Eight documents recently released from the archive captured in Abbottabad during the raid on Usama bin Laden are allowing us to reexamine views of al-Qaeda (AQ). Together with seventeen previously released documents, we now have 25 pieces of evidence—from a treasure trove of “millions”—to understand AQ in its own words.
While any conclusions based on these documents must, of necessity, be modest, I argued in a previous post that they have presented a very different perspective on the relationship between AQ’s central leadership and the so-called affiliates. In this article, I’ll analyze how they might alter our views of Bin Laden as leader of his organization, and perhaps make a few surmises about the equivalent role played by Zawahiri today.
The Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point published the earlier seventeen documents along with a lengthy analysis, in which the writers contended that Bin Laden was, in the words of their monograph’s subtitle, “sidelined.” Experts and others who read the documents came to similar conclusions, arguing that Bin Laden was “increasingly isolated,” “desperate to re-energize al Qaeda,” a “delusional leader,” and “a lion in winter.” The documents seemed to be saying that Bin Laden had little input into his own organization and was divorced from reality. Strangely enough, there was another, seemingly contradictory, view of Bin Laden that also emerged from the Abbottabad documents: that of a micro-managing boss, involved in the minutiae of running his “business” and demanding input into every bureaucratic detail. This second view was supported by the first reports about Abbottabad from U.S. officials. Multiple sources affirmed that Bin Laden not only maintained operational control of AQ, but that he was often “down in the weeds” driving tactical decisions within the group.
The new documents support this latter view, showing that far from being a delusional, isolated leader, Bin Laden was directly involved in the management and operation of his far-flung organization.
The new documents support this latter view, showing that far from being a delusional, isolated leader, Bin Laden was directly involved in the management and operation of his far-flung organization. There are two specific sorts of evidence of his engagement and input: the reorganization of the vital “external operations” arm of AQ, charged with carrying out terrorist attacks against the U.S. and its allies, and his personal intervention in even the smallest operational details of his organization. It is this latter issue that caused some earlier analysis to see Bin Laden as a “micro-manager,” while the lack of evidence for anyone actually carrying out his orders, led experts to conclude that he was “delusional.”
First, the evidence from Bin Laden’s engagement in the reorganization of external operations: In their analysis, the CTC writers believed one of the earlier documents—Document 19—made it at least plausible the reorganization initiative showed AQ leadership was “in sync” with the affiliates. In that letter, dated late May 2010, Bin Laden discusses Shaykh Yunis (identified as Yunis al-Muritani here), “the official responsible for external work in Africa and west Asia,” and the need to appoint someone to be responsible for “the general duty of the external work in all the regions [aqalim].” “Aqalim” or “regions,” is the AQ term for their territorial divisions, which do not seem to match international borders.
This rather ambiguous section is explained in the new documents, which makes it clear that sometime in early 2010, Bin Laden decided to spread AQ’s external operational capabilities across the greater Middle East. In Exhibit 427 (dated May 2010 by Will McCants), Bin Laden tells Hajj ‘Uthman (perhaps General Commander of AQ, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, whose given name is “Uthman”) that Shaykh Yunis will be traveling outside Afghanistan/Pakistan to take charge of external operations in parts of Africa, while the head of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) will run external operations in North Africa and the head of Shabaab will do the same from the Horn of Africa. A letter from ‘Atiyya (Bin Laden’s chief of staff), indexed as Exhibit 421, describes another external operations “branch” being formed in Turkey. Exhibit 433, a letter from Bin Laden to Shaykh Yunis, shows that Yunis was given a special place in this reorganization. Here Bin Laden gives detailed guidance about how external operations should be set up and manned, how personnel for leadership should be trained, and tasks Yunis with setting up a new office for developing terrorist operations.
All of this might be taken for the delusional meanderings of an isolated man if it weren’t for the capture, announced in September 2011, of Yunis al-Muritani and the evidence of new external operations capabilities in AQ “regions.” A news article from late November 2014, says that Yunis confirmed Bin Laden had indeed put him in charge of creating a new infrastructure for external operations. And, over the past five years, groups like Shabaab, AQIM, and others have suddenly developed both the desire and capacity for terrorist operations against the U.S. and its allies.
Another sort of engagement by Bin Laden is shown throughout the new documents, which are full of requests for his guidance, as well as numerous specific pieces of advice and directives from the head of AQ.
Another sort of engagement by Bin Laden is shown throughout the new documents, which are full of requests for his guidance, as well as numerous specific pieces of advice and directives from the head of AQ. While it would be impossible to follow up on every single instance of this “commander’s intent,” there is some evidence from the documents themselves that his comments were taken as orders and led to specific action by AQ leaders. Among the documents are three untranslated, handwritten documents, one of which is a note from Abu DamDam al-Qurashi, also known as ‘Abdallah bin ‘Umar al-Qurashi, who has been named as an important commander in Afghanistan. In his note, al-Qurashi states that he is following Bin Laden’s advice “nasiha [advice]” to not engage in combat while the Americans debate whether to carry out the surge in Afghanistan. This is important because it suggests that, contrary to what some have argued, even Bin Laden’s “advice”—let alone actual directives—was seen as an order to be obeyed by lower-level commanders. It’s also important for understanding AQ now, given the views of some experts about Zawahiri’s ability to command and control AQ today.