The Long Arm of the Strongman
How China and Russia Use Sharp Power to Threaten Democracies
A new trove of documents that were among those seized in the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, were presented recently during the trial of Abid Naseer at the Brooklyn federal district court.
The documents—which consist of correspondence between Osama bin Laden and senior al Qaeda leaders—reveal the state of the global terror operation in the months leading up to bin Laden’s death. They paint a picture of an organization crippled by the U.S. drone campaign, blindsided by the Arab Spring, and struggling to maintain control over its affiliates—and yet still chillingly resolute in its mission to strike inside the United States.
The documents offer some insight into the effectiveness of U.S. counterterrorism efforts against al Qaeda. They also, believe it or not, provide a few laughs.
First, the documents support the argument that U.S. President Barack Obama and other proponents of the drone program have made that the strikes are effective and that the U.S. drone program is heavily constrained.
The letters show that the tactic of targeting top al Qaeda leaders had profoundly crippled the organization. In one letter, Atiyya, a key Al Qaeda leader and strategist who was killed not long after these letters were written, laments to bin Laden, “The mid-level commands and the staff members are hurt by the killings. Compensating for the loss is going slowly, God grants aid, and the ongoing war of espionage does not give us much chance…Our current view of the situation: we need to reduce operations and activities, focus on ‘persevering and survival.’ We will focus on defensive security (counterespionage) by focusing on striking the spy plane bases using special operations, and on patience, persistence, hiding as well as decreasing our presence at least this year because it is an important year.”
The documents also provide some support for Obama’s argument that the United States does not undertake drone strikes casually but rather only after substantial deliberation. One letter states, “As we see it, based on our analysis, they are constantly monitoring several potential, or possibly confirmed targets. But they only hit them if they discover a valuable human target inside, or a gathering, or during difficult times (like revenge attacks for example).” However, this last part about “revenge attacks” does call into question the argument Obama and others have made that “America does not take strikes to punish individuals.”
Because drone strikes have been effective and because the United States targets them carefully, al Qaeda operatives have taken to restricting their own movement, staying inside, and avoiding gathering in large groups—all activities that are fairly integral to running a successful terrorist organization. It’s not easy to train legions of recruits on how to fire RPGs, build bombs, and shoot guns with any accuracy when you have to stay inside the house and can’t have more than five people gathered together at one time.
THREE CHEERS FOR THE NSA
The documents also reveal that the NSA is doing a really good job. Just to be clear, I’m not just saying this because I work for “Noted NSA Apologist Benjamin Wittes,” editor in chief of Lawfare. I’m saying it because the overwhelming theme that pervades these letters is the organization’s inability to communicate as a result of the NSA’s ever-watchful eyes. Because signals intelligence (SIGINT) collected by the NSA plays a critical role in the CIA’s targeted killing program, al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere are basically unable to use any kind of digital communication. In one letter, bin Laden warns Atiyya:
As for anything dangerous, we should never use any modern devices, especially for the external operations. Also, just because something can be encrypted doesn’t make it suitable for use. The enemy can easily monitor all incoming letters to areas where there are Mujahidin and can access all their messages. As you know, this science is not ours and is not our invention. That means we do not know much about it. Based on this, I see that sending any dangerous matter via encrypted email is a risky thing. It is expected that whoever made the program can open the encrypted letters no matter how it’s encrypted. Encrypting a message is done so that the general public is not able to open the message.
However, in wars and with the capabilities of countries, particularly the one with expertise in these fields, we should not depend on encryption…We should only send letters through people to deliver them to the right person.
When you’re trying to manage a terrorist organization that spans the globe and can’t go outside or convene gatherings, not being able to use digital communications is a death blow.
It is also amusing to note that al Qaeda seems to have thought that the United States was putting “harmful substances or radiation” that “can’t be seen by the eye” on the paper money destined for al Qaeda’s hands. To protect against the poison, al Qaeda members wrote of taking the money to “banks in the big city” and going through a series of currency exchanges. It might sound like a silly, minor detail, but undertaking such elaborate security measures every time any money is received means money cannot be transferred though the organization at a sustainable speed. And every second al Qaeda loses is another second counterterrorism and intelligence agencies have to try and uncover and disrupt the next attack.
Even so, perhaps al Qaeda should have known better about U.S. operations, given all the classified documents made available by Wikileaks. However, it seems that al Qaeda—or at least bin Laden—only found out about Wikileaks thanks to the U.S. Secretary of Defense. Bin Laden then issued the following instructions:
Please dedicate some brothers to download the files that were leaked out of the Pentagon in regards to Afghanistan and Pakistan so that they can be translated and studied because it contains information about the enemy’s policies in the region. The Defense Secretary mentioned that these documents were leaked and that they would affect the war negatively.
