Osama bin Laden was deeply worried about “unnecessary” Muslim casualties from Al-Qaeda attacks and called on his deputies to spare civilian lives to shore up his network’s image, according to letters from his compound published Thursday.
A year after bin Laden was killed by US Navy SEALs at his Pakistani hideout, the White House released 17 documents from among a massive trove of files recovered at his home in Abbottabad.
The letters expose divisions inside Al-Qaeda, tensions with fellow extremists in Pakistan and an anxious bin Laden pained by his group’s standing among Muslims.
Concern over the organization’s reputation in Islamic countries ran so deep that his followers even weighed changing Al-Qaeda’s name to make a fresh start, according to one document.
In a May 2010 letter, the Al-Qaeda chief underscores “the need to cancel other attacks due to the possible and unnecessary civilian casualties” in Muslim countries.
“We ask every emir in the regions to be extremely keen and focused on controlling the military work,” he wrote, referring to Al-Qaeda attacks.
Bin Laden expressed grave concern about his terror network losing the sympathy of Muslims and described operations killing Muslims as “mistakes,” adding it was important that “no Muslims fall victim except when it is absolutely essential.”
“It would lead us to winning several battles while losing the war at the end,” he wrote.
Bin Laden suggests targeting US interests in “non-Islamic” countries, except where American troops are deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan, to avoid more Muslim casualties.
He also calls for two groups to prepare to take out US President Barack Obama and senior military officer General David Petraeus, now the head of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Bin Laden argued that by killing Obama, the United States would be plunged into crisis because he believed Vice President Joe Biden was not ready for the job.
“Biden is totally unprepared for that post, which will lead the US into a crisis,” he wrote.
“As for Petraeus, he is the man of the hour in this last year of the war, and killing him would alter the war’s path.”
At the time the letter was written, Petraeus was chief of US Central Command, overseeing troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He took over as commander in the Afghanistan war in June 2010.
Assessing the damage done to Al-Qaeda’s reputation by violence against Muslims, Bin Laden writes of the need for a new campaign designed to rally Islamic followers.
“I intend to issue a statement, in which I would discuss starting a new phase to amend what we have issued — as such we would regain the trust of a large portion of those who had lost their trust in the Mujahidin,” he wrote.
In another letter whose author is unclear, there is a discussion about the possibility of changing Al-Qaeda’s name to reconnect with Muslims around the world.
The group’s current “name reduces the feeling of Muslims that we belong to them, and allows the enemies to claim deceptively that they are not at war with Islam and Muslims, but they are at war with the organization of Al-Qaeda,” according to the letter.
The author proposes a list of possible new names, including the “Muslim Unity Group” and “Islamic Nation Unification Party.”
Concerns about violence targeting fellow Muslims is a recurring theme in the declassified documents, with some inside Al-Qaeda angered and frustrated with comrades in Iraq and Pakistan.
One letter from Al-Qaeda leaders addressed to Hakimullah Mahsud, head of the Pakistani Taliban, condemns his organization for attacks on mosques and marketplaces.
The letter cites “clear legal and religious mistakes” by the Pakistani Taliban which are “contrary to the objectives of Jihad and to the efforts exerted by us.”
If the group fails to rectify their mistakes, the authors wrote, “we shall be forced to take public and firm legal steps from our side.”
The batch of declassified documents were posted online by the Combating Terrorism Center at the West Point military academy. The letters or draft letters are dated from September 2006 to April 2011, for a total of 175 pages in the original Arabic.
[You can view the documents here. Photo of a journalist examining the documents via AFP]