What the al Qaeda leader's final correspondence tells us about his legacy.
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."
Four months later, in December 2010, a letter to bin Laden was composed asking him to reconsider his stance toward al-Shabab. While the author of that letter is not identified, CTC's analysts infer from both the tone and the critique that it was written by "a high-ranking personality, possibly Ayman al-Zawahiri." The rationale in this critique relates in part to quality control of the al Qaeda brand: If the group's leadership fails to announce which groups are its branches, anybody can claim to be a part of al Qaeda.
Around eight months after Zawahiri became al Qaeda's leader, al Qaeda and al-Shabab announced a merger. While analysts at the time tried to interpret what this said about the strength of the groups, it may have been Zawahiri's ascension that was determinative.
The documents also give us a glimpse of bin Laden's view of the Arab Spring. In a letter dated April 26, 2011 -- just five days before he was killed -- bin Laden describes the uprisings as "a great and glorious event," one that shows "things are strongly heading towards the exit of Muslims from being under the control of America."
Bin Laden did not think that the secular nature of these revolutions undermined al Qaeda's designs for the region. Rather, he focused on the increased freedoms he expected jihadists to enjoy amid the regional turmoil. "If we double the efforts to direct and educate the Muslim peoples and warn them from the half solutions," he wrote, "while taking care in providing good advice to them, the oncoming stage will be for Islam, Allah willing."
Of course, bin Laden's interpretation of the Arab Spring by no means determines how we should view it. But at a time when Western analysts were describing the uprisings as an "ideological catastrophe" for al Qaeda, it is at least relevant that bin Laden seemingly saw far more opportunity than peril in them for his organization.
There is plenty within these documents for analysts to pore over and debate, even though they only represent a quick peek into al Qaeda's inner workings. But one thing the documents highlight beyond a doubt is the need for analytic humility when interpreting an organization that largely operates from the shadows. There is much about al Qaeda that we still have not uncovered, and it is vitally important to separate what we know of the group from our speculation about it.