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Bin Laden’s private letters tell us a lot about the rise of ISIS

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Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Wednesday morning, the US government released a huge tranche of documents found in Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad after the raid that killed him in 2011. These documents tell us a lot about bin Laden, from his family down to his taste in think tank reports. And they also show one way in which his strategic vision for al-Qaeda led to a bad misreading of the opportunities created by the Arab Spring — a strategic mistake, in fact, that helped fuel the rise of ISIS as a major global jihadist group.

There's one undated letter in particular that makes this point clear. It's addressed to Atiyah abd al-Rahman, a now-deceased al-Qaeda figure who served as a conduit between bin Laden and the rest of the top al-Qaeda leadership. In the letter, bin Laden explicitly warns against creating an "Islamic State" — that is, to do exactly what ISIS has done in the past year.

Bin Laden warns that the United States was still strong enough to bust up any government jihadis founded in the Middle East, so the establishment of an Islamic State needed to wait until the United States had been defeated and forced out of the Middle East:

We should stress on the importance of timing in establishing the Islamic State. We should be aware that planning for the establishment of the state begins with exhausting the main influential power [the United States] that enforced the siege on the Hamas government, and that overthrew the Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan and Iraq despite the fact this power was depleted. We should keep in mind that this main power still has the capacity to lay siege on any Islamic State, and that such a siege might force the people to overthrow their duly elected governments.

We have to continue with exhausting and depleting them till they become so weak that they can’t overthrow any State that we establish. That will be the time to commence with forming the Islamic state.

This attitude of not forming an Islamic State until the US had been beaten remained al-Qaeda strategic doctrine after bin Laden died — which gave ISIS a golden opportunity. ISIS didn't share al-Qaeda's obsessive preoccupation with the United States. It looked at the Arab Spring, a series of revolutions driven by social media and local anger with the Middle East's dictators, and saw an opportunity for a savvy jihadi group to attract new adherents and even take control of territory.

"The same thing that produced the Arab Spring is what has produced ISIS," Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, says. Bin Laden "totally missed [this] explosion of social media and communications and mobilization."

So ISIS took advantage of the chaos surrounding the Arab Spring to take territory, attract recruits, and separate its "brand" from al-Qaeda. After its massive victories in Iraq in June 2014, the group was in prime position to challenge al-Qaeda for leadership of the global jihad. Its declaration of a caliphate/Islamic State in the heart of the Middle East supercharged this appeal, and has helped ISIS spread itself globally at al-Qaeda's expense.

Interestingly, though, there's still a case that bin Laden was right — in the long run. While ISIS may be the new jihadi hotness, bin Laden correctly predicted that the United States would react swiftly and violently to an attempt to create an Islamic State. US airstrikes have done real damage to ISIS, particularly in Iraq. If the anti-ISIS campaign ends up succeeding, the US will have played an important part.

So while bin Laden may have read the Arab Spring wrong in the short run, it's possible he'll get the last laugh — at ISIS's expense.