Last week, 17 documents consisting of internal communications among Al Qaeda leaders were declassified and released. Understandably, this has generated a tremendous amount of discussion, analysis, and media coverage.  Here’s a quick look at some of the key themes, and why they matter. 

The Al Qaeda ‘Brand’

Bin Laden exhibits an acute awareness that much of the violence that was being perpetrated in the name of Al Qaeda was causing significant, possibly irreparable, harm to the group.  Specifically, the example of Al Qaeda in Iraq under Zarqawi’s brutal leadership became renown for its gruesome and prolific videos along with its penchant for attacks that killed scores of fellow Muslims. To Bin Laden, the continued victimization of Muslims was problematic for several reasons that reveal a significant tension.  Certainly, Bin Laden was concerned with some of the pragmatic challenges that these attacks posed, most importantly a rapid and escalating loss of a broader public support.  But he also showed a real and abiding concern with whether the attacks were permissible based on the perspectives and rulings of religious scholars that he respected.  This tension suggests potentially discrepant underlying motivations between some of Bin Laden’s public versus private statements.

Concerned with image, Bin Laden views himself on-screen

The Al Qaeda Media ‘Strategy’

Developing a coherent and effective media strategy was also a critical concern. Adam Gadahn, a U.S. born Al Qaeda member who has been a highly visible spokesperson, analyzed U.S. media outlets that would be most likely to report on key Al Qaeda communications. We’ve long known that Al Qaeda has considered media to be a core aspect of mission (for example, it As-Sahab Foundation for Islamic Media).  What’s especially interesting about this continued effort is the focus on maintaining Al Qaeda’s position at the vanguard of the broader Islamist movement, and remaining relevant in light of the sweeping changes that have been ushered in by the Arab Spring.

The release of the so-called “Bin Laden Documents,” corresponded with the release of the two latest editions of Inspire the English Language publication of Al Qaeda (Issues 8 & 9) in the Arabian Peninsula, causing them to be largely overshadowed.  In my next post, I’ll do a more in-depth look at these latest issues – but I find it critically important to note that Bin Laden expresses a serious concern with this publication for a number of reasons – but very importantly because its contents had not been properly approved or vetted by him or his delegates in Al Qaeda central. 

Micromanagement, Organizational Dynamics, and the Struggle to Retain Control

Bin Laden’s effort to retain a high level of control, in both strategic and operational terms, was evident throughout his communications.  It was also reflected in discussions about which affiliates should be brought into the official Al Qaeda organization, and which should be kept at arms length.  Particularly telling is the admonishment that the attacks should continue to focus on the U.S. directly, the so-called “Head of the Snake.”  On these issues, Bin Laden and Zawahiri appeared to have striking differences of opinion.

Learning from mistakes was a core theme in some of Bin Laden’s writings.  Take for instance his insistence that at least 2 attackers be paired together for suicide missions.  He points out that operations involving a single suicide ‘brother’ rather than teams of attackers are far more likely to fail.  Bin Laden explicitly states that sending two attackers significantly increases the likelihood of success for ‘psychological’ reasons - presumably because the presence of another provides the level of support necessary in ensuring the success of an attack.

In conversations about leadership succession of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Bin Laden requested to see a detailed resume from Awlaki ‘resume’ to assess whether he was qualified to take over. While this might not seem like much on its surface, it represents significant reservations and misgivings about one of Al Qaeda’s ‘rising stars’ known for his proficiency with English and his rhetorical skills.  Now that both Bin Laden and Awlaki have been killed, some might consider this a moot point, but it is certainly representative of some of the tensions that may have plagued the Al Qaeda organization. Also evident in these writings is that Bin Laden didn’t hold the independent would-be jihadis (or ‘jihobbyists’ as my colleague Jarret Brachman refers to them) in particularly high regard.  I also detect an undertone of contempt in the way that Bin Laden views them based on their lack of knowledge of some of the most fundamental precepts upon which the Jihad is based.

These documents must be taken for what they are – a relatively small sample of communications, which support some initial analysis. Yet, they reflect a continued determination to remain focused, potent, and relevant despite the ever-increasing pressure that palpably impacts the tenor and content of the communications.  And although these documents represent only a fraction of what was purportedly seized in the raid on Bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound, we get access to some detailed correspondence among Al Qaeda’s leaders.

Letters from Abbotabad, Analysis from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point

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