The recent release of 17 documents discovered at Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad should inspire a rethink of many Western notions about al-Qaeda. Bin Laden’s place in the political and theological jihadi spectrum, especially, needs more consideration. What is perhaps most disturbing is that the documents depict bin Laden and his close advisers as not even the most extreme ideologues out there.
Bin Laden clearly regarded some of the excesses of the affiliates—especially with regard to Muslim civilian casualties—as damaging to the al-Qaeda brand. He laments the bloodshed caused by jihadists’ flexible justification as to what constitutes collateral damage at a time of war. He says that “it is these issues, amongst others, led to the loss of the Muslims sympathetic approach towards the Mujahidin” (document SOCOM-2012-0000019, bin Laden’s letter to Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, May 2010). He also criticizes al-Shabaab in Somalia for its inflexible interpretation of hudud punishments, the deterrent penalties in Islamic law that can include the likes of amputating hands and feet. Bin Laden states that “it would be good to send advice to the brothers in Somalia about the benefit of doubt when it comes to dealing with crimes and applying Sharia” (SOCOM-2012-0000010, bin Laden’s letter to Atiyah Abd al-Rahman from April 26, 2011). This is part of the reason why bin Laden was reluctant to officially recognize al-Shabaab as an official al-Qaeda affiliate, though in a break from his predecessor, Ayman al-Zawahiri did formalize the group’s alliance with al-Shabaab following bin Laden’s death.
Bin Laden is not alone in being critical of some jihadist excesses. Adam Gadahn, the American al-Qaeda spokesman and media adviser, regards jihadi forums as “repulsive to most of the Muslims,” “biased towards … the Jihadi Salafist” and presenting a “distorted” image of the group (SOCOM-2012-0000004, Adam Gadahn letter to unknown recipient). Younis al-Mauritani wrote to bin Laden outlining his concerns about the role of takfiris (i.e., jihadists who declare fellow Muslims to be unbelievers liable to be killed), stressing that such extremists were a liability and need to be brought in line. Mauritani was concerned at the damage takfirism did to al-Qaeda’s reputation, saying, “It is a very dangerous situation, especially because it is attributed to us” (SOCOM-2012-0000019, quoting Muritani). Mauritani urged bin Laden to “make our position unequivocally clear on the issue of inflexibility and narrow-mindedness … We are approaching a stage where narrow-mindedness is a killer.” If al-Qaeda finds other interpretations of Islam too “narrow-minded” and rigid, that should be a concern to us all.
Obviously, bin Laden and his advisers’ complaints have virtually zero credibility and are wildly hypocritical. The Taliban government that sheltered bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1990s were even more vicious than al-Shabaab when it comes to hudud punishments; and when the group was firmly under bin Laden’s control, its attacks killed countless innocent Muslims, both in the West and in Muslim-majority countries. It is important that we never forget the madness that bin Laden represented. Yet it is also notable that while in the West we regard bin Laden as the most extreme theologian possible, in the jihadi spectrum he appears not to be. Furthermore, this was private correspondence—there is no reason to think they do not represent his genuine thoughts.
A sample of documents cannot give us the whole picture. However, the documents do serve as a useful reminder of the ideological inspiration behind the global jihadist movement. While al-Qaeda is, rightfully, the main focus of Western intelligence agencies, it is just one component of this movement. The encouraging progress made against the group over the last decade cannot allow us to become complacent about threats that exist beyond a single organization.
Robin Simcox is a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society in London, and co-author of Islamist Terrorism: The British Connections.