Bin Laden’s Declassified Documents and the Supposed ‘Affiliates’

Adam Serwer in Mother Jones has a nice sum-up of the highlights from the recent declassification of selected documents from the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan a year ago. The al-Qaeda leader’s internal documents and correspondences include asking for Anwar al-Awlaki’s resume, worrying about affiliate groups killing too many civilians, criticisms of the American media, and some seriously wounding criticisms of Vice President Joe Biden’s leadership capabilities.

Spencer Ackerman writes about the apparent motivation behind the administration’s declassification of the documents:

In an apparent attempt to sow discord within the ranks of al-Qaida’s remaining sympathizers, the U.S. government declassified personal communications from Osama bin Laden showing the terror leader fretting about the bloodthirsty movement he launched.

If al-Qaida affiliates keep killing Muslim civilians, bin Laden wrote to an aide shortly before the Navy SEAL raid that killed him, “they will spoil [things and] alienate the people, who could be won over by enemy after enemy…. Our brothers are making things worse by opening themselves up to evil and hostility!”

At the behest of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point released a declassified, translated version of 17 documents seized in the raid. SEALs left the Abbottabad compound seizing hundreds of bin Laden’s laptops, hard drives, cellphones and flash drives, a collection of thousands of pieces of data that U.S. intelligence officials have often described asa treasure trove of information about al-Qaida. Accordingly, the surprise declassification presents a selective narrative that the U.S. wants in circulation.

It is not difficult to see why. “The focus of his private letters is Muslims’ suffering at the hands of his jihadi ‘brothers.’ He was at pains advising them to abort domestic attacks that cause Muslim civilian casualties and instead focus on the United States, ‘our desired goal,’” the Center’s summary reads. “Bin Ladin’s frustration with regional jihadi groups and his seeming inability to exercise control over their actions and public statements is the most compelling story to be told on the basis of the 17 declassified documents.”

I’m just speculating, but it seems like emphasizing the lack of control al-Qaeda’s leadership had over these other terrorist groups really harms the administration’s primary legal justification for waging a global drone war against “al-Qaeda and its affiliates.” It’s been thoroughly explained elsewhere how loose are these supposed affiliations, but the administration should probably avoid providing more evidence for that if they want to keep illegally killing unidentified groups of people in Yemen, for example.