The new trove of bin Laden documents reveals just how different al Qaeda and the Islamic State really are.
- By Elias GrollElias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering cyberspace and its conflicts and controversies. He has written for the magazine since 2012 and is a graduate of Harvard University., David FrancisDavid Francis is a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covers international finance. An award-winning journalist, David has reported from all over Europe, Nigeria, Kenya, Mexico, and Afghanistan on terrorism, national security, the geopolitics of energy, global economics, and the European financial crisis. His work has been published in outlets including the Christian Science Monitor, the Financial Times Deutschland, Slate, and SportsIllustrated.com.
“Please remind the brothers in Somalia to be compassionate with the people and remind them of the Hadiths on this.” That’s Osama bin Laden writing in 2007 to his operational commander about al Qaeda’s murderous affiliate in Somalia, urging them to be more gentle in waging jihad and to focus on the real enemy: the United States. “Please talk to the Somali brothers about reducing the harm to Muslims at Bakarah Market [in Mogadishu] as result of attacking the headquarters of the African forces.”
That letter is part of a tranche of documents released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Wednesday, and it illustrates the emerging divide between al Qaeda, the old school of the jihadi movement, and the new school upstarts, the Islamic State. In these documents, bin Laden emerges as a kind of elder statesman of the global jihadi movement, mediating disputes between rivals and various organizations, while attempting to remain in touch with the day-to-day running of a global terrorist enterprise. In one letter, he urges a lieutenant to file twice-monthly expense reports.
But four years after his death the hands of U.S. Navy SEALs, bin Laden’s organization has been eclipsed by the Islamic State, whose tactics and strategy run counter to the old guard of al Qaeda. Seizing and holding territory in a way that would have made bin Laden uneasy, the Islamic State has carved out for itself the caliphate that the dead terrorist repeatedly urges in the letters not to declare.
Put simply, al Qaeda was less interested in conquering territory and more interested in using affiliates around the globe to kill large numbers of westerners. The Islamic State’s priorities are almost exactly the opposite: seizing and holding territory in a way that would have made bin Laden uneasy while not yet focusing on mounting attacks outside the borders of its self-proclaimed caliphate. This smash-mouth approach to jihad has made the Islamic State the world’s premier jihadi militant group, and it’s a tactic that has helped the group attract both prestige, recruits, and pledges of allegiance from terror groups the world over.
In Nigeria, Boko Haram has pledged fealty to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and has adopted its tactics, fighting the Nigerian military and also targeting civilians. The Islamic State has accumulated affiliates in Egypt, Libya, Algeria, and elsewhere, while also forcing the United States to return troops to Iraq. “The Islamic State is much more opportunistic,” former State Department counterterrorism director Daniel Benjamin told Foreign Policy Wednesday. “Osama bin Laden was more attuned to the history of Islamic extremism and really wanted to target Americans.”
As he comes across in the letters and documents released Wednesday, bin Laden would have viewed these developments with deep suspicion. In a letter to al Qaeda affiliates, an unidentified writer — all but certainly bin Laden — addresses himself to “Atiyah” — presumably Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, who would rise to become al Qaeda’s operations chief before being killed in a 2012 drone strike — and asks him to inform members of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to halt operations targeting local security forces and to instead “uproot the obnoxious tree by concentrating on its American trunk.”
The writer urges AQIM to hold off on any possible ambitions to declare an Islamic caliphate. “You should ask them to avoid insisting on the formation of an Islamic State at the time being, but to work on breaking the power of our main enemy by attacking the American embassies in the African countries, such as Sierra Leone, Togo, and mainly to attack the American oil companies,” bin Laden writes, addressing himself to Atiyah. (Using an intermediary such as Atiyah to communicate with affiliates was one way bin Laden tried to evade detection by the United States.)
In this way, bin Laden was coming at the global conflict between radical jihadi groups and the West from what might be described as a more historical perspective. “We should stress on the importance of timing in establishing the Islamic State,” he writes in the letter. “We should be aware that planning for the establishment of the state begins with exhausting the main influential power that enforced the siege on the Hamas government, and that overthrew the Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan and Iraq despite the fact this power was depleted.”