Would al Qaeda still have wanted to look at the Wikileaks documents even if Robert Gates hadn’t made this statement about them? Probably. Would the group have done it right away? Who knows. But when the U.S. secretary of defense publicly announces the unauthorized release of a trove of information on “intelligence sources and methods, as well as military tactics, techniques and procedures” and warns that “the battlefield consequences of the release of these documents are potentially severe and dangerous for our troops, our allies and Afghan partners,” it pretty much guarantees that the terrorists are going to make examining those documents a priority. Gates made his statement on July 29, 2010. The letter ordering the creation of a dedicated team of operatives tasked with poring over the documents is dated August 7, 2010. For an organization with severely limited communications capabilities, that’s pretty quick.
However the group interpreted the documents, it didn’t like how things were going. Morale was low. Operatives were afraid of poison. They couldn’t call their families, rumors of the deaths of comrades couldn’t be confirmed quickly or reliably, and the top leadership—including the charismatic individual who likely inspired the fighters to join the cause in the first place—couldn’t maintain regular contact with the foot soldiers. All of these factors led to poor performance and even defections. Several of the letters to bin Laden include statements strongly urging him to write to this commander or that operative. One letter says, “As you can see, the brothers in Somalia are suggesting that you write a message to brother Hasan Zahir Uways encouraging him, raising his morale and his commitment…” Another letter implores bin Laden:
Sheikh, I have asked you before for tapes for us, which we could preserve, about past, your life, and all…We insist on it. We consider it a duty. Dear Shiekh, some small audio messages just for the brothers here, too. We will play the recordings for them to hear, no one will take a copy. Then we will keep the recordings in our archives or destroy them according to your orders. The people need it: to reassure them about assignments and so on, to advise them to obey, be patient and steadfast, to lifting morale and give good news. May God rest his soul, al-Jawfi used to say, “I am with Osama bin Laden, but not with Al-Hafiz Sultan or Khalid al-Habib or Mahmud.” We have others like him…
THE REAL THREAT
Counterterrorism and security officials lie awake at night worrying about the threat of a terrorist group like al Qaeda using chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear warfare. That is understandable, of course—such an attack would be horrific, and the United States should make sure that its counterterrorism efforts include measures to mitigate such threats.
But these latest al Qaeda documents should serve as a reminder that terrorists don’t need weaponized bubonic plague or ricin to sow terror, and that if the United States focuses too much on terrorists with high-tech weapons or synthetic virus, it just might miss the guy with the kitchen knife in his carry-on.
One letter reports that “one of the main impediments to our work”—their “work” being carrying out terrorist attacks—“is that the brother is unable to carry out his work due to lack of the required tools (materials – weapons); hence, we had to contemplate new methods to obtain the tools or invent new methods of execution.” The letter explains that one of the ways they “tried to resolve this obstacle” was to “Guide the brothers toward new methods like using the simplest things such as household knives, gas tanks, fuel, diesel and others like airplanes, trains and cars for killing tools.”
The point is not that al Qaeda operatives wouldn’t love to get their hands on a nuclear weapon or launch some incredibly sophisticated bioterror attack—of course they would. The point is that getting that stuff is really hard. Why waste millions of dollars trying to buy nuclear material on the black market just to end up being sold a bunch of junk from an undercover CIA officer when you can build a homemade pressure-cooker bomb using materials you can buy at Bed Bath & Beyond and Home Depot and still manage to shut down a major American city?
Similarly, training recruits to operate in the West is hard. To pull off a successful terrorist attack in the United States or Western Europe, the terrorist has to be able to stay under the radar of generally very capable security and intelligence services. That means that the terrorist needs to first be able to get into the country, and then once in, to blend in relatively well and move around without drawing unnecessary attention. The terrorist probably also needs to be able to handle small arms or build a basic bomb without blowing off his own hand in the process. That requires training.
The problem is that taking frequent, extended trips to places like Pakistan or Somalia, where such training takes place, would almost certainly bring an individual to the attention of the security services back home. Therefore, recruits have to keep trips relatively short and infrequent (maybe even going only once). That doesn’t give them a whole lot of time to learn how to be good terrorists.
In fact, according to one letter, a new recruit might only be able to get what one unfortunate Western trainee apparently got: “Theoretical” explosives training. The letter reports:
Regarding the other brothers, they are new brothers whom we sent in haste to avoid any breach in their security or the expiration of their documents or their residence permits. We had trained them the best we can within the limits of time and circumstances (as an example, the moment one of the brothers reached us, the war in Mas’ud started. His residence permit was for two months. He spent one month of it on the road and waiting. He was in siege with us for two weeks during which he took a theoretical course in explosives. He went back prior to the expiration of his residence permit and for needing the time to travel). We have not heard any of their news due to communications difficulties at our side and to the strict monitoring on their side.
