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Monthly Archives: May 2012

A new glimpse into al-Qaeda

Ayman al-Zawahiri (left) with Osama bin Laden. Courtesy of Associated Press.
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To coincide with the anniversary of the raid that killed Osama bin laden, the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point released 17 de-classified documents obtained in bin Laden’s Abbattobad compound. These 17 documents are a small fraction of the thousands of documents recovered from the raid. Despite their small number, these documents add color to our understanding of al-Qaeda’s leadership; namely, the relationship that al-Qaeda leaders maintained with its affiliates was the subject of internal debate and scrutiny. The insights gained from these prior inner workings may offer a glimpse into understanding the current dynamics of al-Qaeda methodology

In order to understand al-Qaeda’s relationship with its affiliates, it must be understood that prior to 9/11, the organization cooperated with other jihadist groups but did not seek to merge with any of them. As the CTC’s analysis explains:

“It was only when al-Qa’ida lost its sanctuary following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 that a trend of regional jihadi groups pledging allegiance to al-Qa’ida or acting in its name emerged (p.10).”

Despite many groups aligning themselves to al-Qaeda, bin Laden only formally adopted Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi’s group, forming al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). All the other groups under the al-Qaeda franchise were adopted by Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current head of al-Qaeda, then bin Laden’s deputy. This merger with Zarqawi was a bad move for al-Qaeda. Once Zarqawi became more powerful, he began moving away from al-Qaeda Central’s (AQC) established goals. He was repeatedly told to stop attacking Muslims because, “the victory of Islam and the establishment of a caliphate will not be accomplished by the mujahed movement while it is cut off from public support (p.4),” and also to follow AQC’s orders:

“the significance of your correspondence with your brothers here, and continued mutual discourse and consultation, as well as going along with them in well-laid plans, and mutual understanding, harmonizing, and guidance, are more important than many of the large scale operations (p.8).”

Despite Zarqawi’s death at the hands of U.S. forces in 2006, AQI continued to be a thorn in AQC’s side:

“The group’s indiscriminate attacks did not improve with al-Zarqawi’s death; Abu ‘Umar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Misri, who succeeded him and declared an Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), were perceived by jihadi leaders to be more repulsive and dangerous than al-Zarqawi (p.22).”

AQI’s actions caused the purists in AQC to seek separation from its affiliate. The American al-Qaeda leader Adam Gadahn said,

“it is necessary that al-Qa’ida publicly announces that it severs its organizational ties with the Islamic State of Iraq, and [to make known] that the relationship between its leadership and that of the State [i.e., ISI/AQI] have not existed for several years (p.8 CTC’s translation).”

Osama bin Laden was likely heavily disenfranchised with AQI to the point of not wanting to make formal affiliations with other jihadist groups. For example, the Zawahiri-backed group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was highly disliked by bin Laden. The CTC analysts say that,

“He comes across as critical of both their words and deeds, in particular the group’s attacks in Yemen, its lack of acumen to win the Yemeni people’s support, and the ill-advised public statements of its leaders. In fact, with the possible exception of AQI, none of the other ‘affiliates’ appear to be more of a source of concern for Bin Ladin than AQAP (p.29).”

He also didn’t want to formally merge with al-Shabaab in Somalia. Bin Laden was “applying lessons learned from Iraq, that an overexposure of the links between al Qaeda central leadership and its affiliates can cause some unwanted attention.”

It appears that the difficulties in maintaining global jihad split the AQC leadership into different camps. Some, as represented by Gadahn, wanted to keep the al-Qaeda mission pure and untainted from affiliates that would either not listen to AQC or undermine their goals through distasteful activity, poorly thought out media campaigns, or incompetence. The second camp appears to be represented by Ayman al-Zawahiri, now the head of al-Qaeda. His goal is to spread jihad and the al-Qaeda name to an ever widening umbrella of affiliates. The third, bin Laden’s, seemed to try to maintain equilibrium between the two other camps, and wanted to develop strong social and economic infrastructure in the host countries before operating there. He was willing to work with other jihadist groups but wanted to consolidate control over their media releases and encouraged restraint over conducting short-sighted, poorly-developed operations. The differences between the camps caused some frustration, as indicated in one of the letters criticizing Osama bin Laden’s position:

“They believe that being burdened by this expansive body is weighty on their neck and their capability cannot sustain it. It would make them liable to problems with many sides, especially since they desire or hope to pursue the path of construction and development. That is why they are satisfied with those who seek them, but do not see [the need] to go beyond that… that is why I believe it is necessary to affirm al-Qa’ida’s ties to its branches and make it public (p.1 CTC’s translation).”

These letters show that the inner workings of al-Qaeda had some very serious problems. Bin Laden’s failure to maintain control over an expanding following is troubling. Although bin Laden wanted to present al-Qaeda as a legitimate alternative to the governments that he deemed corrupt, he was constantly undermined. The people he recruited and the affiliates that were willing to work with him were and are essentially anarchists. To avoid individuals that are attracted to the message of anarchy would mean that al-Qaeda would have no following. To embrace those individuals means survivability at the cost of power and a dilution of bin Laden’s goals. This is exactly what we are seeing now as Ayman al-Zawahiri has taken control of al-Qaeda. The CTC analysts proposed that “if AQC lacks the ability to exert control over its supposed affiliate groups… it stands to reason that the power and clout AQC is meant to exert over the global jihadi landscape is most doubtful (p.42).”