Bin Laden Letters Show a Divided Al Qaeda – NYTimes.com
WASHINGTON — Sitting in his secret refuge, hiding from the world, Osama bin Laden spent the last months of his life rethinking strategy, worrying about his legacy and struggling to maintain control over the sprawling terrorist network that operated in his name.
Department of Defense, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
He had grown disgruntled with far-flung offshoots theoretically under his umbrella and fretted that too many of the “brothers” were alienating Muslims with attacks on fellow believers. He agitated for spectacular missions, including the assassination of President Obama. He considered a marketing campaign to change the infamous network’s name. And he gave granular instructions about everything down to how to handle ransom money.
“Make sure to get the money exchanged at money exchangers,” he wrote. “You should also get rid of the bag that the money was in because it might have a chip. The brother should take the money, get in a taxi, and go to the center of the market and get a roofed section of the market.” The cash, he added, “should be in euro or dollars.”
The portrait of Bin Laden’s life in the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, emerges from a sheaf of letters released on Thursday that provide a sort of anthropology of a terror network. The frustrations expressed by Bin Laden as he issued instructions sometimes in vain might be familiar to any chief executive trying to keep tabs on a multinational corporation that had grown beyond its modest origins.
Indeed, Bin Laden insisted on seeing résumés of potential leaders, tried to impose a top-down management structure and demanded that subordinates stay within their roles. He entertained fund-raising proposals like attacking drug runners to steal their money. He contemplated ways to improve news media coverage as his team soured on MSNBC but admired ABC News.
And he fretted about how he would be remembered by history. “He who does not make known his own history,” he wrote to one of his lieutenants, runs the risk that “some in the media and among historians will construct a history for him, using whatever information they have, regardless of whether their information is accurate or not.”
While there is little detail about how he managed to stay hidden under the nose of the Pakistani authorities, the letters make clear how much pressure the American drone campaign was putting on his followers in the Pakistani border areas.
In October 2010, he urged fighters to leave the border area of Pakistan where American drones dominated the skies and flee to Afghanistan. “I am leaning toward getting most of the brothers out of the area,” he wrote. “We could leave the cars because they are targeting cars now, but if we leave them, they will start focusing on houses and that would increase casualties among women and children.”
The documents were turned over to analysts by the office of the national intelligence director as the White House sought to focus attention on the anniversary of the operation by Navy SEALs that resulted in Bin Laden’s death. Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said “renewed interest on this anniversary” meant it “was deemed an appropriate time to release them.” Republicans in past days have accused the White House of politicizing the raid.
All told, 17 letters by and to Bin Laden were released, totaling 175 pages in Arabic and dating from September 2006 to April 2011, just before he was killed. The trove was a revelation for some who study Al Qaeda. “It was revolutionary in some ways,” said Jarret Brachman, a terrorism expert. “This is a huge day for serious students of Al Qaeda.”
Analysts at the Combating Terrorism Center at the United States Military Academy at West Point, which processed and released the documents, concluded that Bin Laden often struggled to stay in charge, and the report it released even used as its subtitle, “Bin Laden Sidelined?”
“Bin Laden is not in sync on the operational level with regional jihadi groups,” said Nelly Lahoud, one of the report’s authors. “He’s displeased. He’s not approving of them. He’s worried and concerned about their incompetence.”
That assessment confirms and contrasts with the picture described by officials in the immediate aftermath of the raid, when intelligence analysts began their examination of the documents and materials found at his compound. At the time, government officials expressed surprise at how active Bin Laden was as leader, describing him as far more than a figurehead.
The letters released Thursday give a fuller sense of his role, and show that his instructions were not always heeded, at least to his satisfaction. He was frustrated with groups like Pakistan’s branch of the Taliban and looked askance at figures like Faisal Shahzad, who tried unsuccessfully to set off a car bomb in Times Square, and Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born propagandist who was killed by an American drone strike.
Particularly striking was a roiling debate over the relationship between the central Qaeda group and the various affiliates over which Bin Laden exercised little control. Some lieutenants argued for disassociating with the branch outfits, while others pushed for more integration. Bin Laden wanted to provide advice without fully incorporating them into Al Qaeda central.
Indeed, he specifically declined a request by the Shabab in Somalia to join Al Qaeda, a decision that was effectively reversed after his death by his successor, Ayman al-Zawahri.
Mr. Zawahri’s absence from many of the letters was striking. Instead, it was clear that another Qaeda leader, Jamal Ibrahim Ishtaywi al-Misrati, a Libyan who went by the name Atiyyatullah, or Atiyya, was Bin Laden’s closest confidant. He was later killed in a drone strike.
Bin Laden was deeply concerned about Al Qaeda’s image, and one letter, whose author was unknown, outlined a plan to change the name. The letter noted that the formal name of the group had been short-handed from Al Qaeda al-Jihad to just Al Qaeda, Arabic for “The Base,” and had lost its religious connotation. In its place, the letter proposed alternatives with Islamic themes, like Monotheism and Jihad Group, Muslim Unity Group, Islamic Nation Unification Party or Al-Aqsa Liberation Group.
Bin Laden wanted followers to stop attacks in Muslim countries and focus on the United States. Otherwise, he said, “it would lead us to winning several battles while losing the war at the end.”
He ordered attempts to assassinate Mr. Obama and Gen. David H. Petraeus, then commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan. Mr. Obama’s death, Bin Laden wrote, would mean the ascension of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., whom he called “utterly unprepared,” and he concluded that “the killing of Petraeus would have a serious impact on the course of the war” because he was “the man of this phase.”
Bin Laden also adhered to his own strict sense of Islamic law, even when it conflicted with his goals. He disapproved when Mr. Shahzad said he had lied upon becoming an American citizen and pledging loyalty to the United States. “You should know,” Bin Laden wrote to a subordinate, “that it is not permissible in Islam to betray trust and break a covenant.”