OBL In Abbottabad: An Arm-Chair Amir With Waning Influence – Analysis


During the years he fled from the jihadi battle-front in the Af-Pak region and took shelter in his hide-out in Abbottabad in Pakistan (2005-2011), Osama bin Laden was reduced to a pathetic Amir in arm-chair who exercised little authority or influence over the global jihad being waged by Al Qaeda and its associates. His advice was often sought by his jihadi associates out of respect for his past contribution and “achievements”, but rarely followed. The new post-9/11 crop of jihadis waged their jihad in their own way without paying heed to his words of caution and advice. After he moved to Abbottabad, he was neither the commander-in-chief nor an ideologue par excellence, but a senior jihadi who counted less and less.

That is the conclusion that comes out loud and clear from a tiring study of 17 of the documents found in his Abbottabad hide-out by the Navy Seals and since de-classified by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and handed over to the Combating Terrorism Centre (CTC) of West Point which has got them translated from Arabic to English and published them in a compilation titled “Letters from Abbottabad”. This compilation was released by the CTC to the public on May 2, coinciding with the first anniversary of the death of OBL. (http://www.ctc.usma.edu/ )

On its web site, the CTC describes itself as “an independent, privately-funded research and educational institution situated at West Point that informs and shapes counter-terrorism policy and strategy.” It describes the documents released to the public as electronic or draft letters—possibly indicating thereby that while some of them were recovered from the computer hard and soft ware seized from OBL’s hide-out, others were in a manuscript form.

I have studied these documents keeping in view the possibility that the de-classification and release of these documents might be part of the CIA’s PSYWAR against Al Qaeda. While I do not rule out the possibility of some motivated editing before the documents were made available to the public, I have no reasons to suspect that the documents might have been fabricated. They seem to me to be largely genuine.

My impression of their being genuine is strengthened by the fact that some of the conclusions emerging from a study regarding the declining authority and influence of OBL negate the assessments disseminated by the US during those years projecting OBL as the all-powerful head of the global jihad. It now turns out that he was not and that the earlier assessments were wrong.

The earliest of the documents is dated September 2006 and is a communication to OBL from one of his supporters in Saudi Arabia ( apparently influential) sounding a wake-up call that the popularity of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Umma had started declining because of what was projected as its strategic folly of attacking Saudi Arabia and Yemen and targeting the Saudi oil riches. According to the originator of this communication, this policy had very little support from among Arab intellectuals and other elite and even from the common man.

A recurring theme of the communications exchanged between OBL and his associates is the wrong tactics adopted by the affiliate of Al Qaeda in Iraq called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Pakistani Taliban called the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which came into existence after the raid into the Lal Masjid of Islamabad by the Pakistani security forces in July 2007.

The documents clearly show that OBL and some of his senior associates were disturbed by what they viewed as the pollution of the jihad by the Islamic State of Iraq and the TTP. They saw signs of this pollution in the attacks on Christians—particularly Catholics— in Iraq and in the indiscriminate suicide attacks carried out by the TTP in mosques during prayers. The degeneration of the jihad in Iraq and Pakistan from targeted attacks on identified enemies of Islam to indiscriminate suicide attacks that killed the identified enemies and many innocent Muslims who had nothing to do with them was a matter of growing concern to OBL and his senior associates.

They even drafted a declaration on the subject deploring such attacks to be issued by OBL but for some reasons not clear, it was not issued. What is revealing and clearly indicative of OBL’s declining authority and influence is the cruel fact that OBL’s displeasure and admonitions over this pollution had practically no effect on the Islamic State of Iraq and the TTP. They continued with their acts of pollution unmindful of OBL’s feelings and concerns

In his famous Fatwa of 1998 issued from Kandahar where he was then based, OBL had projected the global jihad as directed against the Crusaders and the Jewish people—meaning essentially against the US and Israel. It subsequently turned into a jihad not only against the US and Israel, but also against even Islamic rulers seen as collaborating with the US.

The realisation that this was a tactical and strategic mistake with negative consequences for the global jihad is writ large in the declassified communications. The need to revert to the primary focus against the US—in the US Homeland itself as well as in non-Islamic countries having a US presence— is repeatedly underlined in the communications. To kill a snake one must crush its head and not its tail is an expression that finds eloquent expression in the communications.

Those who exchanged these communications felt that Al Qaeda should focus on Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia where victory was within its grasp and should not fritter away its energy in other areas. But neither their ideas nor their assessments nor their caution and advice had much of an impact on the jihadis who had started increasingly waging the jihad in their own style, only paying lip-service to their loyalty to OBL.

The documents speak very little of the leadership style and likely strategy of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the present Amir of Al Qaeda. There are some tantalising tit-bits indicative of his growing influence at the expense of that of OBL, but the evidence on this score is sketchy.

There are other interesting tit-bits about OBL wanting to have President Barack Obama and Gen.David Petraeus, the then US Commander in Afghanistan, assassinated in Afghanistan through Ilyas Kashmiri, the Pakistani commando turned jihadi terrorist, but those are not of present significance now that OBL is no more.

B. Raman

B. Raman (August 14, 1936 – June 16, 2013) was Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai and Associate, Chennai Centre For China Studies.

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