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May 3, 2012 3:59 pm

Bin Laden papers reveal al-Qaeda rifts

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Documents seized a year ago by the special forces team that killed Osama bin Laden show the al-Qaeda leader not as the chief executive of a global terror conglomerate but a detached figure often exasperated by the reputational damage done by uncontrolled affiliates.

In one of 17 documents, released by the US government and published on the website of a privately funded academic institution within the West Point military school, bin Laden is quoted as saying he would like to bring down an aircraft carrying US President Barack Obama.

This, he reasons, would mean the accession of the “utterly unprepared” Joe Biden, vice-president, and result in political chaos in the US.

The letters were taken from flash drives, documents and hard drives seized from the house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where bin Laden was killed in May 2011. Other letters and papers, which may well show a more nuanced view of the al-Qaeda leadership’s control and aspirations, remain classified.

The release of the letters coincides with a highly political staged series of events and information by the Obama administration and his re-election campaign concerning the successful raid to kill bin Laden a year ago .

Mr Obama’s campaign first released a video that praised his leadership in approving the raid and also questioned whether Mitt Romney, his Republican opponent, would have taken the same decision.

The advertisment enraged Republicans, who said it turned a unifying national event in a political stunt. They fell silent a day later when Mr Obama made an unannounced trip to Afghanistan on the raid’s anniversary.

US analysts believe the letters were circulated among subordinates in his core al-Qaeda group such as Attiyah al-Rahman, Abu Yahya al-Libi and the US citizen Adam Gadahn. They contain plentiful references to the “mistakes” of those carrying out military acts in the name of bin Laden and alienating potential converts to the cause.

Operational clashes

James Blitz, defence and diplomatic editor, writes: The documents released by the US need to be handled with caution. One year after Osama bin Laden’s death, it still suits the White House to portray al-Qaeda’s founder as a weak and vacillating figure.

Still, if we take this partial release at face value it does say something significant: they show that in the period before bin Laden’s death there was a weak and at times even hostile relationship between the core al-Qaeda group in Pakistan and the movements of affiliates in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and the Maghreb.

For years, some western government officials and scholars argued that al-Qaeda should be seen as a highly centralised movement in which a core group around bin Laden was plotting jihadism by affiliates and allies across the west.

According to the CTC analysis, the documents show that some of the affiliates sought bin Laden’s blessing on symbolic matters, such as declaring an Islamic state, and wanted a formal union to acquire the al-Qaeda brand. “On the operational front, however, the affiliates either did not consult with bin Laden or were not prepared to follow his directives.”

The CTC argues that “the framing of an ‘Al-Qaeda Central’ as an organisation in control of regional ‘affiliates’ reflects a conceptual construction by outsiders rather than the messy reality of insiders”.

The documents show that while al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was repeatedly described as the most dangerous of the affiliates, bin Laden “seemed to have spent more time worrying about this group than appreciating its contributions”.

The Saudi, whose followers were responsible for the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington that killed 3,000 people, wrote: “I plan to release a statement that we are starting a new phase to correct [the mistakes] we made.

“In doing so, we shall reclaim, God willing, the trust of a large segment of those who lost their trust in the jihadis.”

The letters speak of bin Laden’s dissatisfaction over satellite operators who had failed to win public support, run weak propaganda campaigns or planned military operations poorly, causing excessive civilian deaths among Muslims.

In a letter to his leader, Mr Gadahn urged him to dissociate their organisation from the acts of al-Qaeda’s spin-off operation in Iraq, known as AQI, for these reasons.

In another letter, Mr al-Libi berates the Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan) over indiscriminate attacks on Muslims. Al-Qaeda’s core leadership might “take public measures unless we see from you serious and immediate practical and clear steps towards reforming [your ways] and dissociating yourself from these vile mistakes that violate Islamic law”.

Bin Laden warns Nasir al-Wuhayshi, leader of the Yemeni affiliate, to focus on attacking US interests rather than plotting to overthrow the Sana’a regime.

His letters reflect a lack of interest in the offered support of the Somali al-Shabaab group because the areas it controlled were badly governed and the infliction of Islamic legal penalties, such as cutting off the hands of thieves, was too severe.

Analysts from the institution at West Point, the Combating Terrorism Center, said the letters, as far as they went, showed bin Laden’s group had uncomfortable relations with Iran, which will comfort Washington.

There are small glimpses into the life of bin Laden, who was in effect confined to the small Abbottabad compound with his three wives and their children.

One letter says the family “adhered to such strict measures, precluding his children from playing outdoors without the supervision of an adult who could keep their voices down”.

The CTC researchers said: “[Bin Laden and his lieutenants were] not in sync on the operational level with [their] so-called affiliates.

“[He] enjoyed little control over either groups affiliated with al-Qaeda in name or so-called fellow travellers.”

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