Letters from Abbottabad

Covering a five year period - from 2006 until just before Osama bin Laden's death in 2011 - the US has released a highly selective batch of documents which provide a small insight to the workings of al-Qaeda, groups that claim links to it and bin Laden himself.


    When US Special Forces were sent into a compound in Abbottabad a year ago, their mission wasn't just to kill or capture Osama bin Laden. They were told to gather as much intelligence as they could.

    It’s thought Seal Team 6 recovered thousands of documents stored on computers, external hard drives and data sticks. 

    After in-depth analysis, some have been disregarded as useless irrelevant trivia, others provided high quality intelligence. Of all the documents recovered, just 17 have been declassified.  

    Covering a five year period - from 2006 until just before his death in 2011 - this highly selective release provides a small insight to the workings of al-Qaeda, groups that claim links to it and bin Laden himself.

    Stephen Tankel of American University told me: "Bin Laden did not die a happy man in terms of how he saw the direction of al-Qaeda going. 

    "One of things that comes through very clearly from the documents is his concern for the state of the affiliates, the lack of control he had over them and the damage they were doing to the group’s name and reputation."

    Certainly what emerges is a frustrated bin Laden. 

    Through a series of envoys and go betweens, he is in contact with many who claim to share his views and aspirations around the world, but he can't make them do what he wants. 

    One of the biggest sources of concern is that the affiliates kill many more Muslims than Americans, losing them support among the local population. 

    He has seen the problem develop through the links he established in Iraq with Abu Musaib al-Zarqawi, and he writes to several groups trying to convince them not to make the same mistakes. 

    He saw his grand strategy being undermined at what he clearly felt was the political ineptitude, and perhaps even stupidity, of his own supporters.

    In fact, attacks on mosques and innocents almost brought bin Laden into direct confrontation with the Taliban in Pakistan. 

    It's been widely thought that Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP) acted as a proxy for al-Qaeda, but the documents reveal deep divisions. 

    Two senior figures close to bin Laden sent a strongly worded letter to TTP leader Hakimullah Mahsud to express displeasure with the group's "ideology, methods and behaviour" and there was a threat there would be real and public consequences "unless we see from you serious and immediate practical and clear steps towards reforming (your ways)".

    Interestingly, there is nothing in this selective release to suggest there was any explicit support from the Pakistani authorities for bin Laden and al-Qaeda. 

    Immediately after the Abbottabad raid, many suggested senior figures in the Pakistani military, if not the government, were helping to shield Bin Laden.

    Another myth dented by the release of the papers is the relationship between Iran and al-Qaeda.

    As with the allegations linking Saddam Hussein to the organisation as a central pretext to the war in Iraq, it’s been suggested Iran and bin Laden are closely aligned.

    What emerges is that the two do in fact have a fairly hostile relationship.

    For example, to get family members out of Iran, Bin Laden ordered the kidnap of an Iranian diplomat who was then traded. 

    The Iranians released some of his relatives but then refused to free one of Bin Laden’s daughters, Fatima. This was seen as a double cross and betrayal.

    One of bin Laden's last letters was dated just a week before his death. 

    He suggested the 'Arab Spring', which he described as a formidable event, presented an opportunity for him and his group 

    He wanted to encourage those who had not yet revolted in the hope they would create a series of Islamic states.

    Until the end bin Laden was convinced al-Qaeda’s focus should be targeting America and Americans. 

    He wanted another spectacular to mirror the events of 9/11. 

    He talks about an operation to down Air Force One, the presidential plane carrying Barack Obama, believing that would throw US  foreign policy into disarray as the "utterly unprepared" Vice President Joe Biden would automatically assume the presidency.

    Few though they are, the documents act as a reminder that while the death of bin Laden was a significant moment for the US, his organisation, and so the threat, is still very much alive.



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