A year after Osama bin Laden met up with the pointy end of Seal Team Six, it’s fascinating to hear that he was worried about the proliferation of terrorism.
In a series of declassified “battlefield documents” published last week by the unambiguously named Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, we gain some insights into what the ex-Most Wanted Man was pondering as he paced around his Abottabad compound. The 17 documents represent a fraction of the intelligence haul that was gathered from the Pakistani hide-out following the raid.
It seems that bin Laden was much concerned about the escalation of terrorist attacks in places like Iraq and Pakistan, and in particular the steadily growing body count of fellow Muslims killed by his ardent franchisees. He had the feeling that this bloodletting was questionable from a Shari'a legal perspective, but, more importantly, it was having a negative effect on popular support in the Muslim world:
“…carrying out several attacks without exercising caution, which impacted the sympathy of the nation’s crowds towards the Mujahidin. It would lead us to winning several battles while losing the war at the end.”
The primary aim, said bin Laden, should be to attack the personnel of the “Crusader-Zionist alliance” in those places where they were directly interfering in the Muslim world. And America was to be the focus of efforts. In a tortured metaphor, America was described as a mighty tree and al-Qaeda as a saw. Only by sawing slowly at the trunk could the tree be killed. Cutting off the branches (like the UK, European NATO states and Arab lackeys) was a distraction. “We want to saw the trunk until the wicked tree is down. God willing, once the tree is down, its branches will die thereof.”
Other correspondence reveals something of a developing split between bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri over the expansion of al-Qaeda and possible mergers with affiliates such as al-Shabab. Osama, it seems, was fairly reticent about allowing just any old Islamic jihadi movement to come on board, while Zawahiri was happy to follow a determined growth strategy.
In many respects these communiqués point towards bin Laden being increasingly sidelined from the movement he had been instrumental in founding. It seems that the success of his message and the spawning of so many affiliates had taken matters beyond what he was comfortable and capable of managing. One gets the impression of a successful family firm that has been floated on the stock market, resulting in the ageing founder grumbling into his beard about the company’s traditions being trampled for the sake of profit.
Another feature of the letters is that much like his opponents – Bush, Blair, Howard – bin Laden was very much aware of the need to manage his organisation’s media messages. The use of the Internet and the popularity of jihadist websites were noted as a major triumph in the correspondence. A lengthy report from bin Laden’s media advisor discussed plans for a publicity campaign based around the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, including, he hoped, an HD quality video interview with the elusive leader himself. A list of media organisations and sympathetic journalists were presented, but Fox News was not to be the recipient of a press pack, due to their ‘lack of objectivity’. “As for Fox News, let her die in her anger,” said the media guru.
Intriguingly, even a name change was mooted because the abbreviated “al-Qaeda” (The Base) was not Islamic enough. This had allowed their enemies to launch a war upon ‘the base’ without the baggage of declaring a war on Islam. By changing the name to something like the “Monotheism and Defending Islam Group” or the “Restoration of the Caliphate Group”, the organisation would be clearer about what it stood for, and its enemies would have a tougher PR task.
Overall the documents make for a fascinating insight into the management of al-Qaeda and the difficulties it faced in its pariah status. There is acknowledgement of the damage caused by the global campaign to shut down its recruiting and financial efforts, as well as more curious nit-picking over different terrorist tactics. Was using chlorine gas, for example, spiritually acceptable?
Making these letters available is a commendable effort on the part of the Combating Terrorism Center because in a way, they humanise bin Laden. Demystifying the two-dimensional bad guy and showing that he was struggling with doubts and management issues makes him seem less frightening and far less potent than the War on Terror was claiming as a justification.
But whilst the bearded Saudi exile may now be resting at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, his legacy certainly lives on. Likewise we may wonder at the content of those documents from his home office that we haven’t been allowed to see…