For some reason, it doesn’t seem like al Qaeda ever heard back from that particular recruit.
THE FAR ENEMY
One of bin Laden’s goals in creating al Qaeda was to reorient the broader jihadist movement away from fighting local regimes and toward attacking the United States. Thus, when a local jihadist group in Somalia or Yemen or somewhere else takes on the al Qaeda name and becomes an official affiliate, part of the deal is that the group is supposed to start prioritizing strikes against the United States over attacks on its home country.
Understandably, some local jihadist groups aren’t too thrilled with the idea of giving up the fight against a tyrant actively imprisoning and torturing their members to focus on Americans, nor are they at all optimistic that doing so is the best way to go about inspiring their fellow countrymen to rally to their cause.
In one letter, Atiyya diplomatically tries to explain to bin Laden, his boss, that the whole “stop fighting the local regime and focus on the Americans” thing isn’t going over so well with the guys in Yemen:
Regarding Yemen, my dear Sheikh, what you say is good and you go into depth about it, I ask God to add to your knowledge, wisdom, and soundness…However, I hope that you focus on the current situation and its particulars…Now, we are faced with the reality of how to act wisely and how to bring in our youth and men…Let us focus on the means and mechanisms for implementing your ideas, may God bless you. Issue: That we should strike the Americans, but not strike the apostates; we have explained our opinion, and you know it. Regarding the matter of completely retreating from the battle: It is dangerous and destructive as well…The young men want to go to the “front” and want “operations.” They bring up operations, opportunities, monitoring (surveillance and reconnaissance) to the command every day.
Translation: “The kids want to go play soldiers and shoot at stuff, not sit in a safe house for three years planning an operation that some other guys will end up carrying out in some American city they’ve never heard of. So, maybe cool it on the ‘Death to America’ shtick.”
It wouldn’t be surprising if bin Laden had gotten a little tired of the aforementioned kids by the end.
Part of what made bin Laden so admired by those who fought with him in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan was the fact that, even though he came from a wealthy family and could have been living a life of leisure back in Saudi Arabia, he chose instead to come to the rugged mountains of Afghanistan and fight in miserable conditions on behalf of his fellow Muslims.
But Bin Laden was something of a one-off. In general, spoiled rich kids make lousy terrorists.
Much has been said of late about the thousands of foreign fighters who have traveled to wage war with the Islamic State—most of whom are from the Middle East. But if any of those kids are like some of the foreign fighters from the Gulf Arab countries who went to Pakistan to “fight” alongside al Qaeda, the Islamic State may find itself dealing more with entitled brats than dedicated warriors. One letter has this rather comical report from Atiyya to bin Laden:
We have some other problems…like dissent and lack of discipline from some young men (from the [Arabian] Peninsula, Kuwait and other places), who do as they wish and roam in the markets. They are not associated with any group and they have no obedience. Sometimes, some of them participate in jihad with some of the Taliban factions, while others make no contribution to jihad. A solution to the problem they represent has escaped us, but we are still trying. God grants success.”
It seems that the Islamic State has found a rather effective solution to this problem—it just kills the recruits who don’t behave. Yet another instance of the Islamic State being so brutal that it somehow manages to make al Qaeda look like the “nice jihadists” (they’re not actually very nice).
Al Qaeda and other jihadists claim that they are fighting to free Muslims from the oppression of corrupt apostate dictators and the imperialist West, both of which, they argue, steal the wealth that rightfully belongs to all Muslims and leave them languishing in poverty and despair. Of course, it isn’t clear how beheading humanitarian aid workers who traveled from their safe, comfortable homes in the West to a terrifying war zone in order to provide relief to suffering Muslims is supposed to be a furtherance of that lofty goal.
Nevertheless, many al Qaeda-linked terrorist groups—including the Islamic State—do provide services in the areas in which they operate. In a letter to Atiyya, bin Laden writes:
I have an opinion that I would like you to study, and if you like it, forward it to the brothers in Somalia. The idea is to encourage a delegation of trusted Somalia tribal leaders to visit some businessmen and ulema [religious scholars] in the Gulf to brief them about the living conditions of Muslims in Somalia and how their children are dying of extreme poverty, to remind them of the their responsibilities towards their Muslim brothers, to describe the suffering of people there using photos and statistics from the aid organizations, and to inform them that the unfortunate and the impoverished are waiting for a simple effort on their part to save the lives of their children (these impoverished Muslims are the most deserving of the Ummah’s [Muslim community’s] funds that are being hoarded by the Gulf Princes). [emphasis in original]
Bin Laden goes on to discuss detailed engineering plans for raising the water levels of the river to irrigate the lands, strategies for securing the funding needed to carry out this project (none of which involve crime or terrorism, incidentally), and even which crops should be planted in the newly irrigated land to provide the Somali people with long-term food security.
