Terrorists Are Just Like Us: The Bin Laden Docs and the Future of al Qaeda

May 25, 2015

Stars are just like us, and so, apparently, are terrorists. The public disclosure of documents from Osama bin Laden’s “bookshelf” has once again illustrated the operational functionalism at the heart of jihadi organizations. Celebrities are human after all (they dress comfortably!) and so are the jihadis in al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State (they attempt to make efficient use of human resources!).”

At this point, it should come as no surprise that jihadi groups use basic management practices familiar to your local Togo’s franchise. In 2006, we learned that al-Qaeda used banal application forms. In 2007, we learned that the Islamic State of Iraq did the same. Every other week there is a new story about how the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is trying to govern using basic tools like recordkeeping, licenses, etc. It turns out, terrorists are people too. The disclosure of bin Laden’s bookshelf has given us another opportunity to re-learn the same lesson.

In a quirky bit of post-modernism, we also learned that bin Laden had learned what we learned about him. A 2006 report that I co-authored with colleagues at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center included a discussion of al-Qaeda’s application forms. It was on bin Laden’s bookshelf, apparently right next to the new application form. It is all so meta.

More important, but less meta, is that the documents found in bin Laden’s safe house illustrate that bin Laden was indeed still leading. Only months before he was killed, bin Laden was still firing off letters to Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, who was a key figure in al-Qaeda from at least 2006 until his death just a few months after bin Laden was killed.

Setting aside the whole Seymour Hersh brouhaha, this is actually quite striking. Despite relative isolation from the jihadi movement and the growth of Zarqawism—which prioritized appearances on the battlefield as a key tenet of authority in the movement—bin Laden still served as a somewhat disconnected CEO figure and a judicial arbiter of disputes.

Building out a picture of bin Laden’s leadership style is important because it offers a basic framework for thinking about how Ayman al-Zawahiri—bin Laden’s successor as Emir of al-Qaeda—may be operating. Presumably Zawahiri operates under similar conditions: detached from the Internet and communicating with his network primarily through letters carried by couriers to and from Zawahiri’s correspondents.

But if bin Laden’s letters suggest that terrorist leaders need not be Elon Musk style ‘nano-managers’ to be effective, they also indicate that Zawahiri has a major challenge on his hands. It is an old trope in Washington that “personnel is policy:” executives have so much to manage that their personnel choices are ultimately the most important. The new bin Laden documents reveal that al-Qaeda’s most senior executives drive policy in much the same way, with numerous letters dedicated to personnel decisions.

Bin Laden had strong views about key personnel decisions in al-Qaeda, despite the fact that, presumably, he was not able to have direct contact with many of the folks working under him. In one case, he drafted a letter (it may not have been sent) asking Aityah Abd al-Rahman to appoint his own successor as bin Laden’s primary interlocutor with the rest of the network. Zawahiri likely faces the same challenge of managing people, but to an even more extreme degree.

Zawahiri’s first problem is simply time: bin Laden was increasingly frustrated with his isolation, and another four years has passed since he was killed. Al-Qaeda’s leadership was scattered shortly after 9/11, nearly 15 years ago. Meanwhile, there has been tremendous turnover in al-Qaeda, with most of the group’s original leaders either dead or imprisoned. Zawahiri is going to have to make personnel choices about people he does not know personally.

At the same time, Zawahiri is generally considered to be less well respected in the al-Qaeda movement than bin Laden was. Bin Laden’s ability to manage al-Qaeda from afar is a function of his unique history and reputation in the jihadi movement. Even ISIL, which rejects contemporary al-Qaeda wholesale, is deferential to bin Laden’s legacy while criticizing Zawahiri.

Zawahiri does show up a few times in the documents from bin Laden’s bookshelf (referred to variously as ‘Zawahiri,’ ‘the doctor,’ or ‘Abu Muhammad’), but he is not an active participant. One unsigned letter laments that messages to Zawahiri have gone unanswered: “I had written to the doctor some four years ago about the problem of the anti (TN [translator’s note]: anti-aircraft). God only knows what happened; whether he received the letter or not.”

There is no clear explanation for Zawahiri’s relative absence in this tranche of documents. It is easy to think that he may have had a falling out with bin Laden, who did not see fit to consult him on critical matters. On the other hand, the documents released by the Director of National Intelligence are a subset of the entire tranche; one reasonable explanation is that more documents involving Zawahiri exist but the DNI deemed them more sensitive and not yet ready for release. We might have to wait until a missile or team of special operators reach out and touch Zawahiri to see those documents.

A single letter, which is unsigned but seems to be from bin Laden, suggests that Zawahiri ought to be the spokesperson for al-Qaeda’s response to the Arab Spring demonstrations in Egypt. But the rationale is hardly a vote of confidence. Rather, it is simply that: “It is appropriate that the individual to intervene from our ranks be a man of Egypt, and this is al-((Zawahiri)).”

In some ways, the transition from bin Laden to Zawahiri came at as good a time as it could have for al-Qaeda—just as the Arab Spring was roiling the governments that al-Qaeda has long hoped to overthrow. Zawahiri tried to seize that moment, releasing six audio-visual statements in the six months after bin Laden was killed. But just like bin Laden, his isolation seems to be growing. In the subsequent 30 months he has only released another six. Obviously, Zawahiri’s public output may not reflect the pace of his private communications, but during a period in which ISIL has emerged as the world’s leading jihadi organization, it is notable that Zawahiri has grown steadily more silent.

The conventional wisdom for leaders directing far-flung enterprises like al-Qaeda is that they must show their face and build relationships with operational-level leaders to maintain unity of mission in an organization. Zawahiri is failing at those tasks even as al-Qaeda’s affiliates shift their focus further and further from bin Laden’s core mission of attacking the United States directly. Bin Laden’s bookshelf confirms that his al-Qaeda stood first and foremost for attacks against the United States even at the expense of other proximate opportunities, but it is not clear that Zawahiri’s al-Qaeda has the same focus.

The documents released from bin Laden’s bookshelf (almost certainly by design of those who released them) offer little insight into the current functioning of the al-Qaeda network, especially its current leader. But they do offer hints about how an al-Qaeda Emir must function when under constant threat. Zawahiri is famously prickly, was never universally celebrated inside al-Qaeda, and had very little—it seems—direct interaction with bin Laden in the final years of his life. He is not well-suited for the role of a wise, rarely-heard from CEO whose guidance carries immediate weight.

Stars Ship Packages! just like the rest of us, but Zawahiri probably does not. And that spells trouble for al-Qaeda over the long-run.


Brian Fishman is a War on the Rocks Contributor and a Fellow at the New America Foundation.