Among those who warned of the demise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State was Osama bin Laden, according to newly released documents recovered during the 2011 raid that killed the al Qaeda leader.
Throughout the latest cache of 113 documents, which U.S. intelligence officials released Tuesday, bin Laden refuses to embrace calls by his subordinates to establish a caliphate, which is the central mission of the Islamic State, or ISIS. The documents capture an ongoing debate among al Qeada members about when to take control of territory and attempt to govern it under religious rule.
Bin Laden saw those calling for a shift away from attacking the “apostates” and toward a self-created caliphate as impetuous youths who didn’t understand that establishing a state would be costly and potentially damaging. Instead, Bin Laden pushed for eliminating any threats to a future Islamic state, including in the West and against U.S. and European allies in the Middle East.
When a subordinate noted that members wanted to establish a state, a bin Laden supporter wrote: “My brother, all of these strange stories are unfounded and unreliable and they contradict what we are already certain of.”
Bin Laden was also was often consumed with more immediate challenges. Several documents spell out how he struggled just to pay the costs associated with supporting the widows and children of jihadist fighters.
The documents, which primarily are from 2009 to 2011, offer a window into the divide among jihadists around the time of bin Laden’s death, which would eventually lead to the emergence of ISIS. Those who rejected bin Laden’s call for attacking the West first before establishing a caliphate would eventually join the group.
The divide over the best path forward persists today, and the documents shed light on the factors that to contributed to an eventual al Qaeda-ISIS split.
Bin Laden, for example, supported winning over local populations so that they would embrace religious rule. He called for followers to remember their “morals” and not kill Muslims in mosques and markets. But those who eventually joined ISIS adopted brutal tactics to hold residents hostage.
Today, as U.S. strikes target ISIS in Iraq and Syria, al Qaeda is exploiting a growing local frustration with an ISIS that under perpetual attack. Al Qaeda leaders, in their push to win back support, note that they developed relationships with local leaders over the years rather that brutalize residents. Working with locals is an idea evident in the bin Laden documents.
And in recent months, al Qaeda has argued it is the enduring terror group.
Where younger al Qaeda members believed an Islamic State was within their reach, bin Laden imagined that such a state would not be possible in his lifetime. Rather he saw himself as a “strategic guide” toward an eventual caliphate, a senior U.S. intelligence explained during a briefing with reporters Tuesday.
Bin Laden persistently rejected calls for establishing a state even as more of his subordinates pushed for one.
“We heard from more than one person at the leadership level that they are claiming to be an independent state and to have no ties with al-Qa’ida and the Shaykh, God save him, which has confused and bewildered the brothers even more,” a fighter only identified as Abu al Abbas warned in an undated letter.
But bin Laden was singularly focused. He wanted to “crush the head of the snake” the intelligence official explained, by forcing the Western world to withdraw its support for countries he considered apostates, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Qatar and Egypt. Without support, bin Laden predicted the countries’ governments would collapse of those states. Only then would conditions be ripe for standing up a caliphate.
In a document titled “Liberating Humans before Liberating States,” bin Laden saw the recent history of the Middle East as evidence that Muslims cannot live in truly Islamic states unless they are free from apostates, like the U.S.-backed emirs, kings and presidents of the region.
He urged Muslims “to learn the dangers surrounding us and inside us.”
When others called for establishing a state, bin Laden pushed followers to craft new means to attack the West.
“We need to extend and develop our operations in America and not keep it limited to blowing up airplanes,” bin Laden wrote to Nasir al-Wuhayshi, head of al Qaeda’s Yemen branch.
But the documents are short on how specifically al Qaeda would attack the U.S. And they reveal how much paranoia consumed the al Qaeda leader.
Frustrated in his hideout in Pakistan, he began asking his subordinates to find a new home from him just five months before his death.
He worried that doctors included a grain-sized tracking device in his wife’s dental filling. In a May 11, 2010, letter to his then second-in-command, Atiyah Abd al Rahman, bin Laden worried that the U.S. could be tracking Al Jazeera journalist Ahmad Zaidan, whom he wanted to interview him.
And while the documents show bin Laden was a student of world affairs, he always viewed the United States through a prism of conspiracy. He believed President Barack Obama was essentially a figurehead leader while a cabal of Jews actually shaped U.S. affairs.
In a letter titled “To the American people,” bin Laden wrote: “Your former president warned you previously about the devastating Jewish control of capital and about a day that would come when it would enslave you; it has happened. Your current president warns you now about the enormity of capital control and it has a cycle whereby it devours humanity when it is devoid of the precepts of God’s law (Shari’a).”
Bin Laden began making plans for a media blitz to mark the 10-year anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He proposed giving an interview to Zaidan, reaching out to CBS and other unnamed American news organizations and asking journalist Robert Fisk, who had interviewed bin Laden in 1993, to moderate a talk.
As it turned out, bin Laden would be dead five months short of the anniversary.