3 May 2012

The gulf between western and jihadi thinking

The publication online of documents seized at Osama bin Laden’s house underlines the gulf between western and jihadi thinking.

A cache of documents seized by US Navy Seals as they raided Osama bin Laden’s Abbotabad hideaway and now released online, give the impression of an ageing CEO trying to keep control of a fragmenting and fractious company.

Bin Laden isn’t happy about the activities of the Pakistani franchise– killing too many Muslims is bad for al-Qaeda’s image, he thinks. Likewise, he has his doubts about Al Shabaab in Somalia, and refuses to let them become part of al-Qaeda.

The focus should return to America, he says, and analyses exactly how, suggesting the targetting of General David Petraeus, the commanding officer in Afghanistan, because “he is the man of the hour in this last year of war, and killing him would alter the war’s path.” The biggest target is President Obama, as that would elevate Vice President Biden, who is “totally unprepared for that post, which will lead the US into a crisis.”

Bin Laden frets over the actions of Faisal Shahzad who tried and failed to blow up Times Square in New York in May 2010. The problem, to bin Laden’s way of thinking, is that Shahzad must have sworn an oath to obtain US citizenship, and no good Muslim should go against an oath, as it “does not fall under permissible lying to the enemy.” Again, he’s worried about their image, and wants “to remove the suspicion that jihadis violate their oath.”

It’s an example of the gulf between western and jihadi thinking. When I was interviewing jihadis in Libya last year I struggled to understand that they make no distinction between civilians and soldiers – the distinction is between Muslims and non-Muslims. The idea of compromise with a political enemy is an anathema because they believe they are following God’s law, which is absolute.

Yet in other ways, the documents reveal an organisation with internal squabbles and dilemmas like any other. An advisor muses over the best way to promote Al Qaeda during the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The Independent Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk might be a good conduit for their message, he thinks. Fox News, he writes “falls into the abyss…and lacks neutrality” so he’d rather go for MSNBC or even ABC.

Bin Laden is much concerned with the fate of his many sons and daughters, who are spread all over the world. One daughter is under house arrest in Iran. He hopes a son will go to the Gulf state of Qatar. With his three wives and sundry small children, he hid in his house in Abbotabad, able to walk round the courtyard only once a day, spending much of his time watching videos and sending and receiving messages by courier. In the outside world, al-Qaeda was spinning out of his control – his exhortations to change tactics, or return to his original vision, largely ignored.

Read more: Can fragmented al-Qaeda capitalise on instability?

Follow @lindseyhilsum on Twitter.