Newly released correspondence between Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants illuminate the inner workings of Al Qaeda, touching on topics that include media messaging, the need to unify an increasingly fractured organization and fears that jihadists are alienating other Muslims.
The letters, posted by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, span the period between September 2006 and April 2011, shortly before bin Laden's death at the hands of an elite Navy SEALs unit. Comprising about 175 pages in Arabic, they underscore bin Laden's struggles to direct a sprawling extremist organization that expanded and produced numerous offshoots in the decade following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
In the letters, Bin Laden and his commanders frequently discuss the best way to disseminate Al Qaeda's aims through media channels. The communications also convey a sense that Al Qaeda affiliates are straying from the organization's central principles by killing fellow Muslims and splintering into sometimes contradicting factions across the Arab and Muslim world.
Many of the letters warn that the tactics of Al Qaeda affiliates are angering Muslims who would otherwise be sympathetic to opposing Western nations. One letter denounces the tactics of a Pakistani Taliban offshoot, criticizing acts of violence perpetrated against Muslim civilians; it warns of clear legal and religious mistakes which might result in a negative deviation from the set path of the Jihadists Movement in Pakistan, which also are contrary to the objectives of Jihad and to the efforts exerted by us.
A March 2007 letter from an unidentified Egyptian man to a legal scholar warns about the conduct of Al Qaeda in Iraq, noting that our brothers are making things worse by opening themselves up to evil and hostility! A January 2011 letter from an American Al-Qaeda spokesman named Adam Gadahn raises a similar point, wondering about how a wave of church and mosque bombings in Iraq would affect perceptions of Al Qaeda.
Given the sectarian nature of the assaults on Shia Iraqis, I am beginning to wonder whether al- Qa'ida itself -- far from being the center of world terror, as we imagine -- must be one of the most sectarian organizations ever invented, Gadahn writes. I suspect that there is not just one al-Qa'ida but several, feeding off the injustices of the region.
Al Qaeda's spread to countries like Somalia and Yemen appear to raise a host of questions. In an August 2010 letter, bin Laden advises a leader of a Somali militant group to say that there is a relationship with al-Qa'ida which is simply a brotherly Islamic connection and nothing more. An earlier letter potentially addressed to bin Laden takes on the relationship between Al Qaeda and Somali groups like al-Shabab and wonders about the requirements for membership in Al Qaeda.
The problem is that Al-Qa'ida has become a broad field, the letter's author writes.
One of the earliest letters, dated September 2006, distills some of the critiques that bin Laden appears to weigh later. The author writes to bin Laden that he must focus on preventing the shedding of impermissible blood and not killing faithful people. He also warns that Al Qaeda's shift from focusing on Iraq and Afghanistan to operating in countries on the Arabian peninsula -- Yemen falls into the latter category - was a mistake that has led to government crackdowns and the deaths of more Muslims.
We think that you should not work inside Muslim countries, even if it is directed against the head of the snake, because this can cause great harm to Muslim people and can inflict great damage on various areas, including preaching, charitable work, dependence on God, and other areas, the author writes, referencing bin Laden's call to target the head of the snake, or the United States. The author adds that the battle has shifted from the head of the snake to its tail and from America to the regimes.
In subsequent letters, bin Laden and his top lieutenants emphasize that Al Qaeda should be attacking American troops rather than Arab governments or security forces. A letter responding to the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, directs al-Wuhayshi to not target military and police officers in their centers unless you receive an order from us.
Our targets are Americans, who kill our families in Gaza and other Islamic countries, the author writes, adding that members of the new generation have been misled into focusing on internal conflicts and are neglecting the larger battle with the West.
Tribal politics also surface. In one letter, an unidentified author contends that attacking Anbar tribes in Iraq unnecessarily stirred up animosity and fractured what had been a united front against American occupation. Bin Laden takes up this critique, bemoaning poorly planned and hastily carried out operations that have diminished sympathy for his fighters.
After the war expanded and the Mujahidin spread out into many regions, some of the brothers became totally absorbed in fighting our local enemies, bin Laden writes in a May 2010 letter.
Between the roar of the killing and the fight, bin Laden adds, the people shall forget who began the fight against the other -- as such we shall lose the people and strengthen the stance of the government without cutting its hostility against us.
Winning The Media Game
Part of the effort to cultivate public support was a carefully orchestrated media campaign. In an October 2010 letter, bin Laden writes that Jihadi media is a main piece of the war and suggests some Western journalists to contact for the approaching ten-year anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001.
We need to understand that a huge part of the battle is the media, and the cable channels today play a stronger role than the Hja'in poets during the ignorant era, an author of a different letter -- either bin Laden or a key commander -- writes.
The publicity war includes determining whether various news outlets would aid or undermine Al Qaeda. One letter notes that al-Jazeera has a very different agenda than ours and sounds a cautionary note about al-Jazeera raising propaganda against us.
The careful parsing of different publications extends to the American media. In another letter, Gadahn urges bin Laden to release a speech commemorating the anniversary of Sept. 11 because all the political talk in America is about the economy, forgetting or ignoring the war and its role in weakening the economy. He then analyzes the various American networks to see which is most neutral, in the process mentioning prominent journalists like Keith Olbermann, then at MSNBC, and ABC's Brian Ross.
CNN seems to be in cooperation with the government more than the others (except Fox news of course), Gadahn concludes, adding that ABC could be one of the best channels as far as we are concerned.
The correspondences also clarify how Al Qaeda's leadership sought to take advantage of the Arab Spring. A letter written by bin Laden in April 2011, a mere week before his death, refers to the cascade of popular uprisings as a great and glorious event that will lead Americans to exit the Middle East. Bin Laden predicts that Islamic movements calling for half solutions -- such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which has become a dominant party in Egyptian politics -- will eventually return to true Islam.
Our duty at this stage is to pay attention to the call among Muslims and win over supporters and spread the correct understanding, bin Laden writes, warning against confrontation and calling for a unified reaction as the oncoming stage is important and very dangerous and does not tolerate the apparent differences in our directives.
Ultimately, the media-related exhortations return to a central idea: winning over a Muslim public that is increasingly disillusioned by violence and radicalism.
The Muslim people should feel that they are part of the battle, and they are in need of speeches that fit their conditions without forgetting that the Ummah (Muslim community) are the main supporters of the mujahidin, bin Laden writes. Thus, we should be careful and provide statements that would be welcomed by the people and stay away from flagrant attacks, criticism, or disrespect of the opponents.