For years they were the double act at the top of al Qaeda: the charismatic Saudi who projected aloofness while he micro-managed, and his cunning but divisive Egyptian deputy, whose prolific video output made him the public face of the network in the years after 9/11
They had forged an alliance between their two groups, and settled into a symbiotic partnership in the Jihadist melting pot of Peshawar in the late 1980s, and in the following decade the Sudan and Taliban-run Afghanistan. Those who spent time in their company say the two men were genuinely close and enjoyed an easy and often jocular repartee. When Osama bin Laden walked into a room, Ayman al Zawahiri was often at his side, deferential and courteous – a quite calculated but also genuine show of respect – and a metaphor for his relationship with the Saudi.
For there was also fierce ambition in the Egyptian, and some different ideas about where al Qaeda’s priorities should lie, which the Abbottabad documents suggest caused a number of disagreements in the years after 9/11, with implications, given Zawahiri’s accession as leader, for the future course of the terrorist network.
In recent months U.S. officials have been quoted in media reports describing growing disagreements and tension between Zawahiri and bin Laden in the years before the Abbottabad raid, with bin Laden fearing becoming marginalized. That picture, if true, is not confirmed in the documents released last week, which show that just a few months before he died, bin Laden was still actively seeking Zawahiri’s advice and input. Even so the few documents released so far hint the two had some differences in strategic vision, and that their interactions had become sporadic.
There was only one possible example of direct correspondence between Zawahiri (known in al Qaeda circles as Abu Muhammad) and bin Laden in the seventeen Abbottabad letters released by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, an apparent distance between the two which West Point researchers called "conspicuous." A U.S. official who has viewed all the unreleased documents told CNN the two were to a significant degree cut off from each other in the years bin Laden resided at Abbottabad.
The West Point documents suggest the two instead sporadically kept in touch through intermediaries such as the Egyptian Mustafa Abu al Yazeed, al Qaeda’s commander in the tribal areas of Pakistan up until his death in 2010 and his replacement Atiyah abd al Rahman, a senior Libyan al Qaeda operative, who took charge of the terror network’s day-to-day global operations until his death three months after bin Laden in a drone strike.
This section of a May 2010 letter from bin Laden to Atiyah revealed the intermittent and indirect nature of bin Laden’s communication with Zawahiri:
"Please send my regards and condolences to Sheikh Abu Muhammad [Zawahiri] and give me the news about his condition. For several months I have been sending messages to him, and Shaykh Sa’id [Yazeed] told me that he had not yet received a courier from him. It then became noticeable that he has not been heard in the media in recent times. I hope that the problem is something good. "
(Bin Laden was perhaps hopeful that Zawahiri had gone silent because a terrorist attack was being hatched).
Taken as a whole the new letters suggest bin Laden, who had previously played the role of chief executive in al Qaeda, was cast in the role of a meddling chairman, micro-managing and second guessing al Yazeed and al Atiyah’s decision making from afar, while Zawahiri was cast into the role of a senior board member, providing advice and input into the terror network’s decision-making whenever he could get messages through to the operational commanders.
It was advice bin Laden appeared to still welcome. In the fall of 2010 bin Laden sought Zawahiri’s input in a letter he was drafting to send to Nasir al Wuhayshi, the leader of the group’s Yemeni affiliate al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). In October he wrote to Atiyah:
"If you or Shaykh Abu Muhammad [Zawahiri] have comments on any of the paragraphs, you can delete these paragraphs and send the letter to brother Basir [Wuhayshi]. If you did not get anything from Abu Muhammad due to the difficulty in communicating between you two, and if you do not have any important comments, then go ahead and send it to Basir."
Atiyah in a June 2009 letter addressed to what West Point researchers believe was likely bin Laden wrote:
"I did send to Abu Muhammad your forthcoming project about the economic crisis, and he responded by sending a few remarks, and I did see in his remarks plenty of similarities, including removing a few statements which he saw as unsuitable."