Imagine you’re a desperately impoverished Somali barely able to feed your family, and you find out that the leaders of the “terrorist” group who just took over your village have been having these kinds of discussions about how best to improve life for you, your family, and your community. That is one reason why some people in some places support some of these groups, even though they’re terrorists.
The good news (from a counterterrorism perspective) is that these groups tend to pair the provision of services with tyrannical rule, extremely strict laws that often run counter to longstanding local customs, and brutal punishments for those who violate the laws. Eventually, the locals get tired of it. Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) found that out the hard way, and the al Qaeda leadership has since tried to impart this lesson to its affiliates. In that same letter, bin Laden urges, “I also hope that you remind the brothers in Somalia to show lenience…They should seek in each group the neutrality of whoever accepts to be nonaligned. There are obvious reasons for this, one of which is so that they do not become a card in the hand of the adversaries; and any provocation from our side will push them closer to the enemies.” However, it seems that AQI’s successor organization, the Islamic State, didn’t fully absorb the lesson, and only time will tell if it will face the same backlash from the local population that AQI did.
Occasionally, the letters veer into the bizarre, or, rather, the even more bizarre. While members of Congress still debate whether climate change even exists, al Qaeda is actively pursuing strategies to mitigate the future consequences of it:
You don’t fail to notice that due to climate change, there’s drought in some areas and floods in others. The brothers in Somalia must be warned so that they can take the maximum precautions possible. This lays on the shoulders of the leadership more than on the residents living along the rivers and valleys.
One of these precautions is to establish an alert system to warn the families and establish an advanced observation point on the upper part of the river to warn people when heavy rainfall and flooding occur using a wireless device.
This letter also included a note at the bottom: “Attached is a report about climate change, especially the floods in Pakistan. Please send it to Al-Jazeera.” It may seems surprising that one of the most extreme religious fundamentalist groups in the world is more open minded about science than some in the United States, but it is not actually all that shocking, considering that for centuries, the Islamic world was a wellspring of scientific and technological achievement.
And al Qaeda seems to think it has even more knowledge and intellectual property to offer. The shadowy international terrorist organization whose leaders and members are wanted criminals in just about every country in the Western world and many outside it is evidently very concerned with securing legal protection for its intellectual products.
In a discussion about making a video to mark the tenth anniversary of 9/11, bin Laden writes:
Regarding the question of copyrighted material for Al-Jazeera and Al-Sahab [Al Qaeda’s media arm], Zaydan should negotiate with Al-Jazeera to have the video footage copyrighted for them while the text and audio copyrights be for Al-Sahab. What this means is that some questions will be on the video while others will be only in audio format. Anyway, continue negotiating until a satisfactory result for Al-Sahab is achieved and keep us posted about the progress of the negotiations.
There’s just something so fantastically absurd about an organization that is entirely comfortable justifying the killing of thousands of innocent civilians, yet is concerned over the reproduction or distribution of original creative content without express written permission. One wonders how al Qaeda even thought it would protect its rights. Sue Al Jazeera for copyright infringement?
Just when you thought things couldn’t possibly get more bizarre, there’s this from bin Laden:
That’s right: bin Laden goes directly from a note about finding someone qualified to carry out a massive terrorist attack inside the United States to asking if anyone has any poetry they can send him. Because after a long day of planning to strike fear into the hearts of the infidels, sometimes a guy just wants to take a relaxing bubble bath and read some Emily Dickenson. (Presumably he planned to respect all intellectual property protections on the poetry.)
Of course al Qaeda isn’t all fun and games—there’s a lot in the letters about perpetrating attacks inside the United States, discussions about relations with the Pakistani military, commentary on the Arab Spring, and various bureaucratic minutiae. And these letters offer only a partial glimpse into the organization at a particular time in history. Many more documents were collected during the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad than have been declassified by the U.S. government, and one must assume that the letters that have been released were released for a reason (and vice versa). Quite a lot has happened since bin Laden’s death, including the rise of the Islamic State, which is now engaged in a battle against al Qaeda for the leadership of the broader jihadist movement—a battle that, at the moment, it seems to be winning.
Still, the documents do provide a look at the internal dynamics of al Qaeda, and as anyone who has ever been involved with a sizeable bureaucracy well knows, change often comes at a glacial pace in large organizations; in all likelihood, al Qaeda today still faces the same kind of organizational problems and operational challenges revealed in these documents. This means that although it remains a threat, the al Qaeda of today is a far cry from the beast we faced on 9/11.