10 years after 9/11, al-Qaeda is down but not out

David Ignatius
Opinion writer August 23, 2011

Government officials refer to it blandly as the “SSE,” or Sensitive Site Exploitation. That’s their oblique term for the extraordinary cache of evidence that was carried away from Osama bin Laden’s compound the night the al-Qaeda leader was killed.

With the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks a few weeks away, it’s possible to use this evidence to sketch a vivid portrait of al-Qaeda, drawing on material contained in more than 100 computer storage devices, including thumb drives, DVDs and CDs, and more than a dozen computers or hard drives — all collected during the May 2 raid.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

U.S. officials say three strong themes emerge from their reading of the files, most of which were communications between bin Laden and his top deputy Atiyah Abd al-Rahman. Indeed, because the Libyan-born Atiyah (who’s known to analysts by his first name) was the boss’s key link with the outside, officials see him as more important than bin Laden’s nominal successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Here are the highlights:

●Bin Laden retained until his death a passion to launch a significant attack against the United States, ideally linked to the 10th anniversary of 9/11. He and Atiyah communicated often about who might carry out such a strike, with Atiyah proposing names and bin Laden rejecting them. Bin Laden was still looking for a history-changing attack on big, economically important targets — one that would match, if not outdo, the impact of 9/11. Zawahiri, by contrast, favored an opportunistic strategy of smaller strikes.

●Bin Laden was a hands-on chief executive, with a role in operations planning and personnel decisions, rather than the detached senior leader that U.S. analysts had hypothesized. Zawahiri, whom the analysts had imagined as the day-to-day leader, was actually quite isolated — and remains so, despite a dozen communications this year. Zawahiri suffers from mistrust between his Egyptian faction of al-Qaeda and other operatives, such as Atiyah.

●Bin Laden was suffering badly from drone attacks on al-Qaeda’s base in the tribal areas of Pakistan. He called this the “intelligence war,” and said it was “the only weapon that’s hurting us.” His cadres complained that they couldn’t train in the tribal areas, couldn’t communicate, couldn’t travel easily and couldn’t draw new recruits to what amounted to a free-fire zone. Bin Laden discussed moving al-Qaeda’s base to another location, but he never took action.

Analysts did not find in the material any smoking gun to suggest Pakistani government complicity in bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad. And it’s clear he was paranoid about being found and killed: He ordered his subordinates to restrict movements to help preserve what remained of al-Qaeda in Pakistan. Fear of being discovered was a subject of regular conversation between bin Laden, Atiyah, Zawahiri and others.

Bin Laden also worried that al-
Qaeda’s status among Muslims was dwindling, and that the West had at least partially succeeded in distancing al-Qaeda’s message from core Islamic values. Concerned about this eroding base, bin Laden counseled affiliates in North Africa and Yemen to hold back on their efforts to develop a local Islamic extremist state in favor of attacking the United States and its interests.

This fear that al-Qaeda’s extreme tactics were burning too hot and alienating Muslims was also the theme of a remarkable message that Atiyah sent in 2005 to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the murderous chief of al-Qaeda in Iraq. In this document, made public five years ago by the United States, Atiyah warned that fomenting Sunni-Shiite violence (which was Zarqawi’s trademark) was potentially ruinous.

The al-Qaeda that emerges from these documents is a badly battered and disoriented group. The June 3 death of Ilyas Kashmiri in a drone attack illustrates the organization’s continuing vulnerability. Kashmiri was a ruthless operator who planned the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people and was plotting deadly attacks on Europe last winter that were stopped only because of aggressive counterterrorism work. (Security services from Europe and Turkey arrested about 20 of Kashmiri’s operatives before they could carry out the attacks.)

When top U.S. officials summarize their view of al-Qaeda now, in the run-up to the 9/11 anniversary, they describe an organization that is down but certainly not out. They don’t know of any specific plots targeting the United States, 10 years on. But they’re looking, pulsing every channel they know. They recognize that it’s what we still don’t know about al-Qaeda that’s most dangerous.

davidignatius@washpost.com

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