On Thursday, the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point (CTC) released 17 declassified letters acquired during last year’s raid on Osama bin Laden’s home in Abbottabad, Pakistan. These letters date from September 2006 to April 2011. They are authored by several al Qaeda leaders, including bin Laden, Atiyya Abd al-Rahman, Abu Yahya al-Libi and American Adam Gadahn, as well as other affiliated individuals. Although in some cases it remains undetermined as to whether or not these letters reached their intended destinations, they provide insight into the infrastructure and intentions of al Qaeda. The major themes addressed in these documents include suggested operational strategies, the need for al Qaeda to remain acutely focused on targeting the United States, the importance of tribal relations amongst various countries, and analysis of western media outlets which could deliver al Qaeda’s message without bias.
Significant portions of the released letters focus on the leaderships views of their regional affiliates. Vast amounts of information within these letters reveal that contrary to popular belief, bin Laden was not the “puppet master” setting the wheels in motion for jihadi groups worldwide. Rather, bin Laden seemed to have little regard for these groups, and was troubled by what he perceived as their incompetence. Examples of this trend are highlighted below.
al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)
One letter believed to be authored by bin Laden, is a response to a request for guidance from AQAP, the Yemeni affiliate. The letter shows that the author, worried about AQAP, urges its leadership to focus on targeting the United States rather than the Yemeni government or security forces. We see bin Laden concern over the groups lack of focus on al Qaeda’s “desired goal”, the United States.
Another document authored by bin Laden, responds to a request from al-Zubayr, leader of the Somali militant group al-Shabaab, to formally unite with al Qaeda. Consistent with what appears as feelings of distain towards his ‘affiliates’, bin Laden declined this potential merger, further suggesting internal issues and perhaps indicating disagreement regarding key strategic measures. Following bin Laden’s death, Ayman al-Zawahiri announced the merger of al Qaeda with al-Shabaab.
Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)
In another letter authored by Mahmud al-Hasan and Abu Yahya al-Libi addressed to leader of TTP Hakimullah Mahsud, al Qaeda senior leaders are strongly critical of the TTP’s actions inside Pakistan and the risk of potentially negative impact the group’s operations might have on al Qaeda. Errors identified included use of violence and killing of Muslim civilians as well as kidnapping tactics.
The letters reaffirm the still standing threat posed by terrorist in spite of the apparent discord between al-Qaeda and its affiliates, most of which are now considered more of an operational threat to western interests. Although bin Laden was not in favor of publicly aligning with affiliates or endorsing their tactics, we have seen increased attacks by TTP and AQAP, many of which were against the U.S. Despite the apparent discord, these letters indicate that various affiliates were influenced by bin Laden and actively sought his guidance. As we have previously assessed the threat posed by those inspired by bin Laden (self-radicalized, lone wolves) and al Qaeda affiliates such as AQAP and al-Shabaab remain of greatest concern.