Isolated and losing control

Rupert Cornwell

He wants to change his business strategy, but he's worried that his instructions are being deliberately ignored by bungling subordinates. It could be the fretting CEO of any struggling company. But in this case it's Osama bin Laden, whose business was al-Qa'ida.

Yesterday, the US authorities released a first sample of the documents captured during the raid on May 2 2011 in which bin Laden was killed. They depict a leader increasingly isolated and losing control, and fearful that al-Qa'ida's violent ways were alienating ordinary Muslims.

He was so concerned that he considered rebranding al-Qa'ida, apologising for some of its attacks and renaming the group. He was especially keen on choosing a name with religious connotations so that every time it was condemned by a Western politician it would sound like a condemnation of Islam. Suggested names included Muslim Unity Group, Support of Islam and al-Aqsa Group and Islamic Nation Unification Party.

The declassified material, mostly letters from bin Laden to associates and commanders in the field, comprises only 17 of the 6,000-plus documents discovered in the compound at Abbottabad, Pakistan. But according to the US Army's Combating Terrorism Centre, they show the al-Qa'ida leader was "not the puppet-master pulling the strings". Rather, it says, bin Laden "was burdened by what he saw as their incompetence".

The letters are from betweenSeptember 2006 and April 2011, the last of them dated just a week before he died. The al-Qa'ida that emerges is, in many respects, a corporation like any other, riven by turf fights and personal jealousies -- not least of them between bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, the internet propagandist who was killed by a US drone in Yemen last September.


His biggest concern was the support he was losing because of the deaths of thousands of Muslim civilians. In a long letter from May 2010, he writes how immediately after 9/11 his fighters were "standard bearers of the Islamic community in fighting the Crusader-Zionist alliance". But then, "some of the brothers became totally absorbed in fighting our localenemies". It was time, bin Laden urged, for a "new phase" in which the focus was on Islam's real foe, the Americans.

The letters reveal his attention to detail, from which US media outlets might be most promising for al-Qa'ida to the merits of a book by journalist Robert Fisk.