By Allan Olingo
While marking the first anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death, the US government released in part some of the internal al Qaeda communication seized in his compound.The treasure trove of bin Laden’s letters was taken during the Navy Seals raid in his hideout on May 2, last year.
These internal al Qaeda communications, released through the CTS of the US Military Academy, were authored by several al- Qaeda leaders, including bin Laden, Atiyya Abd al-Rahman (strategist and adviser to bin Laden), Abu Yahya al-Libi (field commander in Afghanistan), as well as several unknown individuals.
These individuals were either authors, recipients or subjects of conversation and they included Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr, the leader of the Somali militant group Al-Shabaab, Abu Basir, leader of the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP); Anwar al-Awlaqi and Hakimullah Mahsud, leader of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
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The letters touch on the various issues that bin Laden was dealing with from his stand on alliances to new tactics, rebranding, the Arab revolution, Muslim casualties and even his loath for the ‘excited martyrs’ whom he wrote “were making al-Qaeda have a difficult time within the Muslim world”.
In a letter he wrote to Shaykh Mahmud on August 27, 2010, bin Laden directs Abu Basir, the leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, to send him a detailed and lengthy version of Anwar al-Awlaqi resume. Osama wanted him to be the al-Qaeda leader in Yemen. Incidentally, al-Awlaqi was killed last Sunday in Yemen. Bin Laden also asks Basir and al-Awlaqi for their “vision in detail about the situation” in Yemen. In the letter, references are also made about bin Laden’s son media plan for the 9/11 anniversaries.
In another letter dated August 7, 2010 to Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr, the leader of the Somali militant group Al Shabab, bin Laden politely declines Al Shabaab’s request for formal unity with al-Qaeda.
“I see that this obligation (formal unity) should be carried out legitimately and through unannounced secret messaging, by spreading this matter among the people of Somalia, without any official declaration by any officers on our side or your side that the unity has taken place,” reads bin Laden’s response.
In a letter that exposes discontent with other al-Qaeda affiliates operations, Mahmud al-Hasan (Atiyya) and Abu Yahya al-Libi wrote to Hakimullah Mahsud of the Pakistan Taliban on December 3, 2010. The letter is sharply critical of the ideology and tactics of the Pakistan Taliban.
“We have had serious concerns about the Pakistan Taliban operations inside Pakistan and the impact the group’s misguided operations might have on al-Qaeda and other militant groups in the region,” reads the letter in part.Atiyya and al-Libi identify several errors committed by the group, specifically Mahsud’s arrogation of privileges and positions beyond what was appropriate, the Pakistan Taliban’s use of indiscriminate violence, killing of Muslim civilians and the group’s use of kidnapping.Atiyya and al-Libi threaten that if actions are not taken to correct these mistakes, “we shall be forced to take public and firm legal steps from our side”.
Another letter also shows an appeal for financial assistance when Jaysh al-Islam of the Army of Islam in Palestine writes to Atiyya that his group is in need of financial assistance “to support jihad”.
In the letter written sometime between October 24, 2006 and November 22, 2006, al-Islam is seeking Atiyya’s legal advice on various issues.
“Kindly offer your opinion on the permissibility of accepting financial assistance from other militant Palestinian groups like Fatah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the permissibility of investing funds in the stock market in support of jihad and the permissibility of killing drug traffickers in order to use their money, and even drugs, to lure their enemies who could in turn be used as double-agents,” writes al-Islam.
Another anonymous letter written to bin Laden talks about the issue of rebranding so that the ‘Muslim brothers’ can identify with ‘our’ cause.
The author discusses the potential need to change the name and is of the view that the abridging of the name “al-Qaeda” has “lessened Muslims’ feelings that we belong to them.”
“I am concerned that since the name “al-Qaeda” lacks religious connotations, it has allowed the United States to launch a war on “al-Qaeda” without offending Muslims,” reads the letter.
The author proposed a list of new names that capture Islamic theological themes: Ta’ifat al-tawhid wa-al-jihad (Monotheism and Jihad Group), Jama`at wahdat al-Muslimin (Muslim Unity Group), Hizb tawhid al-Umma al-Islamiyya (Islamic Nation Unification Party) and Jama`at tahrir al-aqsa (Al-Aqsa Liberation Group).
In a letter dated October 21, 2010 from bin Laden to Atiyya, he focused on issues in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region. In the letter, bin Laden comments on the security situation in Waziristan and the need to relocate al-Qaeda members from the region, the counter surveillance issues associated with the movement of his son Hamza within Pakistan, the appointment of Atiyya’s three deputies and the media plan for the tenth anniversary of 9/11.
He also talks about the trial of Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani convicted in the United States for an attempted car bomb attack at Times Square.
One of bin Laden’s last letters before his death was addressed to Attiya and it is dated April 26, 2011 — a week before his death.
In the letter, bin Laden outlines his response to the “Arab Spring,” proposing two different strategies. The first strategy pertains to the Arab World and involves “inciting people who have not yet revolted and exhorting them to rebel against the rulers”. The second strategy is about Afghanistan and it entails continuing to evoke the obligation of jihad there.
From the letters, a different side of bin Laden was exposed when for instance, in response to Abu al Zubayr, the Al Shabaab leader’s request for unity, he reminds him of the suffering of the Somalia people as a result of war.
“The matter is that some Muslims in Somalia are suffering from immense poverty and malnutrition, because of the continuity of wars in their country. I have a determined plan of action, using one of my sermons to press the merchants in the countries of the Arabian Peninsula to support pro-active and important developmental projects which are not expensive,” writes bin Laden.
Bin Laden adds: “Therefore, by not having the mujahidin openly allied with al Qaeda, it would strengthen those merchants who are willing to help the brothers in Somalia, and would keep people with the mujahidin.”