Having watched several embryonic “Islamic States” be destroyed by force by the United States and its allies in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Gaza, bin Laden’s view of the war is more of a long game. “He had a theory for how you attack the United States: You have to hit the homeland and U.S. targets to impact the U.S. economy and public opinion,” said Brian Fishman, a research fellow at the New America Foundation. A campaign of terror would serve as a prelude to the establishment of a caliphate but would not accomplish that goal on its own, bin Laden seems to argue.
Contrast that with the Islamic State, which seized on the sectarian chaos in Iraq after American troops withdrew in 2011 and the bloody civil war ravaging Syria. The security vacuum in both countries opened the door for the group to quickly capture large parts of Iraq and Syria in early 2014, and declare that territory a caliphate. Since then, the group has shown little restraint in killing fellow Muslims, including the videotaped immolation of a Jordanian pilot, an incident that caused widespread outrage across the Arab world, and repeated beheadings of Iraqis, Syrians, and Western hostages.
The different nature and goals of these groups shaped the American response to them. Al Qaeda announced itself in a series of high profile attacks in Yemen, Kenya, and Tanzania in the 1990s. It became the face of the enemy when the Twin Towers fell and a plane crashed into the Pentagon in 2001, spectacular attacks that galvanized the United States and its allies against the group.
Targeting it after the 9/11 attacks was a relatively straightforward affair: create a broad coalition of allies to dislodge it from safe havens in Afghanistan while killing off its leadership. The campaign to oust the Taliban and disrupt what had been al Qaeda’s command-and-control structure in Afghanistan was initially successful, but many of those gains were lost when former President George W. Bush shifted U.S. military resources to Iraq. And while it took 10 years to kill bin Laden, concerns about a second wave of attacks against the American homeland never materialized.
“Al Qaeda was really on the defensive from shortly after its main act,” said Benjamin, who is also a scholar at Dartmouth.
Not so with the Islamic State. The administration’s initial response to its lightening-fast campaign was a push to oust former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a sectarian Shiite whose persecution of Sunnis helped the militants gain some popular support. He was replaced by Haider al-Abadi, a far more moderate leader, but the absence of a quick military response allowed the group to cement control of large swaths of Iraq and Syria.
The United States is now conducting airstrikes in an effort to defeat the militants, and American military advisors are on the ground assisting Shiite militias and the Iraqi army. But so far, the Islamic State proven hard to beat. The recent fall of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, is the latest example of the inability of U.S-backed forces to defeat it in key Iraqi cities. “The Islamic State seems to have managed to prolong its time on the stage,” Benjamin said.
Its effort to do so has been helped by its appeals to the fringes of Muslim belief. Whereas bin Laden hoped to use al Qaeda to build a global movement of Muslims, the Islamic State is rooted in a more exclusionary conception of Islam and considers large numbers of its adherents apostates, Fishman said. That has allowed the group to act more violently and more aggressively than bin Laden would have considered prudent.
It’s a divide that has long been present within the global jihadi movement. Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri famously rebuked in 2005 the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq Abu Musab al-Zarqawi for his indiscriminate killing of civilians. Having emerged from al Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic State has continued that tradition of barbarism.
Bin Laden, brutal as he may have been, was a far more skilled diplomat than Baghdadi and his followers. “In these documents you see bin Laden trying to avoid conflict with folks whom he ultimately wants to win over,” Fishman said. In one notable letter, bin Laden advises his terrorist colleagues in Somalia to plant palm olive trees as a good source of revenue for the locals. In the same letter, bin Laden notes with concern the effects of climate change and urges his affiliates not to cut down trees for the mere use of charcoal.
Bin Laden’s desire to exert influence over terror groups is evident in other documents released Wednesday. Among them is a detailed job application that asks probing question to test a potential recruit’s commitment to the cause, including whether they would be willing to conduct suicide missions.
It’s also apparent in a 15-page document that gives step-by-step details on how to form a terror cell. “Terror Franchise: The UNSTOPPABLE ASSASSINS, TECHS Vital role for its success” was written in English by al Qaeda’s senior planner Abu-Salih al Somali, who advises potential recruits on everything from acceptable methods of attack to marketing strategy. This missive makes clear cells are to only attack targets on American, Israeli, or European soil, or against American, Israeli, or European outposts abroad. “The American and European citizens are the switch to shut down this heartless damned Zio-crusade machine of Evil and greed,” Somali wrote.
The Islamic State would probably agree with that idea, but so far it’s waging that battle in Ramadi, Mosul, and Raqqa — and not New York.
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