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The hidden story of the bin Laden documents: they tell us how al-Qaeda really works

Bin Laden liked guns. That is not one of al-Qaeda's secrets. (Getty Images)
Bin Laden liked guns. That is not one of al-Qaeda's secrets. (Getty Images)
Getty Images/Getty Images
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.

Who would have guessed that al-Qaeda had a job application so full of corporate jargon — "What objectives would you would like to accomplish on your jihad path?" — that it reads like a gag from Office Space?

On Tuesday morning, the US government declassified 103 private documents found at Osama bin Laden's Abbottabad compound. They make for a fascinating if peculiar read, and provide a tremendously informative window into the inner workings of al-Qaeda. For instance, there's a good reason for the corporate-esque job application: al-Qaeda's bureaucratization helped it survive and flourish, even after bin Laden died.

1) Al-Qaeda is like a company — and that's why bin Laden's death didn't destroy it

Bin Laden with Ayman al-Zawahiri, his deputy and now al-Qaeda's leader. (CNN)

Let's start with that employment memo. Al-Qaeda asking potential suicide bombers whether they have a criminal record may seem silly, but it's actually tactically savvy. Their goal is to find people who can successfully infiltrate Western societies without being flagged, according to Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Al-Qaeda has been doing similar things for a while: according to Watts, the application matches up really well with an employment contract that the group made operatives sign way back in the '90s.

There's an even broader strategy at work here. Al-Qaeda is heavily bureaucratized: different people are given responsibility for discrete tasks, and the organization's internal hierarchy looks pretty similar to what you'd see in any major corporation. That structure makes al-Qaeda resilient. If leaders or key operatives are killed, that doesn't destabilize the organization, because other people in the hierarchy can be promoted to fill the vacancy.

That helps explain why al-Qaeda managed to survive and even prosper after bin Laden's death. "You had compartmentalization, you had a bureaucratic structure that could survive its leader's death — all of that helped contribute to the organization's survival," Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told me.

2) It's religious, but not crazy

One of the most persistent myths about al-Qaeda is that it's religious, and therefore irrational — that an organization made up of men who think their death will be rewarded by 72 virgins in heaven couldn't possibly make rational strategic decisions here on Earth.

That may seem intuitive, but it's false. Al-Qaeda's goals are extreme, but the organization is actually pretty good at developing strategies to accomplish them. Some of the new documents help point that out — particularly letters to Atiyah abd al-Rahman, who served as a sort of mouthpiece for bin Laden's communications to the rest of the organization during the years bin Laden spent in hiding.

In his letters to Atiyah, bin Laden gives a very clear sense of al-Qaeda's calculating approach to the world. After the Arab Spring, for example, bin Laden very quickly recognized that the chaos presented a huge opportunity for the group, and that it immediately needed to shift resources away from Afghanistan and toward the Middle East. He even developed plans for how to take advantage of them, including sending educators to hijack revolutionary movements.

By contrast, the more religious or ideological documents from the release seem to follow this strategic guidance rather than set it. According to Watts, these documents "tell you in context how bin Laden tries, with his clerics, to justify whatever actions he wants to pursue, that are in their best interests."

3) Al-Qaeda's assessment of its own success is disturbingly difficult to dismiss

US soldier helicopter Afghanistan SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

An American soldier in a helicopter in Afghanistan. (Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images)

One of the more interesting documents in the newly released cache is a draft letter, purportedly from bin Laden to "the American people." It's obviously designed to be propaganda, but according to Gartenstein-Ross it represents bin Laden's case that al-Qaeda was winning its war against America.

The disturbing thing is that bin Laden's argument isn't totally crazy. "I would like to say that your war with us is the longest war in your history and the most expensive for you financially," he writes. "You are wading into a war with no end in sight on the horizon and which has no connection to your security, [against attacks which] could have been launched from any place in the world."

That "most expensive" line is key. According to one estimate, the war in Afghanistan and anti-terrorism operations in Pakistan have already cost the US $1.65 trillion. And that doesn't include future costs of veterans' care, or the other costs of the war on terror, like the hit to the US economy from things like the insane post-9/11 airport screening regime.