Differences and Disagreements
Zawahiri, while deferential in his public statements, in internal correspondence made clear he did not agree with all of bin Laden’s decisions. According to the Washington Post he pushed back against bin Laden’s obsession with attacking the United States homeland, arguing that it would be more effective for al Qaeda to concentrate its fire on American targets in Afghanistan and Iraq. This message was not included in the recently released letters.
Zawahiri also appears to have differed with bin Laden when it came to the Somali militant group al Shabaab joining al Qaeda.
This disagreement was expressed in a letter sent to bin Laden dated December 2010 which West Point researchers believe may have been sent by Zawahiri. Its tone suggested it was authored by someone who was a close peer and confidante of al Qaeda’s leader.
The letter was critical of bin Laden’s decision to rebuff entreaties by the Somali militant group al Shabaab to join the al Qaeda terrorist network.
"I see it to be very essential for al Qaeda to confirm and declare its linkage with its branches...please reconsider your opinion not to declare the accession of the brothers of Somalia," stated the letter.
In an August 2010 letter to Abu al Zubayr, the commander of al Shabaab, bin Laden had written that a merger would see the "enemies escalate their anger and mobilize against you: this is what happened to the brothers in Iraq or Algeria."
After Zawahiri took over the al Qaeda leadership he soon reversed bin Laden’s policy on Somalia, welcoming al Shabaab into the al Qaeda fold last February, as part of what appears to be a big tent strategy by the Egyptian to create a more cohesive organizational structure with al Qaeda "Central" in Pakistan as the center pole. During the mid 2000s Zawahiri had played a key role in negotiating affiliate status for several Jihadist groups, including al Qaeda’s North African affiliate al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb [AQIM].
Bin Laden’s letters suggested he also wanted to bring the affiliates more under the control of al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan, but was more cautious than the Egyptian in granting affiliate status to Jihadist groups seeking it.
Researchers at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center who reviewed the documents wrote that bin Laden’s caution on granting affiliate status brought up the possibility that Zawahiri granted such status to groups in the 2000s without bin Laden’s approval.
"If al-Zawahiri was doing so against Bin Ladin’s directives, then Bin Ladin did not have a firm grip on al-Qa`ida itself, let alone its so-called affiliates," they wrote. "Al-Zawahiri might have assumed that Bin Ladin would not publicly refute him," they added.
The released letters do not however provide concrete evidence of a power grab by Zawahiri. If anything they suggest that force of circumstance had led to Atiyah supplanting both the Saudi and the Egyptian in operational matters. The released letters indicate Atiyah still valued bin Laden’s input, made a show of deference to him, and gave him detailed briefings, even if his tone sometimes suggested exasperation with bin Laden’s insatiable need to be updated on operational issues. There was no suggestion in the documents that bin Laden felt his directives were not being followed.
The documents show Atiyah and Zawahiri were in touch, but do not reveal how frequent were the communications between them, nor the degree to which the Egyptian was able to push his strategic vision. Zawahiri only confirmed Atiyah’s death around three months after he was killed in a drone strike, suggesting it may have taken time to exchange news between their two locations.
Bin Laden’s letters suggest that by the end of the 2000s he and Zawahiri had for at least a period of time different positions on violent Jihad in the Arab Muslim world.
Bin Laden in a May 2010 letter to Atiyah argued that outside Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia, it was premature to wage such campaigns, and resources should instead by be focused on attacking the United States. "The only way to remove this hegemony is to continue our direct attrition against the American enemy until it is broken and too weak to interfere in the matters of the Islamic world," bin Laden wrote.
Bin Laden’s reluctance for Jihadist fronts to be opened in the Arab Muslim world was in part a product of his concern over the backlash created by the rising number of Muslims killed by al Qaeda terrorism. "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 in planning the operations," he wrote.
Zawahiri, by contrast, in tapes he released in 2009 gave rhetorical support for violent opposition to regimes by affiliated Jihadist groups in the Islamic Maghreb and Yemen. For many years one of his key strategic maxims had been for Jihadists to seize territory in the Arab Muslim world, as a base for future expansion in the region.
