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Bin Laden Put Out to Pasture

May 10, 2012 ·

Osama bin Laden may not just have been in hiding, but in forced exile.

It's starting to look more and more like Osama bin Laden was not only in hiding at Abbottabad, he was in forced exile. It seems as al Qaeda may have seized the opportunity of his need to go into hiding to put him out to pasture. In a blockbuster piece on May 3 for Truthout titled The Truth Behind the Official Story of Finding Bin Laden, Gareth Porter provides evidence.  When a senior U.S. intelligence official said that he "was active in operational planning and in driving tactical decisions," Porter writes, he and CIA officials were:

… blatantly misrepresenting … bin Laden's role in al-Qaeda when he was killed. …  In fact, during his six years in Abbottabad, bin Laden was not the functioning head of al-Qaeda at all, but an isolated figurehead who had become irrelevant to the actual operations of the organization. The real story … is that bin Laden was in the compound in Abbottabad because he had been forced into exile by the al-Qaeda leadership. 

In fact

… several months after the Abbottabad documents [taken by Special Operations forces from the scene] had been thoroughly analyzed and the results digested by senior administration officials, the administration was unable to cite a single piece of evidence that bin Laden had given orders for -- or was even involved in discussing -- a real, concrete plan for an al-Qaeda action, much less one that had actually been carried out. Far from depicting bin Laden as the day-to-day decisionmaker or even "master strategist" of al-Qaeda, the documents showed a man dreaming of glorious exploits that were unconnected with reality.

Porter explains that retired Pakistani Brig. Gen. Shaukat Qadir gathered information from "Pakistani tribal and ISI sources" about bin Laden's exile and his discovery by the CIA.

"Nobody listened to his rantings anymore," said one of the [former couriers for TTP, Pakistan's Taliban] in a conversation with Qadir. "He had become a physical liability and was going mad," another told Qadir a couple of days earlier. "He had become an object of ridicule," said the second courier. … That situation led Zawahiri to propose … that bin Laden be forced to retire from active involvement in the organization's decisions. 

Also on May 3, the Combating Terrorist Center (CTC) at West Point published/posted its analysis of the small sample of the documents released to it by the Director of National Intelligence. The report, of course, contains none of the inside information Porter gleaned about how other al Qaeda members felt about bin Laden. But as you can tell by the title -- Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Ladin Sidelined? -- it attests to his waning influence and at times suggests he was being indulged. Surprisingly, it may have been partly because, by this point, no longer a loose cannon, he had become al Qaeda's force of restraint (if you can call anything it does restrained). (I wrote about this on May 8: Bin Laden Grows a Conscience.)

In particular, his concern was curbing the brutal excesses of al Qaeda affiliates. Today's al Qaeda is characterized as decentralized. Viewed through the lens of complexity science -- in particular, complex adaptive systems -- it exhibits self-organization, adaptation in response to "perturbation," and "emergent" leadership (different leaders rise to the top in different situations).  But the inclination of affiliates to go their own may have partly been a symptom of their lack of respect for bin Laden.. As Patrick Cockburn wrote: "A striking feature of these letters is that there is no evidence that their recipients made any effort to carry out their leader’s instructions." Other examples of bin Laden's waning influence from the CTC report follow.

The documents show that some of the affiliates sought Bin Ladin’s blessing on symbolic matters, such as declaring an Islamic state, and wanted a formal union to acquire the al-Qa`ida brand. On the operational front, however, the affiliates either did not consult with Bin Ladin or were not prepared to follow his directives.

… Far from being in control of the operational side of regional jihadi groups, the tone in several letters authored by Bin Ladin makes it clear that he was struggling to exercise even a minimal influence over them.

… One of the letters … from a “loving brother” addressed to Bin Ladin. … alerted Bin Ladin that when one is distant from reality, as Bin Ladin was because of security measures he was forced to take, the soundness of one’s judgment was bound to be impaired.

… The documents make it clear that Bin Ladin was not informed of the TTP’s planned bombing of Times Square in New York City, a failed attack on U.S. soil attempted by Faisal Shahzad in May 2010.

… Bin Ladin had apparently sent `Atiyya [al Qaeda leader Atiyyatullah] some suggestions on how to improve the economy, but `Atiyya either ignored them or had not attended to them. … Not only does he seem to have acted as Bin Ladin's conduit, but it is alos possible that he exercised more control than he was authorized. In one of the letters, for example, Bin Ladin appeared frustrated that the audio or visual recordings he was sending to`Atiyya were either being delayed or not being released at all.

… Bin Ladin's decision not to grant al-Shabab a public union with al-Qa`ida [may have been] the subject of internal debate within al-Qa`ida and possibly behind his back.

[Al Qaeda's functioning leader Ayman] al-Zawahiri is conspicuously distant from people in bin Ladin's immediate circle.

It's ironic that bin Laden's step back from the abyss of mass murder -- if less out of compassion for the suffering of innocent Muslims than to advance the cause of jihad -- left him out of touch with the al Qaeda affiliates. As he aged, he seems to have forgotten that jihad was just another name for exploding body parts on the parts of the disenfranchised young men who formed and joined the affiliates. Bin Laden, with his newfound focus on providing services, was taking the fun out of jihad.