This economic warfare is a key part of al-Qaeda's strategy. As Gartenstein-Ross explains in his 2011 book Bin Laden's Legacy, al-Qaeda's plan for driving the US out of the Muslim world has always been economic: it's tried to bleed the US by directly hitting its economic infrastructure (à la the twin towers), drawing it into unwinnable wars (Afghanistan/Iraq), and provoking costly overreactions to minor threats (stupid airport security).

Gartenstein-Ross believes the US has fallen for that strategy. "Al Qaeda leaders, operatives, and sympathizers believe they are winning their fight against the West, and they have a point," he wrote in his book.

4) ISIS has disrupted al-Qaeda's global jihad network

iraqi jihadis

Unidentified jihadis in Iraq in January 2014. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Today, ISIS and al-Qaeda are rivals, competing for resources and recruits. In Syria, al-Qaeda and ISIS have fought openly, and have killed quite a number of each other's fighters.

But before the Arab Spring and the rise of ISIS, al-Qaeda was the unquestioned leader of the global jihad — and the way bin Laden talks in the declassified letters reflects that. In several letters, bin Laden issues orders and directives to various different al-Qaeda–linked groups throughout the world, and he expects them to mostly be followed. That's how the world worked at the time.

But according to Watts, the Arab Spring, and particularly the rise of ISIS, have fragmented that global jihad network.

"A lot of the other affiliates came to al-Qaeda because they needed resources, and bin Laden was the rich man," Watts explained. But now, ISIS has shown you don't need bin Laden when there's territory to plunder. "Al-Qaeda had the greatest opportunity in the history of jihad, and ISIS took it."

Now, with all of these broken governments and uncontrolled territory in places like Syria and Libya, all sorts of jihadi groups are sprouting up — some pledged to ISIS, some pledged to al-Qaeda, and some whose status isn't entirely clear. This new jihadi landscape is very different, leaving the future of violent Islamic extremism worryingly unclear.

5) Al-Qaeda is far from dead

Though ISIS poses a mortal threat to al-Qaeda, the latter is far from dead. Arguably it's stronger than it was 10 years ago — because it followed a post–Arab Spring strategy laid out in the newly released letter to Atiyah.

The plan, to reach out to revolutionaries and guide their movements toward extremism, "was the exact blueprint they ended up following in places like Tunisia and Egypt," according to Gartenstein-Ross. This strategic approach, corroborated by other al-Qaeda documents as well as their actual behavior, has helped them expand their support bases in places that the US had hoped would end up being bastions of moderation and democracy.

While this document didn't anticipate the violent chaos in Libya and Syria, al-Qaeda "was able to take much more advantage [there] by embedding militarily than they had anticipated at the time," Gartstenstein-Ross says. Indeed, al-Qaeda's territorial expansion in places like Syria and Yemen in the past nine months have been in some respects more impressive than ISIS's gains.

In other words: al-Qaeda inherited a strategy for the Arab Spring designed by bin Laden, executed it, and ended up expanding. That's impressive — and deeply worrying.

6) Bin Laden predicted one of ISIS's biggest weaknesses — but failed to realize that it was also a strength


ISIS recruit in a propaganda video. (ISIS)

In one undated letter (probably from around 2009), bin Laden explicitly addressed the question of whether al-Qaeda should found an Islamic state — that is, do what ISIS did in Syria and Iraq. He thought that until the United States was defeated, it would inevitably fail:

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.

Indeed, the United States did react swiftly and violently to ISIS's campaign to establish its so-called caliphate. 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.

However, bin Laden didn't appreciate how magnetic the appeal of such a state would be. ISIS has gained unprecedented numbers of recruits and supporters by arguing that it, unlike al-Qaeda, has managed to successfully recreate the caliphate.

Bin Laden "totally missed [the] explosion of social media and communications and mobilization" after the Arab Spring, Watts explained. ISIS capitalized on it.

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