Just over a year ago, the US government killed the most wanted man in the world—Osama bin Laden—in an audacious raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The cache of information gathered from his compound fortress has proven invaluable to the US Government, who have just released about 200 pages worth of letters written to and from the al-Qaeda leader.
To be fair, the released correspondence has been filtered through the American classification standards, and they might be releasing letters that tell the public a narrative they want to write. Still, it paints a picture of a man with an increasingly looser grip on the reins of his creation, and frustration about the splintering group, brand image and civilian casualties. He was even worried about extremists within the terrorist group, notorious for its own extremism. There are lessons that our home grown terrorists should take from bin Laden’s correspondence.
Osama bin Laden was deeply concerned by the indiscriminate killing of civilians by its affiliates, most notably al-Qaeda in Iraq. Their primary target was the US, its interests around the world, as well as governments friendly to them in the Arab world, not innocent women and children. As a result, the support for the terrorists began to decline as time went on. This is something Boko Haram risks going forward, and could already be happening. If you say you have an axe to grind with the Nigerian government, then by all means concentrate your ‘efforts’ there, and leave innocent people alone. The more innocent people they kill, the more support they lose, exposing them as little more than bloodthirsty criminals.
Another focus of some of the letters had to do with relations with the media. The disposition of several major media outlets to al-Qaeda was clearly a concern of Osama, and he scorned those seen as too ‘biased’ like Fox News. In the 21st century, whether you are a politician or a terrorist, the media matters. This makes Boko Haram’s attack on ThisDay, one of the leading newspapers in the country, even more worse from a strategic point of view. Threats of more attacks on media houses will further make enemies of the one set of people they cannot afford to alienate. One particular passage is especially telling:
“As for the neutrality of CNN in English it seems to be in cooperation with the government more than the others, except Fox News of course…I used to think that MSNBC channel might be good and neutral, but it has lately fired two of the most famous journalists, Keith Olbermann and Octavia Nasr, [who, in fact, left CNN]…ABC Channel is all right, actually it could be one of the best channels as far as we’re concerned. It’s interested in al Qaeda issues, particularly the journalist Brian Ross, who specializes in terrorism. The channel is still proud of its interview with the Sheikh [bin Laden in 1998].”
Bin Laden’s concern with the perception of his jihad extended to a possible name change. He contemplated changing the name al-Qaeda to something else and even gave suggestions, though nothing ever came of it. Apparently, the name had become too toxic and he was eager to rebrand. He also suggested that they apologise for attacking inside muslim countries.
From the documents released so far, what we find is an admission that Al-Qaeda had lost its way and it was costing them a lot. They had lost the trust of the muslim people, and were seeking favourable press coverage. This situation was brought about by the activities of affiliates bin Laden could not control, as a direct result of attempts to expand.
There is a lesson for Boko Haram here, who have expanded their operations beyond their origin of Maiduguri. More and more civilians have died in their attacks, moving away from their stated purpose of fighting the government. Attacks on media houses are a grave mistake, and it would be interesting to know the rationale behind it. Boko Haram have jumped at the chance to be affiliated with the al-Qaeda brand. They would be advised to learn from their mistakes as well.