Though open to internal debate, bin Laden and his aides had rigid views about Muslim theology. Atiyah sent his leader a strident letter in June 2009 detailing what he saw as doctrinal errors among other jihadists.
Bin Laden’s biggest concern was al-Qaeda’s media image among Muslims. He worried that it was so tarnished that, in a draft letter probably intended for Atiyah, he argued that the organization should find a new name.
The al-Qaeda brand had become a problem, bin Laden explained, because Obama administration officials “have largely stopped using the phrase ‘the war on terror’ in the context of not wanting to provoke Muslims,” and instead promoted a war against al-Qaeda. The organization’s full name was “Qaeda al-Jihad,” bin Laden noted, but in its shorthand version, “this name reduces the feeling of Muslims that we belong to them.” He proposed 10 alternatives “that would not easily be shortened to a word that does not represent us.” His first recommendation was “Taifat al-tawhid wal-jihad,” or Monotheism and Jihad Group.
Bin Laden ruminated about “mistakes” and “miscalculations” by affiliates in Iraq and elsewhere that had killed Muslims, even in mosques. He told Atiyah to warn every emir, or regional leader, to avoid these “unnecessary civilian casualties,” which were hurting the organization.
“Making these mistakes is a great issue,” he stressed, arguing that spilling “Muslim blood” had resulted in “the alienation of most of the nation [of Islam] from the [Mujaheddin].” Local al-Qaeda leaders should “apologize and be held responsible for what happened.”
Bin Laden also criticized subordinates for linking their operations to local grievances rather than the overarching Muslim cause of Palestine. He chided his affiliate in Yemen for saying an operation was a response to U.S. bombing there. He even scolded the organizers of the spectacular December 2009 suicide attack on the CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan, for describing it as revenge for the killing of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud. “It was necessary to discuss Palestine first,” lectured bin Laden.
Bin Laden’s focus on attacking the U.S. homeland led to sharp disagreements with his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who favored easier and more opportunistic attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and other areas.
Bin Laden told Atiyah that al-Qaeda’s best chance for establishing an Islamic state was Yemen, which he described as the “launching point” for attacks on the Persian Gulf oil states. “Control of these nations means control of the world,” he wrote. But he worried that the push in Yemen would come too soon, and he advised his colleagues to wait three years, if necessary, before making a decisive move. By fighting too hard in Syria in the early 1980s, he noted, the Muslim Brotherhood “lost a generation of men.”
Bin Laden and his aides hoped for big terrorist operations to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001. They also had elaborate media plans. Adam Gadahn, a U.S.-born media adviser, even discussed in a message to his boss what would be the best television outlets for a bin Laden anniversary video.
“It should be sent for example to ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN and maybe PBS and VOA. As for Fox News let her die in her anger,” Gadahn wrote. At another point, he said of the networks: “From a professional point of view, they are all on one level — except [Fox News] channel, which falls into the abyss as you know, and lacks objectivity, too.”
What an unintended boost for Fox, which can now boast that it is al-Qaeda’s least favorite network.