Every person has a sell-by date, after which their value is greatly diminished, often to the point of uselessness. It seems that the late al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, it seems, reached this soon after the 9/11 attacks. A trove of documents released by the US government on the first anniversary of the raid that killed bin Laden showed a man who was increasingly out of touch with the organisation he nominally headed. Following the attacks, the feared terrorist had been reduced to little more than a media adviser, giving tips that were mostly ignored by his supposed underlings. Among the bits of advice that he passed on to al Qaeda commanders was a suggestion that the group start taking into account the effect of civilian casualties in their attacks in Muslim countries. His preferred alternative was to target non-Muslim countries. That advice, as we can see, was never adopted by the militant group.
The bin Laden letters revealed a man who over time lost control, not only of his organisation, but possibly also of his senses. He wanted to have US President Barack Obama and General David Petreaus assassinated but gave no clue as to how he might have wanted this done; he warned against an alliance with the Al-Shabaab terrorist group just a month before that partnership was formally announced. The letters also reveal that most of Bin Laden’s time was spent discussing media strategy, wondering which television network would give al Qaeda the most positive coverage. That Bin Laden’s instructions were apparently ignored and that he appeared to be frustrated with the al Qaeda franchises shows that the group may not be as unified as was once thought.
There are still many questions that these letters do not answer. For instance, we do not know anything, for instance, about how Bin Laden managed to evade capture for so long. No mention is made of whether he had help from the Pakistani government or military. However, these letters represent only a fraction of the documents found by the US Navy SEALS in his Abbottabad compound. They may have been sanitized to show the al Qaeda in the most impotent manner possible and to ensure that the group does not embarrass the US or its allies. We have only seen that part of the picture that the US wants us to see.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 5th, 2012.
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