Just around the first anniversary of Osama Bin Laden’s killing by US Special Operations Forces, the US government decided to release 17 al-Qaeda documents(1) that were found in his last refuge in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad. 17 out of 6,000 seized documents is not much, and it is open how representative this selection is on al-Qaeda’s ‘policies’ . Thomas Ruttig, a Senior Analyst at AAN, read them and found that they do not provide much new insight on Afghanistan and al-Qaeda’s role there and certainly do not justify the far-reaching conclusions drawn in some media about a ‘close’ al-Qaida-Taleban relationship.
The first anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden on 2 May brought a special gift for Afghanistan watchers, terrorism experts and security analysts: the release of 17 de-classified al-Qaeda documents seized by the US Navy SEALs that had carried out the Abbottabad raid a year earlier, flying in from a base in Afghanistan. The documents span the time between September 2006 and April 2011.(2)
The release was done through the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at the Department of Social Sciences of the United States Military Academy at West Point, a governmental institution. Some journalists were given access to the documents in advance. (The documents can be downloaded here or here, the latter link, to the BBC, has a useful short guide.)(3) The documents are mainly letters written by Bin Laden or his close confidants, or addressed to him by them, on a variety of subject: from analytical pieces about Yemen and other countries of al-Qaeda’s concern to tactical advice about moving cadres or passing messages. It is not clear, however, as the publishers point out, whether they ever had been sent to the intended addressees.
17 out of what CNN’s Peter Bergen calls the ‘treasure trove’ of more than 6,000 documents found in Abbottabad, that’s not much. The BBC’s Gordon Corera sees just a ‘snapshot’, and we cannot be sure indeed how representative they are of the whole ‘treasure’, and of al-Qaeda’s thinking in general. Moreover, in the days of psychological and media warfare, one cannot even be sure whether all of them are, or every single one is, fully authentic.(4)
The selection of released documents was made by the US government, and its choice might not give a real picture of what OBL or his ‘lieutenants’, as they are called, were thinking and plotting when they put this on paper. Maybe, the selection is what the Pentagon wants us to think that al-Qaeda thought. The CTC cautions itself not to take the documents ‘as a definitive commentary on al-Qa`ida’s evolution or the group’s current status’ and ‘that analysis based on captured documents alone is fraught with risk’. It also points to translation problems and suggests to refer to the originals in Arabic.
On the other hand, there is some content that clearly does not fit to mainstream reporting about al-Qaeda which may or may not speak for their authenticity. For example when Ben Laden is apparently deeply troubled about fellow Muslims being killed by groups close to al-Qaeda and writes (in undated doc 19)(5): ‘In the event that mistakes involuntarily occur and non-combatants die as a result, apologies and explanations should follow, […] even if those fallen are sinners’. The BBC’s Paul Adams finds that this seems ‘to stand at variance with al-Qaeda’s nihilistic reputation’ and sounded ‘for all the world like a Nato commander (except that he adds [the phrase about the sinners]’.
Only a small number of released documents refer directly to Afghanistan, and none is dedicated to it fully. (As an almost funny detail, OBL signs some of his letters with ‘Zmarai’, Pashto for ‘lion’, although he apparently does not speak Pashto, see in this article.) Some documents, like no 16, refer to lessons learned from the fight against the Soviet occupation:
‘[T]he Russian occupation of Afghanistan allowed us to gain the people’s heart.’
More can be found about the Pakistani Taleban than about their Afghan brothers. And as the BBC remarks, there is ‘no explicit reference to any institutional support from Pakistan […]. The papers make mention of “trusted Pakistani brothers”, but one reference suggests Bin Laden was wary of ‘Pakistani intelligence’. Whether the ‘trusted brothers’ are Pakistani Taleban, local tribesmen or sympathetic officials, remains unclear.
