The softer side of Osama bin Laden
Posted Friday, May 4 2012 at 18:00
- The Al-Qaeda leader was worried about the violent image of his terror organisation just before he was killed by US special forces
- Although some insights from the documents seized in Osama’s house have been revealed over the past year, new excerpts reveal the extent of his obsession with ideological purity as he sought to manage the group’s demoralised and scattered networks in his final years
A few months before Osama bin Laden’s death, Web sites linked to al-Qaeda ran excited commentary about a proposed new killing machine dubbed the “human lawn mower.”
The idea was to attach rotating blades to the front of a pickup truck and drive the contraption into crowds.
While some jihadists admired the idea, one graying veteran of the terrorist movement took a stand against it. That was bin Laden himself, by then living out his twilight years in a Pakistani villa with ample time to think about his legacy. The man who famously ordered jetliners flown into skyscrapers drew the line at cutting down humans like weeds.
“He was upset about it,” said a former US intelligence official who viewed bin Laden’s writings on the subject, part of a trove of documents seized from the terrorist’s compound in Pakistan a year ago this week. “He felt it conflicted with his vision for what he wanted Al-Qaeda to be.”
Bin Laden’s chances for trying to remake al-Qaeda’s image ended abruptly when Navy SEALs kicked in the door of his Pakistani hideout. But in the year since his death, US officials have gained a deeper understanding of the man, his internal struggles and his plans for the terrorist group he co-founded.
Although some insights from the documents have been revealed over the past year, new excerpts reveal the extent of bin Laden’s obsession with ideological purity as he sought to manage the group’s demoralised and scattered networks in his final years.
They show him seeking to reassert control over factions of loosely affiliated jihadists from Yemen to Somalia, as well as independent actors whom he believed had sullied Al-Qaeda’s reputation and muddied its central message.
The new details about bin Laden’s final months were provided in interviews with current and former US officials — several of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide assessments of documents that are not yet public — as well as a pair of new books that quote extensively from the documents recovered from computer equipment seized during the May 2, 2011 raid.
Bin Laden emerges from these accounts as a chief executive fully engaged in the group’s myriad crises, grappling with financial problems, recruitment, rebellious field managers and sudden staff vacancies resulting from the unrelenting US drone campaign.
In some memos he worried about his own security, and in others he fretted about missing a huge potential marketing opportunity: the Arab Spring, with its millions of street revolutionaries looking to reshape politics in the Middle East.
The Saudi who built the world’s first truly global jihadist movement is viewed as distracted at times by mundane details, such as which crops should be planted by al-Shabab allies in Somalia. He was coolly cordial with his former partner Ayman al-Zawahiri, but increasingly drawn to the ideas of a younger lieutenant who possessed a firmer grasp of the power of the Internet and an ambition to modernise Al-Qaeda’s message.
The new deputy, Libyan-born Atiyah Abd Al Rahman, a veteran of Algeria’s brutal Muslim-against-Muslim violence in the 1990s, emerged in bin Laden’s final year as a key advocate for reining in Al-Qaeda-inspired carnage in Iraq and other Middle Eastern lands.
With bin Laden’s support, Atiyah, as the aide is informally known, began trying to codify rules of behaviour for al-Qaeda and its affiliates, warning that killings of innocent Muslims would hurt the organisation and probably violate sharia, or Islamic law.
The killing of Americans — including noncombatants — would meanwhile remain permissible, even obligatory. Bin Laden’s aversion to the “human lawn mower” was noted last year in a report on ProPublica’s Web site.
“To the end, Atiyah kept trying to rein in attacks inside the Middle East,” said Jarret Brachman, an author and consultant on al-Qaeda to US government agencies. “Both he and bin Laden remained rabid in their hatred for the West. But they felt that attacks within Muslim countries were bad for their public image.”
Among the documents seized in the raid were thousands of electronic memos and missives that captured conversations between bin Laden and his deputies around the world, US officials say. Because the security-conscious bin Laden had no Internet connection, the documents were hand-delivered by couriers over circuits that would require up to a month to complete.
Despite bin Laden’s physical isolation, the documents show him as a hands-on manager who participated in the terrorist group’s operational planning and strategic thinking while also giving orders and advice to field operatives scattered worldwide.
The exchanges were described in interviews, as well as in new books, including Manhunt, by Peter L. Bergen, and Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of al Qa’ida after 9/11, by Seth G. Jones.