The Osama bin Laden who emerges in the documents published online Thursday was not the typical homicidal political leader. Where Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin spurned the advice of honest advisers and increasingly cut themselves off from reality, bin Laden maintained to the end a surprisingly open and mutually critical exchange with his top aides.
And to his last, bin Laden maintained a sunny outlook about the fortunes of the broader Islamic movement that in his final days was sweeping North Africa and the Middle East in what we call the “Arab Spring.” He wrote on April 26, 2011, a week before his death, “What we are witnessing these days of consecutive revolutions is a great and glorious event…the most important events that the [Muslim] nation has witnessed for centuries.”
But he worried that al-Qaeda had made so many mistakes that it had tarnished its role in this larger struggle. In August 2010, he advised an affiliate in Somalia to downplay its ties with al-Qaeda, lest it come to grief. “Better for them to say that there is a relationship with al-Qaeda which is simply a brotherly connection and nothing more,” he advised, warning: “If the matter becomes declared and out in the open, it would have the enemies escalate their anger and motivate against you.”
That cautious stance, and bin Laden’s realism about the mistakes his group had made, led to some frank disagreements with subordinates. This ability to give and receive criticism comes through the messages, despite the pious homilies and the solicitous questions about the welfare of the “brothers.” The 17 communications were released Thursday by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. I’m focusing here on the dozen or so that are new and were not previewed for me recently by administration officials.
One senior figure, probably Ayman al-Zawahiri, the deputy leader, blasted bin Laden’s caution — urging him to forge ahead with the affiliates’ strategy and not worry so much that it was leading to the deaths of so many Muslims. “I see it to be very essential for al-Qaeda to conform and declare its linkage with its branches,” this critical subordinate wrote in December 2010. The critic conceded that some individuals had joined al-Qaeda who were not of “high quality” and that others were hucksters “collecting money in the name of al-Qaeda.” But rather that cut off the wayward affiliates, “starting from now please think about controlling the matter with a system that deals with people, each according to his religion, piety and contribution.”
In one remarkably frank critique, bin Laden is lambasted by someone who describes himself as “a loving brother whom you know and who knows you.” Then this “brother” takes the gloves off, accusing bin Laden of making a “colossal strategic error” by allowing affiliates to attack other Muslim nations rather than focusing on the United States, the “head of the snake.” Bin Laden was trying to make precisely that shift, away from Muslim-on-Muslim violence, but his correspondent raked him for his lack of success — due, perhaps to his isolation.
“Being chased, besieged and distant is not the best environment for thinking and for forming the right opinion and decision,” wrote this unnamed follower to a leader who was, in fact, hiding out in an isolated compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, distant from the fight.
The advice of this anonymous “loving brother” was blunt: “The best way to prevent the shedding of impermissible blood and not killing faithful people is to not work inside Muslim countries.” Bin Laden had been writing similar warnings to his aides, but he could not manage the great turn that, had be lived, might have seen al-Qaeda focus even more on killing Americans.
Destroying America remained bin Laden’s obsession to the end, his Islamist version of Captain Ahab’s mad quest for the white whale in “Moby Dick.” He likened America to a tree, with the other NATO countries as mere branches. “Our intention is saw the trunk of that tree,” he or perhaps his key aide, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, wrote to the leader of al-Qaeda in Yemen. If fighters in Afghanistan see lines of trucks carrying Afghans, Europeans and Americans, “the rule is that we must only attack the American convoy, but no one else.”
“To break away from America’s hegemony, we need to involve America in a war of attrition,” he wrote later in that message. “The war must be enduring, however. The goal is to weaken America until it can no longer interfere in Muslim affairs.”
It was an audacious strategy, fed by fantasies of al-Qaeda’s operational power that were never realistic. But what’s interesting, in terms of the man himself, is that bin Laden was never entirely corrupted by the dirty war he was fighting. He urged Yemeni fighters to be careful about using poison because it might hurt al-Qaeda’s media image; he advised his Somali affiliate to be cautious in meting out physical punishment, lest those fighters appear barbaric.
Bin Laden even scolded Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani who nearly detonated a homemade bomb in the middle of Times Square. In an Oct. 21, 2010, letter to Atiyah, he explains that Shahzad was wrong to have lied in promising he would not harm Americans when applying for his U.S. citizenship. “This is a very important matter because we do not want al-Mujaheddin to be accused of breaking a convenant.” What a pious and almost prissy statement from a man who had so much blood on his hands.