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Letters from Abbottabad

May 29, 2012

By Tim Foxley

Summary:  For obvious reasons, only a trickle of Al Qaeda (AQ) documents recovered from Bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound have emerged into the open domain.  They paint a convincing picture of Bin Laden’s isolation and frustration.  He appears to struggle to keep a grip of AQ as enthusiastic but amateur “franchise” terrorist groups flout his rules and ignore his goals.  The Afghan Taliban are referred to only in passing in these papers, perhaps pointing to a decline in Taliban/AQ links in 2012.  However, there may be some more general “read-across” parallels between Mullah Omar and the “Bin Laden experience”.

Bn Laden’s compound, Abbottabad

Earlier this month a fascinating paper was released by the West Point Combating Terrorism Center: “Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Ladin Sidelined?”.  A year after the targeted killing of Osama Bin Laden on 2 May 2011, the paper focuses on analysis of 17 letters (of the “thousands of items” judged of potential intelligence value) covering the period from September 2006 up to April 2011 that were recovered from Bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound during the US SEAL’s brief period of tenure.  The letters are generally either to or from Osama Bin Laden.  Translations of the entirety of the letters are available.  The CTC note that:

“Bin Ladin’s frustration with regional jihadi groups and his seeming inability to exercise control over their actions and public statements is the most compelling story to be told on the basis of the 17 declassified documents”

The biggest caveat is that the documents are a small fragment of what has been or still is being exploited by US and Western intelligence agencies, meaning that omissions (e.g. information on Pakistan’s links to AQ) make a full analysis of Bin Laden and AQ impossible.  Some of the key judgements made by the CTC are as follows:

  • Osama Bin Laden was struggling to keep control over the various Jihadi groups who were operating (or wanting to operate) in the name of Al Qaeda
  • Bin Laden was finding the accidental or intentional killing of Muslims particularly unhelpful (AQ in Iraq) and was increasingly concerned about the impact of “hearts and minds” on support for AQ
  • The Arab Spring was significant to Bin Laden and he wanted AQ to spend more time on media “reach out” and educating Muslims
  • He wanted all attacks to be directed exclusively against the US

I am relatively unsighted on the inner workings and personalities of Al Qaeda and, as such, the paper was useful background and the analysis read intelligently and convincingly.  With this in mind, there were two particular angles I wanted to comment on:

Why these documents?

It is understandable that only a fraction of the documents and information gathered is being released.  Most of the information is still either being exploited or cannot be released for security reasons – i.e. it might compromise ongoing operations against AQ.  In fact I was surprised that anything has been released – governments and intelligence organisations tend to over-classify just to be extra careful – I’m sure I read somewhere that the UK Ministry of Defence’s restaurant menu was once a Restricted document.

We should therefore initially consider something that Thomas Ruttig, over at the Afghanistan Analysts Network has already raised – the idea that the release of these documents is in itself, in some way, part of a propaganda, intelligence or information operation.  Even the recipient of the papers for analysis – the CTC at West Point – may have been selected with this in mind.  If you wanted to undermine an organisation like AQ you might want to release information that portrayed its leadership as frustrated and struggling.  It is possible that they are total forgeries, in order to serve this purpose, but I think not – if for no other reason that it does seem to paint a convincing and understandable picture of Bin Laden and AQ’s position that fits with other reporting that we have in the open domain.  So I would be inclined to dismiss that angle.  But each of these 17 documents will have be checked, cleared and vetted for release very carefully – they will have long ago been “sucked dry” of any intelligence value.  I think the CTC has done a good job of the analysis.  But the documents cannot paint the full picture (as the CTC rightly points out) and, as the “War on Terror” is still “live”, we would be wise to assume that, at the very least, these documents will not be intended, by their release, to undermine current operations against AQ and may very well be intended to support such actions in some way.  The CTC state that:

“…the documents do not explicitly point to any institutional Pakistani support for Bin Ladin.”

So we should remind ourselves that this does not mean that there is no institutional Pakistani support for Bin Laden, merely that the 17 documents do not show anything.  If there was evidence of Pakistani institutional support for AQ that was now in the hands of the US intelligence agencies, it might be judged so damning and destabilising to release that the US Government might understandably balk from making the evidence public – or choose to save it for a rainy day (perhaps once most US forces have been safely extracted from Afghanistan and US supplies are no longer required to travel down Pakistani road networks)…

Parallels for the Afghan Taliban?

By contrast to the Pakistani Taliban – the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) – who appear to have been roundly criticised by Bin Laden for indiscriminate attacks against Muslims, there is no detailed referencing of the Afghan Taliban within the released documents, although the Afghan Taliban are surely guilty of similar killings.  There are several possible reasons for this:

  • Mullah Omar and the Afghan Taliban have little contact with Bin Laden and do not affiliate themselves with AQ in the sense of the other AQ “franchise” groups across the world”
  • From Bin Laden’s perspective, the Afghan Taliban are “doing their own thing” effectively in Afghanistan – bringing pain to the US – and he has no real reason to keep any strong links.  Maintain light contact,  yes, but otherwise keep an air gap between the organisations for everybody’s security
  • There are deeper contacts and documents exist (perhaps including embarrassing evidence of Pakistani collusion) but the US intelligence agencies are still exploiting this strand of reporting in order to target the Taliban (Mullah Omar might be in a similar situation to Bin Laden in his compound) and AQ

I think it is probably a combination of these three angles, but primarily because I don’t think the Taliban are that closely connected to AQ, either in ideology or operations, anymore, Mullah Omar’s personal family ties to Bin Laden notwithstanding.  They have never had the international terrorist agenda of AQ and Bin Laden’s time in Afghanistan was more of a marriage of (inconvenience) that a whole-hearted merger of ideas, goals and values.  But AQ fighters and experts (particularly IED and bomb-making) certainly continue to eat, sleep, fight and die operate alongside Afghan and Pakistani Taliban in the borderlands of these countries.

Might Mullah Omar go the same way?

There is a case to be made that the death of Mullah Omar would make things much more fragmented and chaotic in Afghanistan and further reduce the chances of viable peace deals.  Who would you talk to and what would emerge in his place?  But I suspect that a key US goal will be to eliminate Mullah Omar if they get a sniff of his whereabouts, whether he is in Afghanistan of Pakistan, because it would fit the increasingly flimsy definition of “success”, post-Chicago.  Essentially, blow him up and let the consequences be worried about by someone else.

Mullah Omar has been elusive as Osama Bin Laden and you can perhaps make a case that Mullah Omar is in a similar position to that of Bin Laden in the latter months and years of his life.  Perhaps he is holed up with part of his family in a low profile compound with limited facilities in or around Quetta, dependent upon one television for his information.  It would make sense – particularly after the manner of Bin Laden’s death – that he is now more or less in complete isolation with nothing but a handful of very trusted followers/messengers to enable him to keep in contact.

Command and control would be very difficult and probably frustrating.  He may be finding it difficult to keep the leadership council together amidst “political” and “military” group rivalries.  At a time when the Taliban commanders in Quetta and, perhaps more crucially, in the field in Afghanistan, are increasingly concerned and confused amid the swirling rumours of talks or no talks, Mullah Omar is less able than ever to exert a clear, calming and directing influence.  Perhaps Omar’s infrequent media statements now represent his best opportunities for communicating his instructions to the fighters?

However, I think the big difference is that it is much more likely that Pakistani military intelligence personnel actually know where he is (even if Zardari and the civilian government do not) and how to get messages to him.  But I don’t necessarily think that this is something that the Taliban are comfortable with.

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