Osama bin Laden had warned al-Qaeda affiliates against prematurely declaring an Islamic caliphate and cautioned his fighters against excessive display of brutality, according to newly declassified files seized from his Abbottabad hideout.
In letters to subordinates, Osama denounced almost every aspect of the Islamic State playbook but the admonishments were issued several years before al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq severed ties and rebranded itself as the Islamic State.
But the documents released on Tuesday show the extent to which the ideological dispute behind that rupture was becoming intractable even before the slain al-Qaeda leader’s demise.
In one undated letter to Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who led the al-Qaeda branch in Yemen before he was killed in a US drone strike, Osama warned against taking over the capital city to quickly establish a new Islamic state.
“We want Sana’a to establish an Islamic State, but first, we want to make sure that we have the capability to gain control of it,” Osama wrote.
“The enemy continues to possess the ability to topple any state we establish. We have to remember that the enemy toppled the Taliban and Saddam’s regime,” he said.
Defeating the US was Osama’s first priority, and he consistently pushed back against al-Qaeda members who called for hitting local targets instead.
In the letter, Osama instructed al-Wuhayshi to remind “the new generation” not to pursue “separate operations rather than concentrating on the main objective.”
Osama, in the letters, warned against seizing more territory than would be possible to hold, against prematurely declaring the restoration of the Islamic “caliphate” and even against “publishing pictures of prisoners after they were beheaded”.
The origins of the disagreement between al-Qaeda and (its Iraq wing) all the guts are there,” a senior US intelligence official, involved in reviewing the Osama letters and other materials that were declassified for Tuesday’s release, was quoted as saying by the Washington Post.
Osama was essentially warning subordinates that if they pursued the Islamic State model, “it will fail”, the official said, adding that he and other counter-terrorism analysts are now “waiting to see if bin Laden was prescient”.
Although the Islamic State has experienced significant setbacks in recent months, the organisation has eclipsed al-Qaeda as the dominant brand of Islamist militancy in the years since Osama wrote those messages and has replaced the parent group as the most feared sponsor of terrorist attacks against Europe and the United States.
The documents released on Tuesday were the second set of materials from the 2011 raid made public. The first came out last May.