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Special Features | World

Bin Laden had disdain for al Qaeda affiliates: documents

Osama bin Laden is shown watching himself on television, with US President Barack Obama also on screen, in this video frame grab released by the US Pentagon May 7, 2011. Five videos were found in bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan after US Navy SEALS stormed the compound and killed bin Laden. REUTERS/Pentagon/Handout
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WASHINGTON - Osama bin Laden showed disdain for al Qaeda affiliates and fretted about his organization's image, according to documents seized from his hideout in Pakistan and released publicly on Thursday.

The Combating Terrorism Center, a privately funded research center at the US Military Academy at West Point, posted on its website 17 declassified documents seized during the raid on bin Laden's house in Abbottabad in which he was killed by US commandos a year ago. (

Bin Laden "was not, as many thought, the puppet master pulling the strings that set in motion jihadi groups around the world," an analysis by the center said. Bin Laden "was burdened by what he saw as their incompetence."

The al Qaeda leader, who was behind the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, "was unimpressed by the recent trend of American populist jihad," the study said.

He appeared to have a low opinion of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born English-speaking militant preacher accused of instigating several violent al Qaeda attacks from Yemen who was killed in a US drone strike last year.

The 17 documents are electronic letters or draft letters totaling 175 pages in the original Arabic, dating from September 2006 to April 2011. They do not all specify who wrote or received them.

Several of the documents contain signoffs which US experts assessed to have been used by Bin Laden himself, including variations of the names "Zamaray" and "Abu 'Abdallah." Bin Laden wrote about sending messages via either thumb drives or telephone memory cards - the same Arabic word is used for both.

"Bin Laden was bothered by the incompetence of al Qaeda's affiliates, such as their failure to win public support, their ill-advised media campaigns, and their poorly planned operations that led to the unnecessary deaths of thousands of Muslims," said Lieutenant Colonel Liam Collins, director of the Combating Terrorism Center and one of the report's authors.

"Perhaps the most compelling revelation from the documents is that bin Laden was frustrated with regional jihadi groups," he told Reuters. "He appeared to struggle to exercise control over the actions of the affiliates, as well as their public statements."

Week before death

In a letter dated April 26, 2011, a week before his death, bin Laden wrote about the "Arab Spring" revolutions that ousted leaders in the Middle East. He mentioned the need for "inciting the people who have not revolted yet, and encouraging them to get against the rulers and the methods."

Afghanistan was also on his mind: he wrote that "Jihad (Islamic holy war) in Afghanistan is a duty." But he also expressed concern about "operations that the brothers in Yemen are intending to conduct using poison," that there should be study of potential political and media reaction against the "mujahidin and their image in the eyes of the public."

The week before he was killed in a secret operation by US Navy SEALS, bin Laden offered instructions on how to handle French hostages held by "brothers in the Islamic Maghreb." He said that if they had to be killed, this should be done after events in Libya. But he suggested it would be better to exchange a woman hostage, and at a minimum keep the most important male hostage until French elections.

He wrote that a British officer captured by "our brothers in Somalia" should be exchanged for "our prisoners with them, or with their allies."

Bin Laden also worried that children of militants who lived in cities were "one of the most important security issues" and said it was important to control them by not leaving the house except for medical care and to teach them the local language so they would blend in.

Affiliate disdain

A main conclusion of the West Point analysis is that bin Laden regarded many of al Qaeda's affiliated groups, including the ones feared by the West, with dismay bordering on contempt.

US and European intelligence officials have said Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which operates from Yemen, has emerged as the most dangerous affiliate.

But seized correspondence shows that bin Laden worried about AQAP and urged its leadership to focus on attacking the United States rather than the Yemeni government or security forces.

The confiscated material also shows that the actions of another affiliate, Al Qaeda in Iraq were of great concern to bin Laden, especially its ruthless attacks on Shi'ite civilians following the US invasion of Iraq.

One of al Qaeda's main English-language spokesmen, American-born Adam Gadahn, even suggested that the core al Qaeda group led by bin Laden should disassociate itself from Al Qaeda in Iraq. At one point Gadahn compared the brutality of the Iraqi al Qaeda affiliate to that of President George W. Bush, the president who invaded Iraq in 2003 to depose Saddam Hussein.

Bin Laden also apparently wanted to keep al Qaeda's Somalia-based affiliate, Al Shabaab, at arm's length, because he was concerned about its poor organization, management and brutality, the study said.

Bin Laden's relationship with the TTP, one of the main Pakistan-based Taliban groups, was so strained that the group almost came into "direct and public confrontation" with al Qaeda's central leadership over its indiscriminate attacks on Muslim civilians, the study said.

Videotapes and audiotapes from bin Laden were broadcast sporadically during the decade that he was in hiding. In a letter dated August 27, 2010, the al Qaeda leader gave detailed instructions about how to get the message out. He wanted it timed for the upcoming September 11 anniversary.