Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Nathaniel Barr
When 113 new documents recovered in 2011 during the fatal raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, became publicly available this month, perhaps the most noteworthy insight they offered was the extent of the strategic patience, to borrow a phrase from the Obama administration, possessed by al Qaeda.
Along with other captured documents, what the U.S. Director of National Intelligence calls “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf” reveals the cunning long-term planning that characterized the group’s approach at the time of bin Laden’s death, and that continues to guide it today, affecting not least the actions of its affiliate, the al Nusra Front in Syria.
The record shows that the United States often has overlooked the extent of al Qaeda’s patient approach, sometimes mistaking its relative quiet for inactivity or collapse, and our failure to understand the group has helped it to gain critical operating space, and even worse, has sometimes caused us to blunder into its traps.
The broad outlines of al Qaeda’s strategy of attrition against the West are, at this point, generally well understood. Al Qaeda’s strategy, as initially formulated by bin Laden, was to wear down the United States militarily, politically, and economically.
This long-term approach contrasts with that of al Qaeda’s louder jihadist spin-off and competitor, the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), which already claims to have re-established the caliphate. Al Qaeda, on the other hand, sees the United States as the “trunk of the tree,” as bin Laden put it in a letter addressed to the late al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) emir Nasir al-Wuhayshi. Al Qaeda wanted to wait to sever that tree trunk before moving on to the next stages in its campaign, including building an Islamic state, according to that captured document, which was declassified in 2012.
The newly released Abbottabad documents show how strategic patience has shaped al Qaeda’s military operations and political activities. The jihadist group has proven willing to make compromises, sacrifice short-term victories, and even develop tactical alliances with adversaries in order to outlast its various foes. At the same time, the group looked for rear bases of support and safe havens where members could train, plan attacks, and prepare for future battles in the region.
Al Qaeda’s approach to the Mauritanian government illustrates this restraint and flexibility. In several newly declassified documents dating from about 2010, al Qaeda officials discussed the possibility of making a truce with Mauritania, in which al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb would refrain from military operations in the country.
What was in it for al Qaeda? The group discussed some demands that it had for Mauritania: The government would allow militants to operate freely in the country, release incarcerated al Qaeda members, and provide al Qaeda 10 to 20 million euros a year, protection money to ensure that al Qaeda didn’t kidnap tourists.
From al Qaeda’s perspective, the rationale for the deal was that it would allow militants to “focus on Algeria,” while placing its “cadres in safe rear bases available in Mauritania,” as now-deceased Ahmed Abdi Godane, emir of the Qaeda-affiliated Somali al Shabaab, noted in a letter written in March 2010. It is not clear from the documents whether this offer was actually extended to Mauritania, nor what response al Qaeda received if the offer was made, but al Qaeda’s consideration of this approach attests to the group’s patience, and willingness to grant foes a temporary reprieve if there was an advantage to doing so.
The logic that influenced al Qaeda’s thinking on Mauritania could also be seen in Yemen. An al Qaeda strategy paper noted that the jihadist movement was thriving under the country’s then-president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose corruption had created “fertile ground” for jihadism. The author of the paper concluded that the best immediate option for al Qaeda was to allow Saleh to remain in power, rather than working to topple him.
Why was the author so suspicious of “ousting the apostate government and keeping the country in a state of chaos”? After all, chaos typically plays to the advantage of jihadists. The author reasoned that Saleh’s replacement likely would be more aggressive in targeting jihadists. Moreover, even if chaos prevailed, he noted that “we cannot spread our Da’wah while there is chaos.” Da’wah refers to proselytism: In other words, the author was concerned that the preparatory work for an eventual jihadist takeover in Yemen was not complete at that point.
The author even proposed a truce with Saleh, noting that even a unilateral agreement would allow al Qaeda to focus on the United States. This sentiment was echoed in a letter from bin Laden to Wuhayshi, declassified in 2012, in which al Qaeda’s emir explained that the jihadist movement was in a preparatory stage in Yemen, meaning that “it is not in our interest to rush in bringing down the regime.” (Bin Laden eventually changed his mind on this point, as events on the ground seemed to dictate a more aggressive posture.)
