Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Ladin Sidelined?
This report is a study of 17 declassified documents captured during the Abbottabad raid and released to the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC). They consist of electronic letters or draft letters, totaling 175 pages in the original Arabic and 197 pages in the English translation. The earliest is dated September 2006 and the latest April 2011. Some of the letters are incomplete and/or are missing their dates, and not all of the letters explicitly attribute their author(s) and/or indicate the addressee. In addition to Bin Ladin, the recognizable individuals who appear in the letters either as authors or as recipients are `Atiyyatullah and Abu Yahya al-Libi, both of whom are al-Qa`ida leaders; Adam Yahya Gadahn, the American al-Qa`ida spokesman and media advisor; Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr, the leader of the Somali militant group Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahidin; Abu Basir (Nasir al-Wuhayshi), the leader of the Yemen-based al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP); and Hakimullah Mahsud, the leader of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Given the small collection of documents released to the CTC, it is impossible to construct a coherent evolution of al-Qa`ida or its current state. “Letters from Abbottabad” is an initial exploration and contextualization of 17 documents that will be the grist for future academic debate and discussion.
In contrast to Bin Ladin’s public statements that focused on the injustice of those he believed to be the “enemies” (a`da’) of Muslims, namely corrupt “apostate” Muslim rulers and their Western “overseers,” the focus of his private letters is Muslims’ suffering at the hands of his jihadi “brothers” (ikhwa). He was at pains advising them to abort domestic attacks that cause Muslim civilian casualties and instead focus on the United States, “our desired goal.” Bin Ladin’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 17 declassified documents. The main points from each of the report’s four sections are briefly summarized below.
Al-Qa`ida and Regional Jihadi Groups
• On the basis of these documents, the relationship between what has been labeled “al-Qa`ida Central” (AQC) under the leadership of Bin Ladin is not in sync on the operational level with its so-called “affiliates.” Bin Ladin enjoyed little control over either groups affiliated with al-Qa`ida in name (e.g., AQAP or AQI/ISI) or so-called “fellow travelers” such as the TTP.
• The documents show that al-Qa`ida’s relationship with its so-called “affiliates” is a contested one among the senior leaders, and three different positions exist within al-Qa`ida on this subject. Some urge senior leaders to declare their distance, and even to dissociate themselves, from groups whose leaders do not consult with al-Qa`ida but act in its name. Others urge the opposite, believing that the inclusion of regional jihadi groups in the fold contributes to al-Qa`ida’s growth and expansion. Bin Ladin represented a third position; he wanted to maintain communication, through his own pen or that of others in his circle, with “brothers” everywhere, to urge restraint and provide advice even if it fell on deaf ears, without granting them formal unity with al-Qa`ida.
Rather than a source of strength, Bin Ladin was burdened by what he viewed as the incompetence of the “affiliates,” including their lack of political acumen to win public support, their media campaigns and their poorly planned operations which resulted in the unnecessary deaths of thousands of Muslims.
• Islamic State of Iraq/Al-Qa`ida in Iraq (ISI/AQI): The documents conclusively demonstrate that the failures of ISI/AQI weighed heavily on Bin Ladin, as he urged other groups not to repeat their mistakes. Adam Gadahn advised that al-Qa`ida should publicly dissociate itself from ISI/AQI.
• Al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP): While routinely described as “the most dangerous” al-Qa`ida affiliate, as of 2010-2011 Bin Ladin seemed to have spent more time worrying about this group than appreciating its contributions. In a strongly worded letter, the leader of AQAP, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, was directly warned against pursuing any expansionist plan, such as declaring an Islamic state in Yemen, and was urged to refocus his efforts on attacking the United States, not the Yemeni government or security forces.
• Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP): The TTP seems to have come incredibly close to provoking a direct and public confrontation with al-Qa`ida’s leadership. Its indiscriminate attacks against Muslims caused `Atiyyatullah and Abu Yahya al-Libi to write to TTP leader Hakimullah Mahsud to express their displeasure with the group’s “ideology, methods and behavior.” They also threatened to take public measures “unless we see from you serious and immediate practical and clear steps towards reforming [your ways] and dissociating yourself from these vile mistakes [that violate Islamic Law].”
• Al-Shabab: Bin Ladin appeared to have seen little practical value in formally recognizing the group’s pledge of loyalty (bay`a). His motivations for withholding this recognition were largely pragmatic and reflected his concern over their poor governance and inflexible administration of hudud (deterrent penalties for certain crimes). He also wanted them to focus on “construction and development” and feared that a formal merger with al-Qa`ida would prevent investment and foreign aid in Somalia.
• Al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Taliban and Jaysh al-Islam: While there is mention of these groups in the documents released to the CTC, these discussions are not substantive enough to inform an understanding of the relationship between al-Qa`ida’s senior leaders and these groups.
Al-Qa`ida Ties to Iran and Pakistan?
While not extensive, the discussions of Iran and Pakistan in the documents suggest that al-Qa`ida’s relations with both countries were fraught with difficulties.
• References to Iran show that the relationship is not one of alliance, but of indirect and unpleasant negotiations over the release of detained jihadis and their families, including members of Bin Ladin’s family. The detention of prominent al-Qa`ida members seems to have sparked a campaign of threats, taking hostages and indirect negotiations between al-Qa`ida and Iran that have been drawn out for years and may still be ongoing.
• The discussion of Pakistan is scarce and inconclusive. Although references are made about “trusted Pakistani brothers,” there are no explicit references to any institutional Pakistani support for al-Qa`ida or its operatives.
Bin Ladin’s Plans
One of the 17 documents is a letter dated April 2011 authored by Bin Ladin in response to the “Arab Spring,” which he considered to be a “formidable event” (hadath ha’il) in the modern history of Muslims. This letter reflected his intended strategy of responding to the new political landscape that was emerging in the Middle East and North Africa.
• In the Arab world, Bin Ladin wanted al-Qa`ida to focus its efforts on media outreach and “guidance.” He believed that a media campaign should be launched to incite “people who have not yet revolted and exhort them to rebel against the rulers” (khuruj ‘ala al-hukkam). But he also wanted to invest in guidance, “educating and warning Muslim people from those [who might tempt them to settle for] half solutions,” such as engaging in the secular political process by forming political parties.
• In Afghanistan, Bin Ladin wanted jihadis to continue their fight against the United States. He believed that their efforts weakened the United States, enabling Muslims elsewhere to revolt against their rulers, no longer fearing that the United States would be in a powerful position to support these rulers.
• It is possible that Ayman al-Zawahiri is the author of one or more of the anonymous letters (see Appendix). Based on the 17 documents, `Atiyya was closest to Bin Ladin.
Letters from Abbottabad - De-classified Documents
17 de-classified documents captured during the Abbottabad raid and released to the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC). They consist of electronic letters or draft letters, totaling 175 pages in the original Arabic and 197 pages in the English translation. See the Document Guide
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