"Make [the Mujahideen] a thorn in the throats of the Crusaders and their agents like the House of Saud and Ali Abdullah Saleh," Zawahiri stated in a February 2009 audiotape.
Bin Laden, having been burned by his failed attempts to topple the Saleh regime in the early 1990s, in his 2010 letter to Atiyah argued for "halting the escalation in Yemen" at a time when AQAP was beginning to intensify its attacks on Yemeni security forces.
"We should not begin to attempt to establish a government in Yemen, even if the people revolted against the government and toppled it, either in south Yemen or in all of Yemen," bin Laden wrote.
"If the Yemenis were to begin a long battle against the security services, this is a matter that will weigh on the people," bin Laden wrote. He added that Jihadists could "not provide for the people’s needs in light of the battle and siege of the whole world against us."
For some reason he then softened his opposition. By the summer of 2010 bin Laden was at least willing to entertain the idea of backing AQAP’s campaign of violence. In an August letter he asked Atiyah to get more information from AQAP leader Nasir al Wuhayshi about the "battlefield in Yemen so it is feasible for us, with the help of God, to make the most appropriate decision to either escalate or calm down."
Bin Laden and Zawahiri’s debates on whether to allocate priority to attacking the "near" or "far" enemy had a long pedigree. In the late 1980s and early 1990s Zawahiri won over an initially reluctant bin Laden to the need for regime change in the Arab world, while in the mid to late 1990s bin Laden persuaded Zawahiri that only by attacking the United States, and removing its influence from the region, could they hope to create a new theocratic order there. Throughout Zawahiri was relatively more focused than the Saudi on the need to topple regimes in the Arab world, particularly in Egypt.
In a taped address in March 2011, Zawahiri stepped up his support for AQAP’s campaign of violence. "I encourage them to uproot this regime ... you have begun your uprising, so continue it until Yemen is liberated from the Crusaders and their agents," he said. A draft of the speech with suggested tweaks in green highlight from an unknown editor was found in Abbottabad.
Bin Laden may have been coming round to this argument in the last weeks of his life – writing in April 2011: "Initially I would see one of the most important steps of the oncoming stage is inciting the people who have not revolted yet, and encouraging them to get against the rulers ... so the arrows are concentrated on toppling the rulers."
A Shared Response to the Arab Spring
The April 2011 letter was written six days before bin Laden was killed by Navy Seals, and also included a taped statement on the unprecedented events in the Arab world, which was broadcast only after his death in which he congratulated the protestors in Tunisia and Tahrir Square in Egypt (very few of whom had any sympathy for al Qaeda) and rhetorically appropriated their victory as his own.
"I want to talk about the most important point in our modern history," he wrote to Atiyah, "things are strongly heading towards the exit of Muslims from being under the control of America."
Bin Laden called on followers to guide and advise the revolutionary movements, and spread the "correct understanding." He also instructed al Qaeda’s senior ideologues to concentrate all their firepower on events in the Arab world.
"There is no doubt that the duties on the mujahideen are numerous, except that this great duty should take the main share of our efforts," Bin Laden wrote. After their differences in previous years, bin Laden and Zawahiri were once again united on the need to refocus the group’s resources on the Arab world.
In the end it was the Egyptian, not bin Laden, who shaped al Qaeda’s response to the Arab Spring and its current stance towards potential affiliates.
Bin Laden’s last letter revealed that many al Qaeda operatives were clamoring to return to the Arab world from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. He instructed Atiyah that those that were sent back should be sent only by safe routes.
Around the time of bin Laden’s death, Zawahiri dispatched lieutenants to build up al Qaeda’s presence in Libya, according to a source briefed by Western intelligence. He was apparently aiming to rebuild al Qaeda’s presence in the Arab world, create a new network of clandestine cells in the region, and restore its popularity by casting itself as the defender of Sunni Muslims in ongoing conflicts between insurgent forces and regimes in Syria and Yemen.
"The current situation has brought unprecedented opportunities," bin Laden wrote in his last letter.