Bin Laden's trail of paranoia and chaos
THE letter is written in the plaintive, irritable tone of an exasperated and slightly demotivated middle manager under pressure from the boss to deal with a recalcitrant employee.
''Dear Brother Adnan, I also asked you in previous letters to quickly write to Karrumi, Abu Omar and their people with decisive, purposeful guidance, because I am worried about the brothers making political gaffes,'' the author grumbles.
Worse, no one was respecting him or the authority he represented. ''I wrote to them myself and chastised them and came down on them fairly hard,'' the letter continues, but their behaviour was ''continuing''.
A journalist looks at original documents found in bin Laden's compound. Photo: AFP
The letter, written by a close associate of Osama bin Laden - on the orders of the al-Qaeda chief - was published Thursday by the Combating Terrorism Centre at the US military academy of West Point. Sixteen other documents also were put online. All were seized by American special forces in the raid in which bin Laden was killed.
Together they provide perhaps the most comprehensive insight into the senior ranks of the world's most famous terrorist groups. The picture they paint is not, however, that of a well-oiled organisation. In his last months alive, bin Laden appears increasingly paranoid and frustrated, confined to a three-storey house with three wives, children and grandchildren and cut off from effective day-to-day management of his group.
Elements of the documents - only a fraction of the mass of material seized in the raid last year - had already been trailed by an Obama administration eager to show that bin Laden and the organisation he founded in 1988 were suffering serious problems even before the raid a year ago.
Osama bin Laden watching President Barack Obama on his television. Photo: AP
They show bin Laden still committed to a campaign of violence but so concerned by an apparent loss of support in the Muslim world that he considered a major rebranding of al-Qaeda, to allow it to better exploit the Arab Spring revolts.
A month before he died, bin Laden described the Arab spring uprisings as a ''tremendous event'' but clearly felt that al-Qaeda had been marginalised. To remedy this, he suggested a media campaign to incite ''people who have not yet revolted and exhort them to rebel against the rulers'', one communication reveals.
One suggestion from al-Qaeda's sycophantic media specialist - probably the American militant Adam Gadahn - was to give an interview to British journalist Robert Fisk or a sympathetic TV channel.
An undated file photo of al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. Photo: AP
Bin Laden's overriding concern appears to have been to keep the various groups calling themselves al-Qaeda from committing atrocities that would alienate local communities. ''A revolutionary movement today needs more than just the military might to topple a government or control a country … [it] needs to have the resources in place to meet the needs and demands of the society,'' he told the leader of the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
In others he frequently cites the example of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which lost any popular support following a campaign of violence against Shiite Iraqis and any Sunnis who did not recognise their authority.
Bin Laden was apparently so concerned at the potential damage to the ''al-Qaeda'' brand that he was reluctant to accept a pledge of allegiance from leaders of the al-Shabab group in Somalia, which he saw as undisciplined, indiscriminate in their violence and lacking popular support, a letter from 2010 reveals.
Directives were also sent to Pakistani Taliban groups suggesting guidelines for dealing with ransoms. ''We are sending the attached shortlist on what is acceptable and unacceptable on the subject of kidnapping and receiving money,'' a letter from a subordinate peremptorily informs its recipient.
Nor, it appears, was bin Laden devoid of professional jealousy. On hearing of a recommendation that Anwar al-Awlaqi, the English-speaking Yemeni militant whose profile was rising rapidly, should be appointed head of al-Qaeda's Yemeni affiliate, the boss, with icy politeness, asked for the younger man's CV.
The business of waging global jihad often seems to be little more than mundane logistics. There are the condolences to be sent out to the associates of dead militants, technical points of Islamic law to elucidate to recalcitrant associates, orders to be given on precautions to be taken against drones and questions about donations from other groups.
Plans for spectacular attacks continued to be made, but they look more and more aspirational. In late May 2010, bin Laden tells Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, his long-suffering chief of staff, that he had asked his predecessor, recently killed by a drone, to prepare cells in Pakistan and Afghanistan ''with the mission of anticipating and spotting the visits of Obama or [General David] Petraeus to Afghanistan or Pakistan to target the aircraft of either one of them''.
Then there is the family to look after. Bin Laden says he would prefer to edit a video recorded by his son Sa'ad, shortly before the latter's death in an air strike in 2009, and that pictures of his son's corpse should ''not to be put in Al-Sahab [media wing] archive''.
As for his son Hamza, his father appears unaware of his exact whereabouts but concerned for his safety. ''Make sure to tell Hamza that I am of the opinion that he needs to get out of Waziristan [the area of Pakistan close to the Afghan border where many drone attacks were targeted] if he is there, and he should not go there if he is not there,'' he says in a letter to al-Rahman in October 2010.
Bin Laden remained confident he would not be found. In another letter to al-Rahman he writes: ''It is proven the American technology and its modern systems cannot arrest a mujahed [Islamic freedom fighter] if he does not commit a security error that leads them to him.'' The letter is dated April 26, 2011, just under a week before he was killed.
Guardian News & Media