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Thursday, May 3, 2012

Abbottabad Documents Shed Light on Al Qaeda's Use of Internet

Documents seized from Osama bin Laden's hiding place in Abbottabad reveal a fractious divide over key elements of the organization including one of its primary tools -- jihadist Web forums.

Prior to September 11, Al Qaeda distributed most of its propaganda and informational material through a handful of select outlets, including a London media office and the distribution by hand of videotapes.

Since 9/11, Al Qaeda has relied on a handful of sanctioned Internet message boards to distribute its materials. The specific outlets have morphed over time, as some were shut down or had their security penetrated by Western governments.  In addition to two or three "official" Web forums at any given time that are usually the first to distribute Al Qaeda material, there are a host of secondary forums where Al Qaeda supporters can redistribute releases and discuss issues that matter to jihadists around the world.

A letter attributed to Adam Gadahn, released by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, highlights concerns about the forums being a collection of hateful bigots whose infatuation with violence and harsh fundamentalism makes Al Qaeda look bad. Gadahn writes:

As for the Jihadi forums, it is repulsive to most of the Muslims, or closed to them. It also distorts the face of al-Qa'ida, due to what you know of bigotry, the sharp tone that characterizes most of the participants in these forums. It is also biased towards (Salafists) and not any Salafist, but the Jihadi Salafist, which is just one trend of the Muslims trends. The Jihad Salafist is a small trend within a small trend.

Gadahn also points to his own reservations about Al Qaeda's affiliate in Iraq, saying he disapproved of Zarqawi's moves but kept his comments internal to Al Qaeda to avoid creating an appearance of dissent.

Although the forums represent Al Qaeda's only way to release authenticated material, Gadahn (believed to head Al Qaeda's media committee) indicates that at some point he lost control of the process. For instance, Osama bin Laden's speeches were recorded as videos but often released as audios. (See this INTELWIRE report from May 2011.) Gadahn writes that there is no security-related reason to withhold the video portion of bin Laden's speeches, but that there is a strong propaganda value and urges that the material be released in high definition:

I would think that it is suitable for the Shaykh to address a video speech to the Mujahidin in all the arenas, consoling, urging them to endure, confirming their steps and guiding them. The message that he sent when Shaykh Sa'id -may God bless his soul- was strong and influential, so may God reward him well. Many people do not read, and even if they read, they are more influenced by visuals.

Despite this, Gadahn's wishes were not accommodated. When the speeches eventually made their way to the forums, they were presented as audio only. The interesting question, which is not addressed in the released documents, is who in the process had the authority (or the temerity) to override Gadahn's wishes.

A letter attributed to bin Laden praises the rise of interest in jihad on the Internet while fretting about Al Qaeda's loss of control both online and off. However, bin Laden strongly approved of the use of the Internet to promote jihadism, at one point suggesting that trainees at Al Qaeda camps in the Afghanistan-Pakistan area be sent back to their home countries to incite online. Bin Laden saw jihadist Internet activity as a sign of success.

One indication of that is the wide-scale spread of Jihadist ideology, especially on the Internet, and the tremendous number of young people who frequent the Jihadist websites—a major achievement for Jihad, through the grace of God, despite our enemies and their efforts. On the other hand, after the war expanded and the Mujahidin spread out into many regions, some of the brothers became totally absorbed in fighting our local enemies, and more mistakes have been made due to miscalculations by the brothers planning the operations or something that arises before it is carried out.

Specifically, bin Laden objects to loose interpretations of rules of jihad pertaining to the death of Muslims as collateral damage or even as direct targets in terrorist attacks.

[We should not] underestimate the fact that these issues, amongst others, led to the loss of the Muslims sympathetic approach towards the Mujahidin. What also led to the loss of the Mujahidin was exploitation of the foes to several of their mistakes and tainting their picture before the crowds of the nation; the purpose was to split them from their popular bases, and needless to say that this issue involving the loss of the nation's audience paralyzed the Jihadist movements.

Interestingly, while bin Laden was pushing for a more restrained approach to killing, especially where Muslims were concerned, a ruling by American Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula propagandist Anwar Awlaki (published by AQAP yesterday) pushes in the other direction. Awlaki writes:

If combatants and non-combatants are mixed together and integrated, it is allowed for the Muslims to attack them even if women, children, the elderly, farmers, merchants and slaves get killed but this should only be done with the intention of fighting the combatants. If Muslims kill non-combatants in fighting there is no liability on the Muslims. ... If Muslims get killed unintentionally or by mistake during the fight with the disbelievers, there is no sin on the Muslim who killed him... If the number of Muslims among [the disbelievers] is equal to the disbelievers we should not strike them but if they are less, then we can strike them because most of the harm would not be on the Muslims.

The indiscriminate focus on killing found throughout the run of Awlaki's Inspire magazine appears to have contributed to bin Laden's reservations about the magazine, which have been previously reported but are only glancingly referred to in the documents released today.

Overall, bin Laden appears to have been deeply concerned about the state of Al Qaeda's messaging and propaganda and had ordered a complete review. He writes:
We are in need of an advisory reading, with constructive criticism to our entire policy and publications at the center and in the regions internally; as such have two available brothers ready for this mission. From abroad, seek safe routes to achieve a contact with one of the knowledge seekers so long as he is credible and trusted; inform him that we are in a new phase of amendment and development and require an advisory reading and development of our entire policy and publication at the center and in the regions. The purpose is to amend our mistakes and develop our Jihadist work according to their suggestions and opinions, especially in corresponding with the masses of the nation in context and shape. ...

I intend to issue a statement, in which I would discuss starting a new phase to amend what we have issued – as such we would regain the trust of a large portion of those who had lost their trust in the Mujahidin; we would increase the lines of communication between the Mujahidin and their nation.
A letter from a "Shaykh Yunis" to bin Laden also excited the Al Qaeda leader, who quoted it:

Presently we are experiencing the most favorable atmosphere in the history of the Islamic nation. There is a base of youths adopting our teachings and following our path without any efforts on our parts to teach them the faith. They are ready for anything posted for them on the "spider web [Internet]", after validating the source.

You can read the Gadahn letter here:

Adam Gadahn letter from Abbottabad documents

You can read all the newly released documents in a single PDF here:

Abbottabad documents released by CTC

You can read the CTC's analysis of the documents here:

Letters from Abbottabad

For more about American jihadists, check out J.M. Berger's new book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, on sale everywhere.

Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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