Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Bin Laden: A desperate leader in his final days | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
Select Page

London, Asharq Al-Awsat – The first batch of the Bin Laden documents, released to the public on the first anniversary of the Al Qaeda leader’s death, reveal a new image of this larger-than-life figure that terrorized the world’s superpowers but ultimately died in squalor and isolation in a safe house in Pakistan.

The 17 declassified files represent a fraction of the thousands of files found on computers and hard drives seized by US Navy Seals from the Pakistan compound where Bin Laden was killed. Following the Al Qaeda leader’s death, it was revealed – contrary to most popular opinion – that he was indeed in contact with his followers across the world, and he would send advice and instructions to them; however these were mostly ignored by the mujahedeen who had taken up a more active role in Al Qaeda.

Bin Laden was evidently frustrated by his followers focus moving away from attacking the US, instead wasting time and resources attacking other enemies such as Britain, or attempting to overthrow governments in the Muslim world.

One letter, believed to be written by Bin Laden to a top deputy, sees him stress that “even though we have the chance to attack the British, we should not waste our efforts to do so, but concentrate on defeating America, which will lead to defeating the others, God willing.”

He added “we want to cut this tree at the root. The problem is that our strength is limited, so our best way to cut the tree is to concentrate on sawing the trunk.”

Bin Laden was also evidently concerned about Al Qaeda’s public image, fearing that the group’s actions, particularly the Muslims killed in terrorist operations, were alienating the Muslim community.

One letter, written by an unidentified Bin Laden confidant, informed the Al Qaeda leader that the terrorist group was losing support in the Muslim world, calling on Al Qaeda to cease its activities in the Arabian Peninsula. He advised Bin Laden that “the best places and most effective places for attacking the head of the snake are the locations in which it explicitly got involved militarily, such as Afghanistan and Iraq” adding “concentrating efforts in those areas is better than dispersing them and prevents the harm that could accompany them.”

Bin Laden even considered rebranding Al Qaeda in order to lure new followers. Discussing what he describes as a “very important matter”, Bin Laden laments the fact that his organization’s original name “Qaeda al-Jihad” has come to be known simply as Al Qaeda. He writes that this abridgment “reduces the feeling of Muslims that we belong to them, and allows the enemies to claim deceptively that they are not at war with Islam and Muslims.” Bin Laden even proposes “some suggestions” for possible new names, including the Muslim Unity Group, Islamic Nation Unification Party, and Restoration of the Caliphate Group.

Away from the global image of the terrorist-in-chief, the documents published by the US via West Point’s Combatting Terrorist Center reveal a leader who is overcome by events, bemoaning “disaster after disaster” inflicted on his organization by the US.

Although there is a possibility that these 17 documents – out of a reported 6,000 uncovered at the Bin Laden compound in Abbottabad – were chosen and released specifically in order to portray the former Al Qaeda leader as out of touch and impotent, they nevertheless reflect the image of a leader whose directives are no longer being followed.

For his part, Egyptian Islamist and Director of the “Al-Maqrizi Center” in London, Dr. Hani al-Sibai, informed Asharq Al-Awsat that “the world was laid out for Bin Laden like a chess board… and we realize by reading these documents that Bin Laden was closely following international news, as well as the news of all the Al Qaeda branches, with the utmost details. This was through his direct monitoring of international media and the assistance of those who were coordinating with him with regards to reports that were submitted directly into his hands under tight security controls.”

He added “the advice and warnings in the messages between him and between Sheikh Mahmud [Attiyatullah], who he appointed as Al Qaeda commander following the death of Mustafa Abu al-Yazid AKA Sheikh Said al-Muhasib, are very interesting. He called on him [Sheikh Mahmud] to choose his men carefully and ensure they are trusted. He also specified how messages should be relayed, namely that they should be handed over in public places, like markets or crowded places.”

The Egyptian Islamist also drew attention to Osama Bin Laden’s micro-managing security operations, such as calling on his followers to “ensure that children [of Al Qaeda members hiding out] do not mix with their neighbors and learn the local language in order not to raise suspicion of the local community.”

In addition to this, Bin Laden even reminded his followers to “remain indoors” and avoid travelling except on “cloudy days” for fear of US drones.

Dr. al-Sibai also told Asharq Al-Awsat that “we noted that Bin Laden did not deal with the leadership using modern communication technology, whether cell phones or e-mail or others, rather the trusted intermediary was the means that he used to communicate with Al Qaeda members in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, the Arab Peninsula, Somalia, and the Islamic Maghreb. This was all via a human chain that was moving throughout these vast areas and the communications were not just administrative orders, but also complaints, questions, answers, advice, and security and media guidance” adding “this all took place via the utmost secrecy and confidentiality.”

As for Bin Laden’s view of the media, Dr. Hani al-Sibai told Asharq Al-Awsat that “I believe that Bin Laden viewed the media as half the battle…and that any call without sufficient media coverage would gradually be eroded and fade away.”

He added “Osama Bin Laden was fighting so that the ideology that he was promoting would never die…therefore ever since the foundation of the Al Qaeda organization in Tora Bora in Afghanistan, he has always been concerned with the media. This idea was then enshrined in the views and literature of his followers, and this is what drew out attention in the recently published documents, namely Bin Laden paying attention to the media, following international news media, including US media, not to mention the classification of different US media as neutral or anti or unbiased [in their coverage of Al Qaeda].”

One of the documents included a summary of US TV cable news written by Al Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn, who writes “from the professional point of view; they are all on one level except (Fox News) channel which falls into the abyss…and lacks neutrality”.

Gadahn claimed that CNN “seems to be in cooperation with the government more than the others (except Fox News of course” adding “ABC is all right; actually it could be one of the best channels, as far as we are concerned” and that CBS, particularly the show “60 Minutes” has a “good reputation.” He concludes that “there is no single [US] channel that we could rely on for our messages.”

The documents also reveal Bin Laden’s complicated relationship with the Yemeni-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP] organized. In one letter, Bin Laden demands that four senior AQAP figures write their own detailed analysis of the situation and send them to him “separately”. One of these figures was radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, whose rising star in Al Qaeda, appeared to concern Bin Laden. Bin Laden is courteous about al-Awlaki’s rolls but adds “we would like further assurances; for example over here we are generally assured after people go to the battlefield and are tasted there.”

Bin Laden warns AQAP that Yemen is not ready to become an Islamic state, adding that given the choice between rule by Al Qaeda and ruby the rich Gulf States, the people of Yemen would opt for the latter because “they have the ability to provide them the necessities of their livelihood” adding “weighing people down with something that exceeds their energies is fraught with negative results.”

The Al Qaeda leader said that declaring war on governments in Islamic countries was a waste of energy and would only alienate Muslims, instead calling on his followers to attack US interests in non-Muslim states “where we have no bases or partisans or jihadist groups that could be threatened by danger.”

The documents also reveal that he had not given up on large-scale terrorist attacks, calling on one of his top deputies to “nominate one of the qualified brothers to be responsible for a large operation in the US” adding he wanted Al Qaeda members distinguished by “good manner, integrity, courage and secretiveness, who can operate in the US.”