Before his death, Osama bin Laden boldly commanded his network to organise special cells in Afghanistan and Pakistan to attack the aircraft of President Barack Obama and Gen David H Petraeus.
“The reason for concentrating on them,” the Al Qaeda leader explained to his top lieutenant, “is that Obama is the head of infidelity and killing him automatically will make [Vice President] Biden take over the presidency ... Biden is totally unprepared for that post, which will lead the US into a crisis. As for Petraeus, he is the man of the hour ... and killing him would alter the war’s path” in Afghanistan.
The man Osama bin Laden hoped would carry out the attacks was Pakistani terrorist Ilyas Kashmiri. “Please ask brother Ilyas to send me the steps he has taken into that work,” bin Laden wrote to his top lieutenant, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman. A month after bin Laden’s death, Kashmiri was killed in a US drone attack.
The plot was bluster. Al Qaeda lacked weapons to shoot down US aircraft. But it’s a reminder that even when in hiding, bin Laden still dreamed of pulling off another spectacular attack against the US. He badly wanted an attack on the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
In a 48-page directive to Atiyah, he said he should focus “every effort that could be spent on attacks in America,” instead of operations within Muslim nations. He told Atiyah to “ask the brothers in all regions if they have a brother ... who can operate in the US [He should be able to] live there, or it should be easy for him to travel there.”
US analysts say there’s no evidence these plots ever materialised. “The organisation lacks the ability to plan, organise and execute complex, catastrophic attacks, but the threat persists,” says an administration analyst.
The bin Laden who emerges is a terrorist CEO in an isolated compound, brooding that his organisation has ruined its reputation by killing too many Muslims in its jihad against the US. He writes of the many “brothers” who have been lost to US drone attacks.
The garbled syntax of many communications may result from their being dictated to his wives. His rambling recommendations illustrates the problems of communicating with subordinates when it takes several months to receive an answer. The Al Qaeda leader had a “great fear of irrelevance,” the analyst believes.
Because of constant attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas, bin Laden encouraged Al Qaeda leaders to leave north and south Waziristan for more remote locations.
He had an unlikely managerial focus. He discusses the need for “deputy emirs” and “acting emirs” to run regional operations when the local boss is away. He suggests emirs should serve two-year terms and write an “annual report to be sent to the central group detailing the local situation.” He allowed relatively frank exchanges with his subordinates, who voiced criticisms about the organisation’s errors.
Bin Laden’s biggest concern was Al Qaeda’s media image among Muslims. He worried it was so tarnished that, in a draft letter probably intended for Atiyah, he argued it should find a new name.
The Al Qaeda brand had become a problem, bin Laden explained, because Obama administration officials “have largely stopped using the phrase ‘the war on terror’ in the context of not wanting to provoke Muslims,” and instead promoted a war against Al Qaeda. The organisation’s full name was Qaeda al Jihad but, in its shorthand version, “this name reduces the feeling of Muslims that we belong to them.” He proposed 10 alternatives “that would not easily be shortened to a word that does not represent us.” His first recommendation: “Taifat al tawhid wal jihad,” or Monotheism and Jihad Group.
Bin Laden ruminated about “mistakes” and “miscalculations” by affiliates in Iraq and elsewhere that had killed Muslims, even in mosques. He told Atiyah to warn every emir to avoid these “unnecessary civilian casualties.” “Making these mistakes is a great issue,” he stressed. Spilling “Muslim blood” had resulted in “the alienation of most of the nation [of Islam] from the [mujahedin].” Local Al Qaeda leaders should “apologise and be held responsible for what happened.”
Bin Laden criticised subordinates who linked operations to local grievances rather than the pan-Islamic cause of Palestine. He chided a Yemen affiliate for saying an operation was a response to US bombing there. Those behind the 2009 attack on a CIA base in Afghanistan were scolded for describing it as revenge for Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud’s death. “It was necessary to discuss Palestine first,” he said.
Bin Laden’s focus on attacking the US homeland led to sharp disagreements with deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, who favored easier attacks on US forces in the region. Atiyah sent a strident letter in June 2009 detailing what he saw as doctrinal errors among other jihadists.