May 7, 2012 | Gunpowder & Lead

Assessing Interpretations of the New Bin Laden Documents

May 7, 2012 | Gunpowder & Lead

Assessing Interpretations of the New Bin Laden Documents

The documents recovered from Abbottabad that were released on Thursday represent the largest new trove of information about al Qaeda to be made public in years. Researchers and analysts have already written about the release extensively, and we can expect far more to be said about it in the future. One thing I have noticed about terrorism studies is that often narratives set early in a process get recirculated endlessly, regardless of the truth of the matter: this was the case, for example, for the baseless claim that Osama bin Laden was on dialysis, a claim which we never really heard the end of. Thus, I wanted to weigh in on three narratives that I feel are unjustified by the evidence — some of them by writers or institutions whom I respect.

Al Qaeda Honchos Were Offered Tributes

The Christian Science Monitor, in an article purporting to outline the top five revelations in the newly released documents, includes the following:

Like tribute money offered to Mafia dons, funds were offered to Al Qaeda out of fear. One letter in the new trove explores whether Al Qaeda leaders should accept such money. It notes, for example, that Fatah, the largest faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization, “has offered us funds, purportedly to [support] jihad, but there is another reason, namely their fear of becoming targets of our swords.”

The quote is accurate; the problem is that this does not actually demonstrate tribute money being offered to “al Qaeda.” The primary source isn’t al Qaeda’s description of what is happening to one of its affiliates in the Palestinian territories, but rather Atiyya’s response to a number of requests for juristic rulings from the Palestinian salafi group Jaysh al Islam. The request for a ruling quoted above asks whether it is permissible to take money from groups with questionable religious pedigrees.

Jaysh al Islam, though, is not an official al Qaeda affiliate, and in an extensive review of Palestinian salafi groups, Yoram Cohen and Matthew Levitt conclude that “the prospect of a true al Qaeda affiliate developing in this area remains unlikely.” Indeed, Atiyya’s rather cold response to his Palestinian interlocutor provides little reason to think this situation will change anytime soon.

Never Mind Winning the Battle, Just Kill Americans

At Wired, Spencer Ackerman writes that bin Laden simply wanted to target Americans, “even when it made little military sense.” Ackerman states that bin Laden would continually harp on this point “even when it led to bizarre advice.” Ackerman continues:

“If we were on the road between Qandahar and Helmand and army vehicles of Afghanis, NATO, and Americans drove by, we should choose to ambush the American army vehicles, even though the American army vehicles have the least amount of soldiers,” bin Laden wrote to a deputy. “The only time you are allowed to attack the other army vehicles is if those army vehicles are going to attack our brothers. In other words, any work to directly defend the mujahidin group will be excluded from al Qaida’s general politics policy because the mujahidin group should be able to carry out its mission, which is striking American interests.”

Bin Laden kept harping on the point, even when it led to bizarre advice. “Whatever exceeds our capability or what we are unable to disburse on attacks inside America, as well as on the Jihad in open fronts, would be disbursed targeting American interests in non-Islamic countries first, such as South Korea,” he urged in a separate communique. (There have never been any al-Qaida attacks in South Korea.)

Did bin Laden’s advice in fact prioritize attacks on Americans over sound strategic logic? In part, this question ties into a broader debate about whether al Qaeda thinks strategically. In the original source, bin Laden explains the rationale behind targeting the U.S. primarily. He describes the enemy al Qaeda confronts as “a wicked tree” that has a 50 cm trunk and “many branches, which vary in length and size.” The trunk of the tree, in this metaphor, represents America, with the branches representing “countries, like NATO members, and countries in the Arab world.”

Confronted with such an enemy, bin Laden says that the jihadis’ best option is “to slowly cut that tree down by using a saw. Our intention is to saw the trunk of that tree, and never to stop until that tree falls down.” To bin Laden, attacking the branches was a distraction: by more evenly distributing attacks rather than concentrating on Americans, “we could never finish the job at hand.” This paradigm makes sense of why bin Laden said that American vehicles should be targeted in Afghanistan, even if there were fewer soldiers in the American vehicle: doing so weakens the trunk of the tree, while attacking other vehicles wastes time on the branches.

As to bin Laden’s other piece of advice about targeting American interests in non-Muslim countries with what “we are unable to disburse on attacks inside America,” this too falls in line with his guidance to attack the trunk rather than the branches. Ackerman is right that there have never been al Qaeda attacks in South Korea — but given that South Korea only served as an example to illustrate bin Laden’s guidance, rather than a well considered target, we shouldn’t let the fact that there have been no al Qaeda attacks there serve as too much of a distraction. In my recent book Bin Laden’s Legacy, I argue that one of the U.S.’s major strategic errors in undertaking the “war on terror” was unnecessarily broadening the battlefield. Bin Laden is trying not to make similar mistakes, which seems to be a sound approach for a small actor like al Qaeda.

