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Laurent Bonnefoy

Bin Laden, Yemen and al-Qaeda's strategy

In his letters Bin Laden shows some pragmatism, but his political analyses are outdated [Getty]

Date of publication: 5 April, 2016

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Browsing Bin Laden's bookshelf: Correspondence seized from Bin Laden's compound in Pakistan reveals a rupture with IS that is political and generational in equal measure.
Washington's decision to release letters and documents seized in May 2011 from the home of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, after he was killed by special forces, provides a rare opportunity to take a look at al-Qaeda's concrete strategy.

Among other things, Bin Laden's obsessions are revealed, his tactics in Yemen explained and the structural difference between the jihadist generation incarnated by al-Qaeda, and its successor - the Islamic State group - becomes clear.

Some of the anecdotes told by the media pointed to Bin Laden's eclectic selection of reading material, which included American guides to management and personal development, reports on the French economy and reflected his supposed penchant for music by French songwriter Enrico Macias.

Going beyond this however, a second group of documents from Abbottabad were translated and made available on the internet in March 2016 by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence for the United States, and are particularly noteworthy.

While the status of the organisation releasing these documents calls for caution, and might cause some to believe they could have been doctored, censored or the most interesting ones kept secret, it seems highly unlikely the documents would have been entirely fabricated. The detail provided, the accuracy of the references and their overall coherence mean the documents add up to a credible whole.
Access to Bin Laden's private correspondence sheds light on his whims and tactical errors, which perhaps go some way in explaining his decline

A private and illuminating exchange

Access to Bin Laden's private correspondence does, however, allow us to look beyond the discourse of propaganda broadcast by al-Qaeda and to gain an insight into the organisation's internal debates. It also sheds light on his whims and tactical errors, which perhaps go some way in explaining his decline.

In reading the documents, the picture that emerges of Bin Laden is never one of an isolated madman, despite the manhunt around him and the confinement he had to adopt as a result.

These publications - in which religious references remain marginal - paint a picture of internal coherence around the political strategy developed in the 1980s, giving precedence to a course of occasionally ill-informed or shocking violence, which is, however, never disjointed from its context.

The issues addressed in these documents - which number more than 200 - are wide-ranging. Some are letters received from militants or jihadist leaders, other are answers drafted by Bin Laden to precise questions that he had received, and others still appear to be hybrids, free-flowing jottings and drafts, or more personal documents addressed to his family.

One text, described as a "will" by US authorities, deals with financial issues, while others put forward quite general and sometimes abstruse ideas. Only a few of the letters are dated, and there is nothing to say that all those with identifiable addressees were actually sent and received.

Yemen is a subject, like others, that comes up in these documents. Bin Laden's affinity for his father's native land – he left Hadhramaut for Saudi Arabia in the 1920s - does not in this instance imply any particular focus.

The strategic successes of the Yemini branch baptised "al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)", also do not imply an obsession with the country. In many respects, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Egypt are just as present in the texts from Abbottabad.

A reading of the documents on Yemen proves to be relevant in analysing and illustrating Bin Laden’s strategy

The importance of 'the struggle'

A reading of the documents on Yemen does, however, prove to be relevant in analysing and illustrating Bin Laden's strategy. Evidence of the strategy on Yemeni soil allows us to draw a variety of conclusions - on the ideological coherence of al-Qaeda, the autonomisation of its local branches and the ideological differences with its IS offspring.

An exchange of letters which are undated but very likely to have been written in 2009 or 2010, between Osama bin Laden and a certain "Bassir" - who we can assume was Nasir al-Wuhayshi, also known as Abu Basir, the leader of AQAP and the former personal secretary to Bin Laden - shows Yemeni concerns over the leadership of al-Qaeda.

The point made by al-Wuhayshi about the state of the organisation in Yemen, and Bin Laden's response, immediately invalidate discourses that, especially in the Yemeni political arena, evoke a direct alliance between al-Qaeda and Ali Abdullah Saleh's power.

There's no question of it, at Bin Laden's level, or within the leadership of AQAP.

Dislike of the Yemeni president is deep-rooted and transpires in several other documents. It often stems from his alliance with the United States, and in turn, the role he played in the Israeli-Arab conflict and in the Iraqi embargo in the 1990s, a point that, as of October 2000, had served to legitimise the attack on the American warship USS Cole in the port of Aden.

Even if the domestic enemy is considered a greater force of ungodliness, the external enemy is altogether more unholy and more dangerous at this point in our lives
- Bin Laden

The exchange between Bin Laden and al-Wuhayshi also underlines the importance of the struggle against that distant enemy; the United States and "the crusaders", rather than the closer enemies in Arab governments.

Coherence with the strategy carved out decades earlier is clear. It is based on a very real apprehension of the international power balance and implies the need to concentrate attacks on the "crusader" forces, which support governments of Muslim countries with whom a truce might even be imagined.

Bin Laden states in one letter: "Al-Qaeda is concentrating on its main external enemy before its internal one. Even if the domestic enemy is considered a greater force of ungodliness, the external enemy is altogether more unholy and more dangerous at this point in our lives… When we get the opportunity to attack the British, we must not squander our efforts and should focus instead on defeating the United States - which will provoke the fall of the others."

