Are today’s al Qaeda offshoots following Bin Laden’s vision?

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Clint Watts

The May 2011 raid killing Osama Bin Laden in his Abbottabad compound not only eliminated the world’s most notorious terrorist but also provided a unique glimpse into the strategic musings of al Qaeda’s leadership.  The Abbottabad documents released in May 2012 reveal Bin Laden’s strategic recalibration as he witnessed the demise of his organization in Afghanistan and Pakistan while missing out on an Arab Spring that toppled many of the so-called “apostate dictators” he despised. All of the documents disclosed to the public reveal different aspects of al Qaeda's operations.  However, two documents in particular shed light on Bin Laden's last thoughts on the future direction.  

SOCOM-2012-0000016 demonstrates the close and consistent contact between al Qaeda's senior leadership and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen (AQAP).  Bin Laden pushes AQAP to be patient in developing the situation in Yemen while also pressing the affiliate to focus their targeting on the U.S. rather than the Yemeni government.  

Bin Laden's thoughts in document SOCOM-2012-0000017, however, reveal more about his thinking for al Qaeda's future.  At times, the document reads like a page from the U.S. military's own counterinsurgency manual as Bin Laden appears to be detailing to his followers how to "win the hearts and minds" of local tribes in the countries they occupy.  Here Bin Laden notes the impact of indiscriminate violence on al Qaeda relations with locals.

The killing of a greater number of tribesmen often boosts tribes’ vengeful attitudes. The Mujahidin, hence, must be extremely careful about initiating operations to which they know little about the consequences

Ironically, while Bin Laden continues to encourage his followers to learn lessons from past al Qaeda failures, his ruminations mirror those shortcomings he and his lieutenants identified twenty years earlier after their flawed foray in Somalia in the early 1990's where al Qaeda operatives initially got lost and later frustrated by a clan system they did not adequately understand. 

The above noted al Qaeda document and others released with it suggest several strategic imperatives for al Qaeda's future in Bin Laden's eyes. 

  • al Qaeda needs a new name - the al Qaeda brand is tarnished

"This name [al Qaeda] reduces the feeling of Muslims that we belong to them, and allows the enemies to claim deceptively that they are not at war with Islam and Muslims, but they are at war with the organization of al- Qa‟ida, which is an outside entity from the teachings of Islam.." SOCOM-2012-000009-HT

  • al Qaeda needs to win over local “hearts & minds”

"This shows how important it is to ensure having the necessary support and loyalty of the people before building a state, be it ordinary, or influential tribesmen." SOCOM-2012-0000017

  • al Qaeda needs a new safe haven – Pakistan is a “no-go" due to drones

"Our Waziristani brothers, for example, said that they were frankly exhausted from the enemy’s air bombardments." SOCOM-2012-0000017

  • Should wait to establish a caliphate till the time is right

“We do not see escalation as necessary at this point because we are in the preparation stage; therefore, it is not in our interest to rush in bringing down the regime.” SOCOM-2012-0000016

  • Must avoid killing innocent Muslims, al Qaeda should target Westerners outside the main battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan

“For example, the attacks targeting several infidel Imams during their visits to public locations where most of the Muslims are located, as they should be targeted away from the Muslims.” SOCOM-2012-0000019

  • Review past lessons learned & adjust course

“There was also the Libyan experience. The brothers in Libya failed because, firstly, they did not listen to any of the advice they were offered. The al-Qa’ida advised them to wait, so did the Jihad Group and the Islamic Group. All the brothers advised the Libyan Mujahidin that they did not have the basic resources to topple the Libyan regime. Not to mention, the timing did not add up.” SOCOM-2012-0000017  

  • al Qaeda needs a victory, an attack on the West -fast!

"The point is that people tend to be in favor of a winner rather than a loser."  SOCOM-2012-0000017

  • Yemen might be the best option for al Qaeda in the future

"I'll begin with the matter of escalation in Yemen. To begin I would say that Yemen is the Arab country most suited to the establishment of an Islamic state, but this does not mean that the necessary fundamental elements for success for such a project have yet been realized." SOCOM-2012-0000019

Today, one might ask, "Are al Qaeda affiliates and new upstart groups following Bin Laden's guidance from before his death?"  Analysts can probably argue either way with regards to this question.  With regards to a name change, the emergence of several different extremist groups behaving like al Qaeda but calling themselves Ansar al-Sharia suggests Bin Laden's message was received.  Additionally, AQAP became the first affiliate to rise and attempt to build its own state after Bin Laden's death, but their rush to break out may have ignored Bin Laden's call for patience.  Likewise, al Qaeda's merger and branding with al Shabaab in Somalia resulted in disaster for both parties revealing internal fractures in the jihadi movement. Ansar al Sharia's attack on U.S. consulate in Benghazi focused on Western targets in new theaters but brought the ire of local Libyans. Most recently, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its branches have governed north Mali. But their aggressive expansion has brought French resistance and the continued fragmenting of the affiliate into sub-groups suggesting there maybe more competition than unity in the Sahel. 

It is too early to assess whether Bin Laden's guidance is the basis for the disaggregated Salafi-Jihadi violence occurring around the world.  However, al Qaeda and its admirers continue to morph in the wake of Bin Laden's death. 

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al QaedaOsama bin LadenAbbottabad