Bin Laden Was Unable to Exercise Control Over Al Qaeda’s Affiliates

West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) described at length the perils of making broad judgments about al Qaeda based on a sample as limited as 17 documents. “Analyzing the state of al Qaeda on the basis of the documents is like commenting on the tailoring of a jacket when only a sleeve is available,” the CTC report accompanying the documents’ release warns. Despite these wise words of caution, some of the report’s conclusions appear to exceed anything justified by the released documents. One notable area is the report’s conclusion about bin Laden’s “seeming inability to exercise control over [the affiliates'] actions and public statements.” Indeed, the report dubs this finding “the most compelling story to be told on the basis of the 17 declassified documents.” However, bin Laden’s inability to exercise control is not as evident from the released documents as CTC claims.

To be clear, CTC is correct that al Qaeda under bin Laden was not a traditional top-down organization in which the emir’s commands would automatically be followed throughout the ranks. There are multiple reasons for this, including the fact that al Qaeda’s core leadership was the target of an intense manhunt and found secure communications with affiliates difficult, a fact that massively slowed communications and diminished (though did not entirely undermine) the central leadership’s awareness of what was happening on various battlefields. To illustrate the view that many al Qaeda specialists had of relations between the group’s core and affiliates prior to the Abbottabad raid, we can turn to Leah Farrall’s March/April 2011 Foreign Affairs article, “How Al Qaeda Works.” Farrall wrote that al Qaeda “is not a traditional hierarchical terrorist organization, with a pyramid-style organizational structure, and it does not exercise full command and control over its branch and franchises. But nor is its role limited to broad ideological influence. Due to its dispersed structure, al Qaeda operates as a devolved network hierarchy, in which levels of command authority are not always clear; personal ties between militants carry weight and, at times, transcend the command structure between core, branch, and franchises.” In fact, some observers thought the core exercised far less influence than this, as can be seen by the debate that raged about whether al Qaeda had become an ideology, rather than an organization.

Farrall described al Qaeda as being structurally composed of “core, branch, and franchises,” but her schema reflects a rather complex relationship amongst them. Farrall’s schema helps to illustrate my dissatisfaction with CTC’s statement that “the framing of an ‘AQC’ as an organization in control of regional ‘affiliates’ reflects a conceptual construction by outsiders rather than the messy reality of insiders.” Essentially, the conceptualization of a core and franchises does not necessarily deny that messy reality — certainly Farrall’s model, in which the core was seen as having more of a role than many other specialists thought, fully anticipated haggling, contention, and extended negotiations between core and franchises.

A second problem with CTC’s conclusion that bin Laden was unable to exercise control over the affiliates is that we do not know this from the released documents. The documents do illustrate his frustration with affiliates, but this is a different matter than the claim that bin Laden was unable to exercise control. There are two important factors in determining whether bin Laden was able to exercise control over affiliates. First, it is important to distinguish bin Laden’s advice from his orders. For example, when bin Laden wrote to Shabaab’s Mukhtar Abu al Zubayr about such matters as targeting the African Union (AMISOM) forces in Somalia, his words appear to be the advice of one who is far removed from the battlefield, rather than the dictates of a supreme commander. The second factor is judging bin Laden’s commands against facts on the ground suggesting whether or not they were followed. For example, several released documents reflect bin Laden’s evacuation order, that al Qaeda members should leave Waziristan. In one document, bin Laden suggests Zabul (there spelled “Zabil”) as a possible place to which these men can escape. A report written by Martine van Bijlert for the New America Foundation notes that around the time that bin Laden stated this, in the summer of 2010, “inhabitants of Zabul and eastern Uruzgan reported an increased presence of Arabs, which resulted in greater pressure on the population.” To be clear: we do not know from these two data points whether bin Laden’s mention of Zabul and the observed increased presence of Arabs there are linked. A causal determination would need to be more extensive than what I just provided. Rather, my point is that this is the kind of analysis — a comparison of bin Laden’s dictates to external evidence — that would help us actually determine whether bin Laden was unable to exercise control.

My final problem with this analysis is that, to the extent the released documents do speak to bin Laden’s influence over affiliated entities, they’re indicative of a degree of deference that isn’t reflected in CTC’s conclusion. This can be seen, for example, in the fact that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula sought bin Laden’s blessing before undertaking personnel changes at the top levels, such as Anwar al Awlaki’s promotion.

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