The Bin Laden Files / What the al Qaeda leader´s final correspondence tells us about his legacy (FP) FOREIGN POLICY) BY DAVEED GARTENSTEIN-ROSS 05/03/12)
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West Point´s Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) has released 17
declassified documents captured during the May 2011 raid in
Abbottabad, Pakistan, that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
The size of this document dump is disappointing: It represents only a
tiny fraction of the material that the United States has translated
in the past year, and while a lot of interesting information was
released, terrorism analysts should be cautious about drawing overly
sweeping conclusions based on this limited -- and, no doubt,
deliberately selective -- release. Nonetheless, this material offers
fascinating new insights into the inner workings of al Qaeda, its
views of its own failures, its affiliates, and the recent upheaval in
the Arab world.
One interesting document is a scathing critique by Adam Gadahn, the
Southern California-raised American al Qaeda spokesman, of the
terrorist group´s image problems, engendered by the brutal tactics
employed by those claiming to fight under its mantle. Gadahn is often
justifiably mocked as an ineffective spokesman for the jihadi cause,
but the advice he provides in a January 2011 letter to an unknown
recipient is at times strikingly perceptive.
Gadahn writes at length of the Islamic State of Iraq targeting the
country´s Christians, in particular the group´s threat to start an
all-out war on the Christian minority if Egypt´s Coptic church did
not release two women allegedly detained in one of its monasteries.
Noting the lack of organizational connection between Egyptian Copts
and Iraqi Christians, Gadahn draws an analogy, saying that this
threat is like an armed group assaulting a mosque in the Sunni
stronghold of Fallujah and threatening to wage war on Iraq´s Sunnis
unless the Shia government releases Sunni prisoners in Sadr
City. "Does this satisfy any sane person?" Gadahn asks.
He similarly condemns the targeting of mosques and other public
places "by some who were referred to as the mujahideen," providing an
extended list of incidents in Pakistan and Somalia in which a great
deal of Muslim blood was shed. Gadahn even advocates for al Qaeda to
dissociate itself from the Pakistani Taliban and the Islamic State of
Iraq, rather than "praising the killers while they are alive, and
condole them when dead, and count them as good doers, irrespective of
what we know about them of immorality." He even provides a suggested
draft statement for al Qaeda spokesmen condemning those groups´
While there is no indication of the reception that Gadahn´s letter
received, it suggests that al Qaeda might be willing to adapt its
approach on these issues. At least some of its thinkers are aware of
deep problems caused by the group´s brutal excesses, which Western
observers have described as the group´s "Achilles´ heel."
Other documents shed light on the February 2012 merger of al Qaeda
and the Somali jihadi group al-Shabab, which has emerged as a major
military force in southern Somalia, able to control and govern a
significant geographic area. Many Western analysts, in trying to
interpret what this merger meant, asked whether it was a sign of the
groups´ strength or weakness. The newly released documents suggest
another answer: The leadership change from bin Laden to new al Qaeda
emir Ayman al-Zawahiri may have been the largest factor in bringing
about the union.
In an August 2010 letter to al-Shabab leader Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr,
bin Laden politely rebuffs Zubayr´s suggestion of an official merger.
In suggesting that it´s best not to announce a merger, bin Laden
writes that "it would be better" for al-Shabab members to "say that
there is a relationship with al Qaeda which is simply a brotherly
Islamic connection and nothing more."
Bin Laden argues that an official merger would cause outside powers
to escalate their campaign against al-Shabab. Moreover, he claims to
have a plan for alleviating the widespread poverty and malnutrition
in Somalia and says that "by not having the mujahideen openly allied
with al Qaeda, it would strengthen those merchants who are willing to
help the brothers in Somalia."
Four months later, in December 2010, a letter to bin Laden was
composed asking him to reconsider his stance toward al-Shabab. While
the author of that letter is not identified, CTC´s analysts infer
from both the tone and the critique that it was written by "a high-
ranking personality, possibly Ayman al-Zawahiri." The rationale in
this critique relates in part to quality control of the al Qaeda
brand: If the group´s leadership fails to announce which groups are
its branches, anybody can claim to be a part of al Qaeda.
Around eight months after Zawahiri became al Qaeda´s leader, al Qaeda
and al-Shabab announced a merger. While analysts at the time tried to
interpret what this said about the strength of the groups, it may
have been Zawahiri´s ascension that was determinative.
The documents also give us a glimpse of bin Laden´s view of the Arab
Spring. In a letter dated April 26, 2011 -- just five days before he
was killed -- bin Laden describes the uprisings as "a great and
glorious event," one that shows "things are strongly heading towards
the exit of Muslims from being under the control of America."
Bin Laden did not think that the secular nature of these revolutions
undermined al Qaeda´s designs for the region. Rather, he focused on
the increased freedoms he expected jihadists to enjoy amid the
regional turmoil. "If we double the efforts to direct and educate the
Muslim peoples and warn them from the half solutions," he
wrote, "while taking care in providing good advice to them, the
oncoming stage will be for Islam, Allah willing."
Of course, bin Laden´s interpretation of the Arab Spring by no means
determines how we should view it. But at a time when Western analysts
were describing the uprisings as an "ideological catastrophe" for al
Qaeda, it is at least relevant that bin Laden seemingly saw far more
opportunity than peril in them for his organization.
There is plenty within these documents for analysts to pore over and
debate, even though they only represent a quick peek into al Qaeda´s
inner workings. But one thing the documents highlight beyond a doubt
is the need for analytic humility when interpreting an organization
that largely operates from the shadows. There is much about al Qaeda
that we still have not uncovered, and it is vitally important to
separate what we know of the group from our speculation about it.
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