West Point's Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) has released 17 declassified documents captured during the May 2011 raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The size of this document dump is disappointing: It represents only a tiny fraction of the material that the United States has translated in the past year, and while a lot of interesting information was released, terrorism analysts should be cautious about drawing overly sweeping conclusions based on this limited -- and, no doubt, deliberately selective -- release. Nonetheless, this material offers fascinating new insights into the inner workings of al Qaeda, its views of its own failures, its affiliates, and the recent upheaval in the Arab world.
One interesting document is a scathing critique by Adam Gadahn, the Southern California-raised American al Qaeda spokesman, of the terrorist group's image problems, engendered by the brutal tactics employed by those claiming to fight under its mantle. Gadahn is often justifiably mocked as an ineffective spokesman for the jihadi cause, but the advice he provides in a January 2011 letter to an unknown recipient is at times strikingly perceptive.
Gadahn writes at length of the Islamic State of Iraq targeting the country's Christians, in particular the group's threat to start an all-out war on the Christian minority if Egypt's Coptic church did not release two women allegedly detained in one of its monasteries. Noting the lack of organizational connection between Egyptian Copts and Iraqi Christians, Gadahn draws an analogy, saying that this threat is like an armed group assaulting a mosque in the Sunni stronghold of Fallujah and threatening to wage war on Iraq's Sunnis unless the Shia government releases Sunni prisoners in Sadr City. "Does this satisfy any sane person?" Gadahn asks.
He similarly condemns the targeting of mosques and other public places "by some who were referred to as the mujahideen," providing an extended list of incidents in Pakistan and Somalia in which a great deal of Muslim blood was shed. Gadahn even advocates for al Qaeda to dissociate itself from the Pakistani Taliban and the Islamic State of Iraq, rather than "praising the killers while they are alive, and condole them when dead, and count them as good doers, irrespective of what we know about them of immorality." He even provides a suggested draft statement for al Qaeda spokesmen condemning those groups' excesses.
While there is no indication of the reception that Gadahn's letter received, it suggests that al Qaeda might be willing to adapt its approach on these issues. At least some of its thinkers are aware of deep problems caused by the group's brutal excesses, which Western observers have described as the group's "Achilles' heel."
Other documents shed light on the February 2012 merger of al Qaeda and the Somali jihadi group al-Shabab, which has emerged as a major military force in southern Somalia, able to control and govern a significant geographic area. Many Western analysts, in trying to interpret what this merger meant, asked whether it was a sign of the groups' strength or weakness. The newly released documents suggest another answer: The leadership change from bin Laden to new al Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri may have been the largest factor in bringing about the union.
In an August 2010 letter to al-Shabab leader Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr, bin Laden politely rebuffs Zubayr's suggestion of an official merger. In suggesting that it's best not to announce a merger, bin Laden writes that "it would be better" for al-Shabab members to "say that there is a relationship with al Qaeda which is simply a brotherly Islamic connection and nothing more."
Bin Laden argues that an official merger would cause outside powers to escalate their campaign against al-Shabab. Moreover, he claims to have a plan for alleviating the widespread poverty and malnutrition in Somalia and says that "by not having the mujahideen openly allied with al Qaeda, it would strengthen those merchants who are willing to help the brothers in Somalia."