The al Qaeda documents released by the West Point Combating Terrorism Center provide a unique and tantalizing insight into the inner workings of al Qaeda and its boss Osama bin Laden. As usual the CTC has done a fabulous job of not only releasing the documents but also putting them into context. But in the end what has been released is only a tiny sample of what was obtained in bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad and readers would be wise to make their judgments tentative until we see much more.
According to administration officials the SEALs brought out of Abbottabad the equivalent of a small college library of documents and electronic files, perhaps up to 6000 documents all together. The head of al Qaeda was hiding but he was not incommunicado. Bin Laden appears to have been a collector of letters and messages in his last years. CTC has released only 17 documents, a small sample to work from. As the CTC report emphasizes there is much that is missing. For example, although there are notes about ‘trusted Pakistani brothers,’ the references to Pakistan are sparse and incomplete. Thus the mystery of who helped hide bin Laden for nine years in Pakistan remains unanswered. There is also very little here about bin Laden’s deputy and heir, Ayman Zawahiri, perhaps because those documents are still being exploited to find the new amir of al Qaeda.
What does emerge is picture of a frustrated bin Laden. He is in communication with his empire of global terror but can’t make it do what he wants. His minions keep making basic mistakes like killing far more Muslims than Americans. Bin Laden learned from the mistakes of his lieutenant in Iraq Abu Musaib Zarqawi that indiscriminate attacks on fellow Muslims was counterproductive to al Qaeda and he is seen in these letters trying to convince other terrorists not to make the same error. He admonishes the Paksitani Taliban, for example, not to attack mosques and innocents. He was frustrated that his grand strategy was being undermined by his own supporters’stupidity. Of course, that is an almost inevitable problem when you work with murderers and fanatics.
Bin Laden was also frustrated by the pressure the United States was putting on his terror apparatus. The drones were devastating his organization in Pakistan. He worried for his young son Hamza’s protection and urged him to go to Qatar and study Islam. Rumors abound in Pakistan today about Hamza, some say he was in the hideout when the SEALs came and escaped others that he is still living somewhere in Pakistan.
One old mystery, the nature of al Qaeda’s relations with Iran, is somewhat clarified. Rather than being secretly in bed with each other as some have argued, al Qaeda had a fairly hostile relationship with the Iranian regime. To get members of his family out of Iran, for example, bin Laden had an Iranian diplomat kidnapped and then traded. The Iranians released some of his family members in the deal but then double crossed al Qaeda by not letting one of his daughters, Fatima, free.
The chair of the CTC, General John Abizaid, also adds one more important caution in his foreword to the document collection when he writes “we should be extremely cautious of the notion that al Qaeda has been defeated.” The man was killed a year ago, but his ideas remain very much alive.