While Osama Bin Laden was at times viewed as the ultimate terrorist mastermind deftly directing Al-Qaeda’s global operations, declassified letters reveal an impotent figurehead plagued by “Muslims suffering at the hands of his jihadi brothers.”
Seventeen declassified electronic letters or draft letters seized during the last year’s raid on Abbottabad have been released online by the US Combating Terrorism Center (CTC). Documents from the 175-page collection entitled “Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Laden Sidelined” date from September 2006 to April 2011.
After analyzing the documents, the CTC determined that “far from being in control of the operational side of regional jihadi groups Bin Laden makes it clear that he was struggling to exercise even a minimal influence over them."
In fact, the documents vastly diverge from his public statements which focused extensively on corrupt Muslim rulers and their Western “overseers.” Bin Laden urged regional jihadi groups to abandon domestic attacks which indiscriminately slaughtered Muslim civilians and instead refocus on “our desired goal [The United States].”
Bin Laden referred to the enemies of the umma as “a malignant tree” with “a 50 cm American trunk and branches that differ in sizes, consisting of NATO members and many [apostate] regimes in the [Middle East and North Africa] region.”
“We want to bring down the tree by sawing [its trunk], but our force and capability is limited,” he continued.
He was particularly concerned with the loose application of al-tatarrus, those special circumstances under Islamic law whereby a military commander can initiate attacks that will result in collateral damage, including casualties among Muslim women and children.
By making the exception the rule, Bin Laden lamented that “the mistakes of the jihadis were exploited by the enemy, [further] distorting the image of the jihadis in the eyes of the umma’s general public and separating them from their popular bases.”
Bin Laden further stressed that in the event that non-combatants died as a result of the group’s operations, “apologies and explanations should follow, even if those fallen are sinners (fussaq).” He even stated that “Al-Qaeda Central” should apologize in those instances when regional leaders failed to do so.
Bin Laden advisor Adam Gadahn had thus implored him to wash their hands of Al-Qaeda's spin-off operation in Iraq, known as AQI, with Bin Laden himself warning jihadis not to follow in AQI’s footsteps.
The documents also represented a tripartite split within Al-Qaeda between one camp who wanted to maintain tighter controls over the network’s brand identity and another who wanted to expand the group as quickly as possible via the inclusion of regional jihadi groups referred to as “affiliates.” Bin Laden, meanwhile, represented a third position by seeking to stay in touch with Al-Qaeda’s inner circle and “brothers everywhere” so as to counsel and restrain them without granting them formal unity, the documents reveal.
Despite extensive claims that Al-Qaeda had strong connections with Iran and Pakistan, the CTC described the networks relationship with Tehran as “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 further noted the “detention of prominent Al-Qaeda members had 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 CTC also found no direct references demonstrating “institutional Pakistani support for Al-Qaeda or its operatives.”
It is currently unknown just how much information was captured during Operation Neptune Spear, the US Navy Seal raid on Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 2, 2011.
In March, documents found at Bin Laden’s Pakistani hideout surfaced which showed he was plotting to kill US President Barack Obama and General David Petraeus, the former commander of ISAF forces in Afghanistan.