By Alakbar Raufoglu
Worrying about his image and the loss of control over the terrorist network that operated in his name, late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden considered rebranding the group with a more Islamic-sounding name.
According to a letter seized at bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound a year ago, and made public on May 3rd, the “name change” proposal was floated as the US emphasised that its war was on al-Qaeda and terrorists, and not on followers of Islam.
The group’s current name allows the US and other al-Qaeda enemies to claim “that they are not at war with Islam and Muslims,” the letter said.
The Combating Terrorism Centre, which published the letter among 17 other documents a year after bin Laden was killed by US forces, said the author of the “brand change letter” was unclear.
But some analysts, such as Rohan Gunaratna, author of the book Inside Al-Qaeda: Global Network of Terror, have no doubt that bin Laden was aware that al-Qaeda’s brand was becoming unpopular and “he wanted an Islamic name that resonates in the Muslim World.”
“If he was not killed, he may have changed the name al-Qaeda to a religious name,” Gunaratna, also the head of the Singapore-based International Centre for Political Violence & Terrorism Research, told SETimes. “A year before his death, he realised the world has moved on, but al-Qaeda was still stagnant.”
Most Muslims have a negative view of the terrorist group, according to a Pew Research Centre’s Global Attitudes Project poll released on April 30th. The poll found that 98% of Muslims in Lebanon, 77% in Jordan, 73% of Muslims in Turkey and 71% of Muslims in Egypt have a negative opinion of al-Qaeda.
Gunaratna emphasised that al-Qaeda failed to capture the imagination of the Muslims. “Bin Laden, Ayman Al Zawahiri and other thinkers in al-Qaeda realised that they have failed,” he said.
Turkish MP Ozcan Yeniceri, a terror analyst at the Istanbul-based think tank 21st Century Turkey Institute, said al-Qaeda “was wounded so badly during past years” that the terror group considered changing its name for public relations reasons.
“This is very obvious for such terror groups when they feel that they are losing badly and they have no places to train,” he told SETimes, noting that the same thing had happened to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which temporarily changed its name to Freedom and Democracy Congress of Kurdistan (KADEK) when the group’s leader Abdullah Ocalan was captured in 1999.
“There are two reasons behind the name change tactic,” Yeniceri said. “They aim to avoid being targeted by the international investigators, while also getting a new chance for brainwashing their followers.”
However, Yeniceri said, “Al-Qaeda will unlikely get any support from the Muslim world, in the case of brand change.”
“Being a Muslim nation, for example, Turkish people deeply believe that al-Qaeda doesn’t belong to Muslims. As soon as our people realise al-Qaeda’s tactic and propaganda, they would definitely stay against it, no matter how the group calls itself.”
In the letter, there is also a discussion about the possible new names for al-Qaeda, including the Muslim Unity Group or Islamic Nation Unification Party.
The issue of al-Qaeda brand change has arisen at least two times in the past, according to Jean-Paul Rouiller, an operational manager at the Geneva Centre for Training and Analysis of Terrorism, a long-time al-Qaeda researcher with the Swiss Federal Police.
First, “between 2000 and 2001, when Ayman al-Zawahiri fused his group with al-Qaeda, giving the organisation the name of Qaedat al-Jihad.”
A second discussion, he says, occurred when Abu Musa’b as-Suri began to challenge al-Qaeda as an organisation, arguing that it should change its approach and turn itself into a system.
“The reason behind al-Qaeda’s leadership refusal of considering as-Suri’s ideas and proposals had to do with their clear incapacity at foreseeing their organisation without several physical anchor points and training grounds,” he told SETimes.
For Aviv Oreg, a veteran Israeli researcher who covered al-Qaeda for more than a decade, changing al-Qaeda’s name “likely [was] an initiative of a low-mid level positioned member of the organisation, rather than bin-Laden himself.”
“I guess that the initiator of this letter believed that if al-Qaeda could be painted with more religious-Islamic colours over secular-military ones, it might promote support for the organisation from salafies — members of the Muslim brotherhood — as well,” Oreg told SETimes. “I do not believe that the initiative of name changing has ever passed the stage of a general idea or proposal.”
One of the main efforts of al-Qaeda during the last seven to eight years was to wide spread this brand name and logo as much as possible mostly by creating regional “al-Qaedas.”
Since 2004, al-Qaeda in Iraq, al-Qaeda in-Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in the Land of Kinanah and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb were established.
“Changing the brand name would force changes to all the names of the affiliated groups as well,” Oreg said.