The United States released letters Thursday from Osama bin Laden’s compound that revealed a divided Al-Qaeda and an anxious leader worried about his network’s image among Muslims, even as he yearned to strike again at US targets.
A year after bin Laden was killed by US Navy SEALs at his Pakistani hideout, the White House released 17 documents from a vast trove of files recovered at his home in the garrison city of Abbottabad.
The letters showed bin Laden and other Al-Qaeda figures deeply concerned about civilian casualties in Muslim countries, frustrated with fellow extremists in Pakistan and arguing over the role of affiliates in Somalia and elsewhere.
Bin Laden’s associates were so worried about how Muslims viewed the organization that one follower suggested changing Al-Qaeda’s name to make a fresh start, according to one document.
In a May 2010 letter, the Al-Qaeda chief underscored “the need to cancel other attacks due to the possible and unnecessary civilian casualties” in Muslim countries.
Bin Laden expressed grave concern about his terror network losing the sympathy of Muslims and described operations killing followers of the faith 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 suggested targeting US interests in “non-Islamic” countries, except where American troops are deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan, to avoid more Muslim casualties, according to the documents posted online by the Combating Terrorism Center at the West Point military academy.
The papers convey a leader struggling to exert his authority over Al-Qaeda’s branches, and even unable to have his edits applied to a text to be read by his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who became the group’s chief after bin Laden’s death.
Bin Laden’s fixation with media coverage comes through as well, as he pins his hopes on securing the world’s attention for the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that left nearly 3,000 dead.
“We need to benefit from this event and get our message to the Muslims and celebrate the victory that was achieved,” he wrote in October 2010.
He also called for two teams 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 said, 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.
Bin Laden acknowledges the danger posed by relentless US air raids in Pakistan’s tribal areas, admonishing his comrades to only “move to new houses on a cloudy day” to avoid being spotted by unmanned drone aircraft hovering overhead.
Assessing the damage done to Al-Qaeda’s reputation due to violence against Muslims, bin Laden wrote of the need for a new campaign designed to rally the faithful.
“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.
Another letter whose author was unclear featured a discussion about changing Al-Qaeda’s name to reconnect with Muslims around the world.
The group’s current name “allows the enemies to claim deceptively that they are not at war with Islam and Muslims,” it said.
The author proposed a list of possible new names, including the “Muslim Unity Group” and “Islamic Nation Unification Party.”
The letters shed light on an internal debate over ties to extremists in other countries, with bin Laden reluctant to open the door to a formal alliance with Shebab militants in Somalia.
He gently rebuffed a request for the Shebab group to forge a link with core Al-Qaeda, while another letter from an unknown figure — possibly Zawahiri — asked bin Laden to “reconsider” his stance.
Concerns about violence targeting fellow Muslims is a recurring theme in the declassified documents, with some inside Al-Qaeda angered with comrades in Iraq and Pakistan.
One letter from Al-Qaeda leaders addressed to Hakimullah Mehsud, head of the Pakistani Taliban, took him to task for attacks on mosques and marketplaces.
If the group fails to rectify its mistakes, the authors warned, “we shall be forced to take public and firm legal steps from our side.”