Al Qaeda’s thinking about Mauritania and Yemen is characteristic of the newly released documents. Throughout, the group’s leadership urges caution and occasional tactical cooperation with enemies. In a letter to Abu Ayyub al-Masri, al Qaeda in Iraq’s emir, a senior al Qaeda official warned against carrying out operations in Iran. Iran, he explained, had become al Qaeda’s “main artery for funds, personnel, and communication.” The official similarly advised al-Masri to refrain from striking Turkey and Lebanon, urging him to instead “devote your total resource to the fortification of the nation, and the fight against the crusaders and the apostates.”
These directives show that al Qaeda was preparing for the long haul. The group anticipated and prepared for setbacks, even catastrophic ones. In a letter to Ansar al-Islam, an Iraq-based militant group, a senior al Qaeda official (possibly bin Laden himself) explained that “Iraq is not the end of the road.” He stated that if al Qaeda were defeated in that theater, it would be a “catastrophe,” but nonetheless “we must always prepare ourselves for anything that might happen.”
The official noted that “jihad will continue with us or without us,” revealing an organizational belief that the struggle to re-establish the caliphate would persist long after al Qaeda’s founders had died.
This prediction has proven all too true. Al Qaeda has continued to adapt and thrive since bin Laden’s death, while adhering to its late emir’s methodical approach. The group’s strategy has survived several seismic developments that were widely viewed as the organization’s death knell.
The so-called “Arab Spring” was widely perceived as a mortal blow to al Qaeda, a repudiation of the group’s claim that only violent jihad could sweep away the Middle East’s authoritarian regimes. Instead, al Qaeda celebrated the revolutions. In a newly released letter to one of bin Laden’s assistants, an al Qaeda official expressed his hope that the uprisings would “spread all over the Muslim homelands, which will accelerate the triumph and unity of all Muslims.”
Al Qaeda prepared itself to succeed in the post-revolution turmoil, using bin Laden’s model of preparation and strategic restraint. Al Qaeda covertly expanded its presence in countries like Libya and Tunisia, using front groups such as Ansar al-Sharia to conduct Da’wah and recruitment activities. Indeed, a previous batch of Abbottabad documents released for a criminal trial show that al Qaeda had established itself in Derna, Benghazi, and elsewhere in Libya even before bin Laden’s death.
In multiple theaters today, including Syria/Iraq and Yemen, al Qaeda has embedded itself in local communities, developing relationships.
After seizing control of the Yemeni port city of al-Mukalla, AQAP set up a group known as the “Sons of Hadramawt,” intended to appear as an indigenous force, and appointed a local council, the Hadhrami Domestic Council, to govern the city.
It has likewise sought to build coalitions in Syria, as evidenced by a secret directive issued in early 2015 by the group’s current emir, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Zawahiri’s missive instructed Jabhat al Nusra, al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, to work more closely with other rebel groups, strengthen ties with local communities, build sustainable safe havens, and cease planning for attacks against the West.
Al Qaeda’s strategic flexibility has also been on display in its response to the challenge posed by ISIS, whose emergence was another challenge that many analysts thought would cripple al Qaeda. While ISIS has challenged al Qaeda’s position within the jihadist community, it has also given al Qaeda a long-awaited opportunity to remake its image, which had been tarnished by failed governance experiments in Iraq and Mali, among other places. ISIS has become a convenient foil for al Qaeda in its efforts to gain greater operating space.
Time and again, al Qaeda has been able to mitigate setbacks, or even turn them to its advantage. The group’s vision of a multi-generational jihadist struggle has enabled it to think and act strategically, pursuing long-term objectives while passing up ephemeral or unsustainable victories.
Al Qaeda’s ability to think and plan for the long term stands in contrast with both ISIS and also the U.S. government. Election cycles, budgetary uncertainty, and inter-agency squabbles impede strategic thinking in the fight against al Qaeda. As we continue to overlook al Qaeda’s forward-looking approach, we underestimate the group and fall into its traps. At a time when al Qaeda is quietly gaining ground across the Middle East, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa, and benefiting from the international community’s myopic focus on the Islamic State, it is more important than ever that we fully appreciate al Qaeda’s long-term planning.