The release of a small sampling of the documents seized from bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan shows the terror group had ambitious plans for al Qaeda and was determined to continue the fight against the United States despite setbacks. Below are some highlights from the documents released by the U.S. Army’s Combating Terrorism Center on Thursday:
1. Terror Affiliates: Al Qaeda’s top leadership was suffering a management crisis. Its leaders were at odds over their relationship with terror affiliates around the world. Some, including al Qaeda’s current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, wanted to integrate like-minded terrorist organizations into al Qaeda, while others were against such a move, arguing that incompetent groups with local agendas tarnished al Qaeda’s reputation. Bin Laden preferred a middle approach: maintaining a working relationship with affiliates and offering them guidance, but not formally incorporating them into al Qaeda.
2. Arab Spring: Bin Laden considered the Arab Spring a “tremendous event” and proposed a media campaign to incite “people who have not yet revolted and exhort them to rebel against the rulers.” He called for “guiding, educating and warning Muslim people” not to settle for “half solutions,” referring to secular democracy, and instead fight for the victory of Islam.
3. Afghanistan strategy: Bin Laden maintained close ties to the Afghan Taliban and discussed a strategy with the Quetta Shura Taliban and the Haqqani Network to topple the Kabul government and control Afghanistan after the international forces leave the country in 2014. The documents also reveal that bin Laden was in contact with Mohammed Tayeb Agha, the key Taliban negotiator who has recently met U.S. officials several times in Qatar and Germany. Bin Laden and Tayeb Agha had discussed al Qaeda’s safe haven in Afghanistan after U.S. departure.
4. Attack America: Until the end of his life, bin Laden considered the United States to be al Qaeda’s No.1 enemy and urged followers to focus on the U.S. and not to waste time and resources attacking enemies in Europe or in the Muslim world. “We want to cut this tree at the root. The problem is that our strength is limited, so our best way to cut the tree is to concentrate on sawing the trunk of the tree,” he explained. He even asked his top lieutenants to plot to kill President Obama, arguing that the ascension of “utterly unprepared” Vice President Biden to the presidency would thrust the U.S. into crisis.
The 17 documents released are only a small fraction of thousands of items recovered from bin Laden’s house last year, and thus it is difficult to make judgments about the current and future capabilities of al Qaeda based on them alone.
As these documents indicate, however, al Qaeda’s central leadership was suffering organizational and operational setbacks long before the killing of its leader. And bin Laden’s death undoubtedly further weakened the group. But it is a mistake for U.S. officials to downplay the threat al Qaeda is still posing to U.S. national security. Al Qaeda’s new leader Ayman al Zawahiri will make every effort possible to carry out a major attack in the United States in order to consolidate his position within the group and prove that al Qaeda is alive without bin Laden. And as Pakistan has severely restrained U.S. intelligence activities and is pressuring the U.S. to halt drone strikes, al Qaeda’s activities and strength in that country is likely to increase.
Moreover, al Qaeda has metastasized and spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa in the past years. Al Qaeda’s branches in Yemen and Somalia, for example, operate almost independently. These groups will continue to pose serious threats to the U.S. and its allies.
The Obama administration rightly credits itself for killing bin Laden and weakening the group’s leadership in the past years, but it will be a grave mistake to claim victory over al Qaeda and not to continue the fight against a vicious enemy that is still plotting to destroy America and its allies.