In its accompanying 59-pages analytical document, the CTC provides a very recommendable overview of the different organisations and groups that are linked with al-Qaeda and explains in a differentiated way what ‘al-Qaeda Central’ is. The Pakistani Taleban (TTP) are listed there under ‘al-Qaeda affiliates’, but not the Afghan Taleban. It further states that the TTP is ‘believed to be one of al-Qa`ida’s primary partners’ in the region, although it ‘has not pledged allegiance to’ Bin Laden, and that al-Qaeda maintained ‘operational ties to factions of the TTP’.
In document no 7, authored by the Libyans Mahmud al-Hassan Atiyya (he is described as an al-Qaeda leader by the CTC and as OBL’s ‘chief-of-staff’ by Peter Bergen) and Abu Yahya al-Libi(6) and addressed to the amir of Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Hakimullah Mahsud, the authors object that some of his Taleban call al-Qaeda ‘guests’:
‘We want to make it clear to you that we, the al-Qa’ida is an Islamist Jihadist organization that is not restricted to a country or race, and that we in Afghanistan swore allegiance to the Emir Mullah Muhammad ‘Umar who allowed us to carry Jihad. Those that call us as guests do that for political reasons and don’t base this attribute on the Shari’a, and we ask you and all the Mujahidin not to use this attribute.’
In document 10 (dated 26 April 2011), directed to his close confidant Atiyya who apparently was preparing a number of messages to affiliated organisations and what Bin Laden calls ‘a statement to the nation’ [the ‘umma]), the al-Qaeda leader criticises an ‘operation that [Pakistani] Taliban conducted, targeting one of the tribes, and what you mentioned of them saying that the tribe was hostile to the Taliban; even if that is true, the operation is not justified, as there were casualties of non-combatants’. This apparently refers to the conflict between the TTP and the Haqqani network with the Turi tribe in Kurram Agency (see our earlier blog on this here; doc 4 also has a reference to the ‘Kurum’ conflict).
In document 15 (dated 21 October 2010), Bin Laden advised al-Qaeda members to relocate from Waziristan where the drones made life unbearable across the border to Afghanistan:
‘[T]heir first option is to go to Nuristan in [sic] Kunar, Gazni [sic] or Zabil [sic]. […] The brothers who can keep a low profile and take the necessary precautions should stay, but move to new houses on a cloudy day. […] Note: there is no comparison between the fortification of Kunar and Zabil and Gazni. Kunar is more fortified due to its rougher terrain and the many mountains, rivers, and trees and it can accommodate hundreds of the brothers without being spotted by the enemy. This will defend the brothers from the aircrafts, but will not defend them from the traitors.’
In document no 4 (undated), Adam Gadahn, a US citizen who had joined al-Qaeda, proposes that Bin Laden issues a declaration distancing himself from Taleban (and other affiliate organisations’) attacks on mosques and markets. He mentions a number of incidents, in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere, including the one in Taloqan which killed neighbouring Kunduz province’s governor Muhammad Omar in August 2010.
In documents 16 and 17 Bin Laden advises to make the US military the priority target, and not so much other NATO or Afghan forces, but also to kidnap(7) citizens of those countries, in order to develop political pressure on them to withdraw:
‘Even though we have the chance to attack the British(8), we should not waste our effort to do so but concentrate on defeating America, which will lead to defeating the others, God willing. […]’
‘[M]ujahidin group should be able to carry out its mission, which is striking American interests.’ (doc 16)
‘We must then aim every bow and arrow and every landmine at the Americans.’
‘Assume that we are on an ambush mission between Qandahar and Helmand, and we have just spotted enemy forces. The enemy forces consisted of three separate convoys. One convoy belonged to the Americans. One convoy belonged to the Afghan army. One convoy belonged to a NATO-member. Also, assume that the Afghan and the NATO-member convoys carried far more troops than the American convoy.
What should we do? The rule is that we must only attack the American convoy, but no one else.
Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Not to state the obvious, if the Mujahidin knows that a non-American force was on its way to attack their positions, and that force was not on a regular patrol mission, the Mujahidin must intercept it.’
‘View the list of countries which had deployed troops to Afghanistan to help the Americans there. Then, kidnap citizens of those countries, especially diplomats. The kidnapping of diplomats of a country is far more embarrassing to that country than the kidnapping of ordinary citizens. The pressure on that country to free its diplomats is far greater than to free ordinary citizens.
The negotiation must be based on the demand: Withdraw your troops from Afghanistan, then we release the hostages. The intent is to leave America with as little support as possible, and, God willing, will push it to depart Afghanistan for good.’ (doc 17)
The most debatable issue is whether these documents really ‘show a close working relationship between top al-Qaida leaders and Mullah Omar’, as Jason Burke wrote on 29 April in The Guardian. Indeed, his reading does not come from the documents themselves but from an anonymous ‘Washington-based source familiar with the documents’ (and who seems to have seen more than just the 17 documents that were released)(9) who told him that this relationship included ‘frequent discussions of joint operations against Nato forces in Afghanistan, the Afghan government and targets in Pakistan’ and indicated a ‘very considerable degree of ideological convergence’. But even his anonymous source is not quoted in the article using the term ‘close working relationship’; and ‘ideological convergence’ is by no means the same as a ‘close working relationship’.
Burke goes even further in concluding that:
‘The news will undermine hopes of a negotiated peace in Afghanistan, where the key debate among analysts and policymakers is whether the Taliban – seen by many as following an Afghan nationalist agenda – might once again offer a safe haven to al-Qaida or like-minded militants, or whether they can be persuaded to renounce terrorism.’
To me, the documents do not provide sufficient reason to draw such far-reaching conclusions. The closest reference is when Gadahn suggests that his draft should be ‘reviewed by the wise men of Taliban Movements in both Pakistan and Afghanistan and the groups in other arenas’. But rather than a real ‘working relationship’ between al-Qaeda and the two Taleban movements, this document might just signify an attempt to maintain some semblance of influence or control over the Taleban. On the other hand, Gadahn also might not have the full picture of how the relationship really looks like.
Most strange, to me, at least, is the undated document 19(10), a long letter authored by Bin Laden in late May 2010 and addressed to Shaykh Mahmud (Atiyya), according to TCT, where OBL adopts the term ‘al-Qaeda central’, a term coined by Western al-Qaeda watchers, for his own organisation:
‘It would be good if you coordinate with our brothers of the Pakistan and Afghanistan Taliban in regards to the external work, so that there is complete cooperation between us […]. Consultation among brothers in any region will take place internally, though they will also consult with “Central al- Qa’ida“. This term was coined in the media to distinguish between al-Qa’ida in Afghanistan and Pakistan and al-Qa’ida in the other territories. In my opinion, there is no problem with using this term in principle in order to clarify the intended meaning [emphasis mine but this comment is supposed to be OBL’s]’.
I am not sure whether Osama would really use this term. But maybe, that is a comparatively marginal question. All in all, I think, though, that the 17 documents are still open for debate for hat they really mean and must be scrutinised much more before far-reaching conclusions on the al-Qaeda-Taleban relationship can be drawn – a subject that The Guardian itself, in an editorial on the same day Burke’s article appeared called the the ‘foundation myth’ of the erroneous US approach to post-2001 Afghanistan, adding that ‘these documents show how limited our knowledge on the Taliban is, and how heavily both sides in this debate rely on untested assumptions’.
(1) The al-Qaeda documents (each published in their Arabic original and a translation) carry numbers from 3 to 19. Numbers one and two are CTC analyses accompanying the release.
(2) The CTC explains that ‘[i]t is only after the intelligence community has exhausted the data for tactical and strategic purposes’ that these documents had been declassified. Some of the documents also lack a date, others are incomplete. It is not clear whether only fragments of them had been found or parts withheld.
