Documents portray Osama bin Laden as frustrated Al-Qaeda leader
Osama bin Laden spent his final years fretting about al-Qaeda affiliates in Pakistan, Iraq and Yemen because he thought their recklessness hurt the mission’s cause worldwide, according to documents released by the U.S. government last week.
The longtime al-Qaeda leader, killed in a covert U.S. raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, a year ago, also brooded over the terror group’s contentious relationship with Iran — a squabble fueled in part by Iran’s detention of members of bin Laden’s family.
The Combating Terrorism Center [CTC] at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point translated and analyzed documents that U.S. Navy SEALs seized from bin Laden’s hideout during their May 2011 raid. The declassified documents, released May 2 of this year, portray bin Laden as frustrated by his waning influence outside al-Qaeda and marginalized by his top-secret whereabouts and a general inability to travel.
“Bin Laden, it was said, could run but he could not hide,” the CTC reports states. “He seems to have done very little running and quite a lot of hiding.”
The documents were written during the time span from September 2006 until April 2011. CTC analysts were careful to note that the papers, culled from a much larger trove, provide only a partial glimpse of bin Laden’s mindset and way of thinking over the past half-decade.
Pakistani journalist: Osama was ‘not in command’
“I really read all of this as [the writings of] a very frustrated man,” said Ahmed Rashid, a prominent Pakistani journalist and author of “Taliban” and “Pakistan on the Brink.” “Despite these huge efforts to write these letters and question everything, he was not in command, he was not an authority and he was not getting much of a response to what he was saying or suggesting.
“This is some guy sitting in one room trying to intellectualize about his future and the future of the party, without any contact to the outside,” Rashid added. “It seems to me to be the actions of a man in acute frustration.”
The CTC analysis shows that bin Laden consistently urged his lieutenants to forgo domestic attacks that would kill Muslim civilians and instead focus on the “desired goal” of permanently crippling the United States.
“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” from the released documents, the CTC report said.
Osama saw affiliates as incompetent
The report says bin Laden was annoyed by what he viewed as incompetence among leaders of al-Qaeda “affiliates” in Iraq, Pakistan and Yemen, and he resisted conferring on the groups the official al-Qaeda brand. The documents show bin Laden was unimpressed by 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.”
“On the operational front, the affiliates either did not consult with bin Laden or were not prepared to follow his directives,” the report states. “Therefore, the framing of an ‘AQC’ [al-Qaeda Central] as an organization in control of regional ‘affiliates’ reflects a conceptual construction by outsiders rather than the messy reality of insiders.
“Far from being in control of the operational side of regional jihadi groups, the tone in several letters authored by bin Laden makes it clear that he was struggling to exercise even a minimal influence over them,” the report added.
While many outside observers might think that bin Laden’s objectives with respect to the United States aligned at least somewhat with Iran’s, the documents reveal deep distrust between the Iranian government and al-Qaeda leadership.
Al-Qaeda’s uneasy relationships with Iran and Pakistan
“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 Laden’s family,” the CTC report states. “The detention of prominent al-Qaeda members seems to have sparked a campaign of threats, taking hostages and indirect negotiations between al-Qaeda and Iran that have been drawn out for years and may still be ongoing.
“The relationship between al-Qaeda and Iran is one of the least understood aspects about al-Qaeda’s history,” the CTC report adds.
Sayf al-‘Adl, one of al-Qaeda’s top-tier leaders, wrote in letters obtained prior to the Abbottabad raid that after the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, many al-Qaeda operatives traveled to Iran presuming they would be left alone. Instead, al-‘Adl wrote, Iran “began a campaign of arresting people and deporting them to their home countries,” which the al-Qaeda leader believed was due to U.S. pressures.
The report says discussion of Pakistan by bin Laden — at least in the documents released publicly— is “scarce and inconclusive.” The documents suggest al-Qaeda and other Islamic terrorists did not enjoy the kind of cooperation from official Pakistan that some observers suggest.
“Although references are made about ‘trusted Pakistani brothers,’ there are no explicit references to any institutional Pakistani support for al-Qaeda or its operatives,” the report says.
Bin Laden also expressed deep concern about the 2010 drone killings of al-Qaeda operatives in Waziristan. He urged that his “brothers” in the region flee to safer ground, advising them to move on cloudy days when drones would be less likely to locate them.
“Bin Laden’s letter was littered with detailed instructions to be followed to ensure the safety and security of the remaining brothers even if the work ‘should proceed at a slower pace during this period’,” the report said. “Pakistani authorities were beginning to exert pressure on us and closely monitor our movements, making it very difficult for Arab brothers and others to reach Afghanistan via Pakistan,” bin Laden wrote, according to the CTC report.
Osama was encouraged by Arab Spring
Bin Laden viewed the so-called Arab Spring as a positive development in his quest to create a global Islamic state. He had long wanted to overthrow the Saudi monarchy and other Middle East governments, and establish an Islamic state according to Sharia law. However, he was not heartened by the possible ascension of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, whom he viewed as too moderate to accomplish radical change. In fact, Bin Laden saw little use for traditional politics.
“In line with al-Qaeda’s traditional stance, bin Laden dismissed the Muslim Brotherhood [and similar Islamist groups], accusing them of being in pursuit of ‘half solutions’,” the report states. “This, in his parlance, means that although they raised the banner of Islam in their political discourse, they deviated from its teachings when they agreed to pursue their objectives through the electoral process.”
Instead, bin Laden saw the revolutions in the Middle East as an opportunity to begin “inciting people who have not yet revolted and exhort them to rebel against the rulers.”
Bin Laden urged renewed terrorist efforts in Afghanistan
In Afghanistan, bin Laden wanted his fellow terrorists to continue their fight against the United States, the CTC report says. He believed that their efforts weakened America, 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.
Rashid said the bin Laden letters reveal a stark contrast to his bravado after a wave of deadly terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya, Nairobi and Tanzania in 1998, and then the 9/11 attacks on the New York and the Pentagon in 2001.
“He was the world leader of Islamic jihad and nobody would question him then,” Rashid said. “Now, having some of these groups that are not very prominent, but very bloodthirsty, not listen to him must have been frustrating. His authority was less, and that must have been a big ego blow to him.”