When US special forces raided Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbotabad, Pakistan in 2011, they recovered a cache of documents.
On Thursday the Combating Terrorism Center at the United States Military Academy released a selection of those documents, which shed some light on the inner workings of Al Qaeda under Bin Laden.
The World’s Marco Werman discussed the documents with the BBC’s Security Correspondent, Gordon Corera.
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Marco Werman: Hi, I’m Marco Werman, and this is ” The World”, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston. It’s been a year since the death of Al-Quaeda leader, Osama Bin Laden. President Obama marked the aniversary with his speech from Afghanistan a couple of days ago. Bin Laden was killed in neighboring Pakistan by U.S. special forces who raided his compound. That raid yielded a cache of documents and letters, some of which were released online by U.S. authorities today. The BBC Security Correspondent, Gordon Corerra, says only seventeen documents have been made public.
Gordon Corera: That’s all we have today, so, close to 200 pages at most: um, Seventeen documents, some from Bin Laden, some from other people, perhaps to Bin Laden. There was talk that a total of six thousand documents had been found in that compound on various flash drives and computers and so on. So it is a tiny sample, and of course, that makes it hard to know how representative it really is of what was found, and why these have been selected and not other documents to be released .
Werman: Now, one of the big reveals of these letters is that they show Al-Quaeda as an organization divided; How so? What were the details on that?
Corera: Well I think what’s interesting is the relationship between Al-Quaeda’s leadership around Osama Bin Laden and the affiliates, those groups which had allied themselves to Al-Quaeda in places like Iraq, in Yemen, in Somalia but which Al-Quaeda’s leadership and Osama Bin Laden couldn’t necessarily control; and you can sense in the documents, Osama Bin Laden wanting to exercise a kind of command and control over the organization and those who followed him, but actually not really being able to from this isolated postion he was in; this clear criticism , particularly, from a number of documents about Al-Quaeda in Iraq, and the way in which it had undermined support for itself by killing a large number of civilians in Iraq. There’s also fascinating notes from an associate, we think, talking about even rebranding Al-Quaeda, actually changing the name, basically saying the name has been discredited.
Weman: Did they have any suggestions for new names?
Corera: More religiously focused ones about monotheism, which aren’t exactly catchy in their titles, but, um, It doesn’t really look like it got anywhere. But that concern over image, I think, and presentation is clearly key.
Werman: And also, the sophistication with which its US foreign media adviser kind of analyzes the various media outlets in the United States. That was a pretty close analyses.
Corera: It was, and it goes down to which correspondents, and it names correspondents on different American TV networks even; “FOX versus CNN” looks at whether they could follow a strategy of passing information to certain journalists and then seeing what happens, and trying to get a better means of getting their message out. ” We can’t rely on Al-Jazeera and internet forums,” it says. Fascinating how much time they spent thinking, I suppose, about the media and about image; As well as attacks – because there is material in there about attacks; about trying to shoot down a plane with President Obama onboard if it came to Pakistan or Afghanistan.
Werman: Right, well, I was just going to mention that the documents revealed this order from Bin Laden to his associates, that they ought to be looking for opportunities to assassinate President Obama or General David Petraeus, but he warned them not to kill Vice President Joe Biden. Do the ledgers explain his reasons?
Corera: Well yes, I mean it’s a rather bizarre little passage where it basically says, “If these leaders come to Afghanistan, let’s try and shoot down their planes with a missile, but not Joe Biden”; and the reason, it says, is because they think he wouldn’t make a good president if President Obama was killed, and if he took over – better to keep him in place. It’s a slightly bizarre bit of logic, and it’s one of the few areas where you sense a slight disconnect from reality with some of the letters.
Werman: Gordan, as you said, the sense that we get here from these letters, is of Bin Laden’s control over Al-Quaeda ebbing away. How does that re-frame the decision to kill him last year, in your view?
Corera: I think, for a while, people questioned whether he was actually in operational control of Al-Quaeda, and I think for a long time people realized that he wasn’t. Basically, to stay alive until he was killed he was having to keep such a low profile that he could not command his organization. I think that’s confirmed by these documents, and I think, in that sense, his death did not affect the day-to-day operations of Al-Quaeda that much. The drone strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan, to some extent, certainly have in killing those people who were operationally commanding Al-Quaeda. That’s where the real impact has been, but then we have seen this dispersal of Al-Quaeda to Yemen and parts of Africa where, there it has become, if you like, more virulent and more dangerous and has shifted away from Pakistan to Afghanistan, so I think his death clearly was symbolically, hugely important, but the operational impact is a bit harder to guage, and I think these documents confirm that.
Werman: We’ve got a link to the Al-Quaeda documents at www.theworld.org. Gordon Corera, BBC Security Corresponent, thank you very much.
Corera: Thank you.
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