Defensive strategy

Elsewhere in his letter, Bin Laden details another element of al-Qaeda's doctrine: this is something he sees as a defensive element in Yemen, linked to the status of Ali Abdullah Saleh, to the history of jihad in Yemen and to his alliance with the tribes.

He explains: "We must develop a discourse that is clear and easy to grasp, that allows al-Qaeda to win over the people. It is a discourse that should also be sensitive to peoples' suffering."

In terms of the attacks carried out by AQAP against the Yemeni security forces in the provinces of Marib and Shabwah, he raises a cautious note: "I hope that these operations were considered necessary by the combatants for the sole purpose of legitimate defence."

He goes on to give explicit instructions: "Do not target soldiers and the police in their camps, unless we give you that specific order. Our targets are the Americans who are killing our families in Gaza and in other Islamic countries."

Do not target soldiers and the police in their camps, unless we give you that specific order. Our targets are the Americans who are killing our families in Gaza and in other Islamic countries.
- Osama Bin Laden

A rationale such as this would, however, not be respected by AQAP, whose efforts would concentrate progressively on the struggle against security forces.

In 2009 and 2010, attacks became more frequent, almost weekly, especially in the south. Consequently, a primarily local rationale took hold, turning AQAP into a guerrilla movement fighting against Saleh's central government.

The path of political normalisation

The branch of al-Qaeda that is based in Yemen is characterised by the influx of ideological Saudi fighters became more independent from Bin Laden's central hub, but did not break away from Bin Laden or his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

In fact, over the course of 2014 and 2015, it would assert itself as one of those most loyal to the historic leadership and would demonstrate its ostensibly critical view of what was to become the Islamic State group.

In another text, very likely also to have been addressed to al-Wuhayshi and probably written later than the exchange above, Ben Laden discusses the tribal question and paints a picture of the hierarchy of his enemies in Yemen.

He advocates for military de-escalation on a local level, underlining the importance of concentrating on publicity and building an image of al-Qaeda as a force fighting against "administrative and financial corruption".

Implicitly, he is opening the door to a path of normalisation of his movement in the Yemeni political landscape, through integration in political competition using means other than taking up arms.

Implicitly, Bin Laden opened the door to a path of normalisation of his movement in the Yemeni political landscape.

The potential for this is confirmed in a text that may have been written by Bin Laden at the beginning of 2011, discussing the organisation's hybrid nature, as the "revolutionary youth" were demanding the departure of Saleh, and trying to imagine routes for resolving the crisis and the role that al-Qaeda might play.

While Bin Laden elsewhere describes the Houthi militias as "the real danger", his obsession with the Yemeni socialists, conveyed in a second exchange with al-Wuhayshi, betrays a certain disconnect with local issues. He develops a dated approach that analyses Yemeni policy through an ideological reading which is no longer valid.

The Abbottabad hideout and the pressure from American surveillance are likely to have affected his access to information. Bin Laden wrongly conflates the threat in Yemen from the south with socialism and feared that ultimately a Marxist regime might replace Ali Abdullah Saleh, were he to fall.

He also states that the international community sees Ali Salem al-Beidh, the southern leader and former president of South Yemen in exile since 1994, as an alternative.

An ideological and strategic break with IS

In the same letter, in response to those who advocate for chaos in Yemen, Bin Laden shows himself circumspect, fearing a political vacuum in Yemen. He underlines how important it is that a takeover of power is not rushed, for any attempt on a local or even national level, would be immediately blocked due to an unfavourable military as well as economic power balance.

"To say that causing the fall of the apostate ruler and maintaining the country in a state of chaos is preferable to the survival of an apostate power, is false. A country without a leader to enforce law and order on the population will cause the people to act in a more barbaric way to protect their blood and honour."

Bin Laden shows a form of pragmatism that allows us to highlight the ideological and practical break brought about by IS since its deployment in Iraq and Syria

In putting forward this argument, Bin Laden shows a form of pragmatism that allows us to highlight the ideological and practical break brought about by IS since its deployment in Iraq and Syria.

This rupture, which is as much generational as it is strategic, takes shape in the form of the profile of its targets for violence, in a change of priorities for action, in the importance given to gaining territory and in its thinking on the productive nature of chaos.

The argument on Yemen put forward by Bin Laden from Pakistan, but also by other countries - when even the founder of al-Qaeda had definitely lost his influence - allows us to retrospectively glimpse the possibilities for political dialogue with the jihadist generation that embodied it.

The documents from Abbottabad finally allow us to evaluate the extent of the increasingly hardline attitudes in those who today claim allegiance to IS. In many respects, these letters lend weight to a potential political trajectory that was, unfortunately aborted.


Laurent Bonnefoy is a French researcher, writer and consultant specialising in contemporary Salafist movements in the Arabian peninsula at SciencesPo in Paris. He has previously taught at the Universities of Tours and Sanaa.


This is an edited translation of an article originally published in French by our partners at orientxxi

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