Documents taken by US special forces from Osama bin Laden’s compound and released by American authorities reveal a leader frustrated by the actions of affiliated groups that he felt were tarnishing the al-Qaida brand.
Though tens of thousands of documents, videos and computer discs were seized during the raid in which the al-Qaida leader was killed a year ago, only 17 were made public, in the original Arabic and in English translation along with a commentary from experts at the Combating Terrorism Centre (CTC) at the US Military Academy at West Point.
Some of the information had already been trailed by an administration eager to show that Bin Laden and the organisation he founded were suffering serious problems even before the raid on 2 May last year.
The documents show that Bin Laden, confined to a three-storey house in the northern Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad, was deeply concerned by an apparent loss of support in the Muslim world. A few months before his death he considered a major rebranding of al-Qaida to allow it to better exploit the Arab Spring revolts.
“Bin Laden’s frustration with regional jihadi groups and his seeming inability to exercise control over their actions and public statements is the most compelling story to be told on the basis of the … declassified documents,” a report issued by the CTC said.
It notes that there are no explicit references to any institutional Pakistani support for al-Qaida or its operatives in the documents passed to the West Point experts, but stresses that only a fraction of those seized have been released so far. They date from 2006 through to April 2011.
The al-Qaida leader, who had a satellite television connection in his home, appeared well-briefed on world developments. A month before he died, aged 54, Bin Laden described the Arab Spring uprisings as a “tremendous event” and suggested a media campaign should be launched to incite “people who have not yet revolted and exhort them to rebel against the rulers”, one communication reveals.
The documents show that Bin Laden, who moved into the Abbottabad compound in 2005 after more than four years on the run, did not appear to have deviated from his desire to execute mass casualty attacks on western interests and citizens, though he did show a new interest in high-profile assassinations.
In one document, Bin Laden referred to a previous demand he had made of a senior operative to set up two units, one in Pakistan and another in Afghanistan, to target aeroplanes known to be carrying President Barack Obama and General David Petraeus on their visits.
Most of the communications are taken up with lengthy debates on the apparent failure of regional affiliates to follow his directives. In one, he exhorts leaders of the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula to stop attacking local security forces and focus on the main enemy, the US.
Such instructions are entirely in line with Bin Laden’s trademark emphasis on a global agenda and his concern that an overly local focus would split and weaken the extremists.
The al-Qaida leader cautions the heads of local affiliates against establishing emirates or states. He frequently cites the example of al-Qaida in Iraq, which lost popular support after a campaign of violence against Shia Iraqis and any Sunnis who did not recognise their authority.
Bin Laden was so concerned at the potential damage to the al-Qaida brand that he was reluctant to accept a pledge of allegiance from leaders of the al-Shabab group in Somalia, who he saw as ill-disciplined, indiscriminate in their violence and lacking popular support, the documents reveal.
Directives were also sent to Pakistani Taliban groups suggesting guidelines for dealing with kidnapping.
A veteran propagandist, the al-Qaida leader sent associates his thoughts about how to exploit media coverage of the 10thy anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, suggesting potential interviewers.
The documents have been carefully vetted to avoid any breaches of security. They have been selected to avoid causing embarrassment to allies, even fractious friends such as Pakistan, or problems for ongoing attempts to negotiate a peace settlement in Afghanistan. Among the documents seized in Abbottabad is correspondence between Bin Laden, his successor Ayman al-Zawahiri and Mullah Mohammed Omar, the leader of the Taliban, which reveals close ideological ties between the three men. This was not among the released material.
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