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.