bin Laden rejected a request from the leader of Somalia’s al-Shabaab movement for a formal relationship with AQ, which had had such a relationship with al-Shabaab’s predecessor, the Islamic Courts Union. A subsequent document from Ayman Zawahiri, bin Laden’s deputy, urged him to reconsider.
  • Profound distrust of Iran. The documentation details efforts by AQ to extricate its members, including bin Laden’s son, from what is portrayed as restrictive detention in Iran. This appears to have been achieved through covert al-Qaeda operations against Iranian targets and interests.
  • A propensity to micro-manage. Bin Laden corresponds in enormous detail on AQ’s organisational structures, bureaucratic procedures, ethics, religion, operational practices and operational security. Some of his operational proposals come across as no more than vague aspirations, including his suggestions for the assassination of President Barack Obama and General David Petraeus. Guidance on the safe extraction of AQ operatives from Iran, on the other hand, goes into inordinate detail.

It is now clear that bin Laden was able to keep closely abreast of world events during his long period of seclusion, and was well aware of their implications for his movement. He was also much more closely connected with key AQ operatives, not just in South Asia but also much further afield, than had been generally assumed. His ultimate aims had remained largely unaltered, in particular his focus on attacking the USA – even if that meant abandoning secondary targets such as the UK. However, there is a real sense of disconnect between aspirations and outcomes.

The overall picture emerging from the CTC material appears to be a vindication of US counter-terrorism policy, which has succeeded in eroding AQ’s central leadership and organisation to a point where it risks falling below critical mass. Meanwhile the affiliated groups, whose relationship with AQ central appears to be of variable quality, come across as largely preoccupied with their own local conflicts and uninterested in pursuing bin Laden’s global vision and agenda.


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