The Pulse

Reading Bin Laden’s Letters: Paranoia and the “Spy Planes Problem”

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The Pulse

Reading Bin Laden’s Letters: Paranoia and the “Spy Planes Problem”

“What is the news on the spy planes at your end, do they exist?”

With the release of another tranche of documents obtained from Osama bin-Laden’s compound, the world is getting another glimpse into the inner workings of al-Qaeda and the worries of bin-Laden.

In May 2015, the U.S. released 103 documents seized from the Abbottabad compound along with lists of what books and articles were found their either in hard copy or on computers there. The latest release drops 113 documents–translated into English and also available in Arabic–which in the words of Reuters (which was able to review them before their public release) “depict an al-Qaeda that was unwavering in its commitment to global jihad, but with its core leadership in Pakistan and Afghanistan under pressure on multiple fronts.”

Reading through the letters, paranoia is certainly an overarching theme. In one undated letter to an aide identified only by the name “Shaykh Mahmud,” bin-Laden cautions al-Qaeda members holding an Afghan hostage to be careful not to leave their hiding place “except on a cloudy overcast day.”

In another letter, from “Brother ‘Atiyah” (bin-Laden’s then second-in-command, Atiyah Abd al Rahman) to “Shaykh Abi al-Zubayr” (Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr, also known by the name Ahmed Abdi Godane, was the leader of the Somali group al-Shabaab until his death in September 2014), the paranoia of drones appears again with references to the “spy planes problem.”

The letter between ‘Atiyah and al-Zubayr reads, in a way, like a very awkward response to a job application or corporate merger: “Please let us know whether you received my previous letter that contained two letters from the two shaykhs and which included our opinion on the Bayat.” (Bayat is an oath of allegiance). ‘Atiyah provides guidance on navigating negotiations between al-Shabab and another militant group in Somalia, “Hizb Al-Islami” (also written as Hizbul Islam.)

“My dear brother, your negotiations with the Hizb Al-Islami…If you would somewhat yield in the matter involving their involvement in the administration, the leadership would be your responsibility in its entirety…”

This particular letter appears to be in response to al-Zubayr’s pledges of support to al-Qaeda. In early 2010 al-Shabab merged with another Somali group and espoused support for al-Qaeda, writing in a statement “We have agreed to join the international jihad of al-Qaeda.” Hizbul was undergoing its own internal leadership struggle in 2009 and by late 2010 a-Shabab had defeated one faction and forced the surrender and incorporation of the other. (The al-Shabab/Hizbul joining fell apart in 2012). The ‘Atiyah-al-Zubayr letter was dated in December 2010.

‘Atiyah wrote that the al-Qaeda leadership had been “suffering from the spy planes problem and the spy war, especially in the tribal area.” He went on to ask if al-Zubayr had any advice on dealing with drones. “If you have any technical assistance for us, advice or information on fending off the spying or otherwise, please let us know. What is the news on the spy planes at your end, do they exist?”

Whatever al-Zubayr’s response might have been, he was unlikely to have very good advice on definitively  evading U.S. drone strikes. Al-Zubayr was killed in a drone strike in September 2014.

The U.S. drone war targeting militant groups in not just Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also Somalia and Yemen, has been intensely controversial. Judging from the bin-Laden letters, it had a destabilizing effect on al-Qaeda’s leadership. Although, as disruptive as the drone campaign might have been on al-Qaeda’s operations, it did not deter bin-Laden. As one senior intelligence official told Reuters, bin-Laden “was still sort of thinking in very kind of grand schemes, and still … trying to reclaim that 9/11 ‘victory,'” but he was “somewhat out of touch with the (actual) capabilities of his organization.”