A selected set of Bin Laden’s documents and correspondences seized from his Abbottabad compound in Pakistan have been released online. This last semester, I was taking a class on Terrorism Studies at UBC (Poli 369D), and I’m amazed at how a lot of the things I learned in that course remain applicable to current events. These documents (click on the link above to access!) give an interesting look into how Al-Qaeda functioned while Bin Laden was hiding.
I can’t give an exhaustive analysis, but here are some thoughts that I have after glancing over the docs:
According to Margaret Thatcher, “publicity is the oxygen of terrorism.” This applies directly to Al-Qaeda. In Lawrence Wright’s work, The Looming Tower, Al-Qaeda’s dealings with the media and journalists are accounted for in detail. Even while Bin Laden was in hiding in Pakistan, he continued his public relations effort.
In one of the released documents (SOCOM-2012-0000004), Adam Gadahn, Bin Laden’s American-born spokesman, talks about how Fox News “falls into the abyss… and lacks neutrality,” while CNN in English “seems to be in cooperation with the government more than the others.” However, CNN’s Arabic arm is considered by Bin Laden’s spokesman to bring “good and detailed reports about As-Sahab (Al-Qaeda’s media arm) releases, with a lot of quotations from the original text.” Gadahn mentions that that other news agencies like Reuters and AP don’t quote directly from Al-Sahab press releases, instead, paraphrasing and summarizing them.
Another thing I find interesting from this document is how Gadahn elaborates on how Al-Qaeda should try to court the support of Christians in the Middle East through the media. Gadahn laments an attack by Al-Qaeda in Iraq “on the Catholic Church in Baghdad,” saying that such actions “do not help to gain people’s sympathy.” It seems evident that Al-Qaeda’s high-ranking leaders didn’t agree with everything its affiliates were doing.
What are the implications of these documents for the Hoffman/Sageman debate? Do these documents shed some light on how terrorist organizations work, and which argument proves more relevant to these organizations today?
At the moment, it seems that the released documents give more credence to Hoffman’s argument that terrorist organizations remain threats, instead of Sageman’s argument that we should be more worried about self-recruited, lone-wolf terrorists.
Al-Qaeda’s affiliate organizations, like Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and wannabe affiliates like Al-Shabab in Somalia seem to have a bit of a difficult relationship with Al-Qaeda’s “leadership-in-hiding” in Pakistan. It seems that, while the organization is hierarchical, splinter groups that subscribe to the overall ideology of Al-Qaeda have different ways of pushing or turning Al-Qaeda’s “vision” into reality. Effectively, this meant that Bin Laden’s control over the affiliate organizations was weak.
This shows that Abu Musab al-Suri’s proposal that Al-Qaeda be more decentralized, and allow adherents to form their own organizations following Al-Qaeda ideology has been implemented; however, it has resulted in friction with affiliate organizations and Al-Qaeda’s highest-ranking leaders. Did al-Suri’s proposal backfire on Al-Qaeda?
Anyways, those are my thoughts. This is really interesting; hopefully, in the future they’ll release more of this information! Do you think that the unreleased information portray Bin Laden increasingly out of touch with his organization, or do the documents withheld from public viewing show something different?
I’m tempted to take the 400-level course/seminar when I get back from Spain next year!