(3) You can also take a virtual tour of OBL’s – now destroyed – Abbottabad compound with Peter Bergen or of its vicinity with Willi Germund, writing in Berliner Zeitung, an occasional AAN contributor (in German only).
(4) From time to time, ‘Taleban’ documents or messages are circulated that appear to be fake and seem part of psy-ops efforts, to sow discontent and mistrust in the ranks of the insurgents. Among the latest cases were: a letter attributed to Mulla Omar but called a ‘fake’ by the Taleban spokesman allegedly calling for restraint during peace talks in March 2012; reports about the establishment of a ‘Shura-ye Murakeba’ that was interpreted as a unification of Afghan and Pakistani Taleban (see for example) in January 2012; fake e-mails and text messages about the alleged death of Mulla Muhammad Omar in July 2011; and an alleged 2008 letter from Jalaluddin Haqqani under the logo of the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan, describing Mulla Omar as an illiterate person, accusing that his erroneous decisions might cause the collapse of the Taleban and demanding for changes in the Taleban leadership. In general, it is extremely difficult to say which documents are authentic and which are fakes, and faked by whom.
See also a report by USA Today about ‘dubious and costly US “info ops” programmes’ (see here). But there are, of course, other actors involved in psychological warfare.
(5) In doc 19, there is also a discussion of what OBL calls the ‘barricade argument’, whether it is acceptable to kill Muslims who are being used as human shields by the enemy.
(6) From the CTC comment to he documents: ‘He is also known by the alias Abu `Abd al-Rahman and `Atiyyatullah, and is one of the leading public faces of al-Qa`ida. His real name is Jamal Ibrahim Ishtiwi al-Misrati. He was born in 1970 in Misrata, Libya. `Atiyya pursued Islamic religious studies in Mauritania, then joined jihad in Algeria. He went to Afghanistan in the late 1990s and was killed in a drone strike in Pakistan on 22 August 2011. For details, see the biography Ayman al-Zawahiri provided in his eulogy for `Atiyya: “Risalat al-amal wa al-bishr li ahlina fi Misr,” 8th episode, (accessed 25 April 2012).’ ‘Hasan Qa’id/Abu Yahya al-Libi is an al-Qa`ida leader and ideologue, as well as a former member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. Al-Libi is believed to have traveled to Afghanistan in the early 1990s, then to Mauritania to study Islamic religious sciences before returning to Afghanistan. He was captured a year after 9/11 by Pakistani authorities and handed to U.S. authorities. He was sent to Bagram prison from where he and several other high-profile captives escaped on the night of 10 July 2005. For details, see Michael Moss and Souad Mekhennet, “Rising Leader for Next Phase of Al Qaeda’s War,” New York Times, 4 April 2008.’
(7) Doc 12 (dated 11 June 2009) briefly refers to the abduction of the deputy head of the Afghan consulate in Peshawar.
(8) Not much attention has been given by the media so far to a somewhat cryptical remark in document 10, a letter addressed by Bin Laden to Atiyya:
‘Regarding what you mentioned about the British intelligence saying that England is going to leave Afghanistan if Al- Qa’ida promised not to target their interests, I think their stance is similar to the people of Damascus when Khalid Ibn Al-Walid entered it, and they became sure of being defeated, so they hurried to hold a peace treaty with Abu ‘Ubaidah Allah be pleased with him, so I say that we do not enable them on that, but without slamming the door on completely closed.’
Is this a hint about direct British contacts with or messages sent to al-Qaeda?
(9) Burke’s source refers to ‘a three-way conversation between Bin Laden, his then deputy Ayman Zawahiri and [Mulla] Omar’ that I have not found among the published docs.
(10) In this letter, OBL also issues instructions for the eventuality the al-Qaeda amir – himself – is ‘absent’ and says he has appointed teams to the Bagram area to spot and try to shoot down planes carrying President Obama or (former) ISAF commander David Petraeus.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020