Al-Qaeda Chief Bin Laden Urged Another Aviation Mission On US Soil

Although isolated and finding it harder to lead his diminished terrorist network, Osama bin Laden towards the end of his life still dreamed of organizing terrorism on U.S. soil and urged underlings to recruit an operative with a Mexican passport able to cross into the United States.

Correspondence seized by United States Navy SEALs during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad and posted online by U.S. authorities reveal an isolated and vain al-Qaeda leader struggling to gain control of a weakened and fractious terrorist organization.

But he remained convinced, though, that al-Qaeda and its affiliates still had the potential with proper planning and direction to pull off dramatic attacks once again against the U.S.

The correspondence reveals irritation at the lack of success. He criticizes the failed car bomb attack on May 1 2010 in New York’s Times Square mounted by Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani American.

The al-Qaeda leader questioned the wisdom of using an operative who had been naturalized and therefore had taken an oath of allegiance to the U.S. – he believed this reflected poorly on the cause of jihad, or holy war, because lying about an oath breaks Islamic law.

“This is not the kind of lying to the enemy that is permitted. It is treachery,” he wrote in an October 2010 letter.

According to a former U.S. official who spoke with the Los Angeles Times, bin Laden advised deputies to find a follower with a valid Mexican passport, who could cross into the U.S. and plan terrorism.

In several of the letters written by bin Laden, the terrorist boss criticizes subordinates and regional al-Qaeda affiliates for what he sees as strategic mistakes and he expresses weariness at the dysfunction of his terrorist network.

He worries about a “lack of coordination” and even ponders a corporate-style rebranding of his network complete with a new name in order to revive the organization and its fortunes.

He remains convinced, though, that al-Qaeda and its affiliates still have the potential with proper planning and direction to pull off dramatic attacks once again against the U.S.

The cache of letters authored by bin Laden and other al-Qaeda luminaries, including “Atiyya” Abd al- Rahman, Abu Yahya al-Libi and the American Adam Gadahn, were posted online by the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York.

There are 17 letters in all amounting to 175 pages of text. More documents seized during the raid at Abbottabad on May 11 2011 will be declassified and made public in the coming months, say U.S. officials.

Altogether more than 6,000 documents were seized — most were written between September 2006 and April 2011. They were recovered from half-a-dozen computers, dozens of hard drives and over 100 USB storage devices.

What comes through in the letters released so far is a frustrated bin Laden, one annoyed that he can’t seem to wield command over regional jihad groups in terms both of their actions and their propaganda.

Notably, even Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s deputy leader, feels able to ignore 11 of a dozen edits made presumably by bin Laden to a draft statement he planned to release during the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East.

But it is on less mundane matters that bin Laden vents his greatest frustrations as he clearly realizes that his sway over affiliates has weakened dramatically. One of his biggest concerns rests with affiliates in Pakistan and Somalia massacring significant numbers of Muslims during their terrorist attacks. He worries they are damaging al-Qaeda’s standing among Arabs and other Muslims.

“We ask every emir in the regions to be extremely keen and focused on controlling the military work … we could have reached the target without injuring the Muslims,” bin Laden writes in May 2010. “Making these mistakes is a great issue; needless to say, the greatness of the Muslim blood violation in addition to the damage impacting the jihad.”

As his calls for a cessation of the shedding of Muslim blood falls on deaf ears, he becomes more desperate, arguing in the summer of 2010 that all al-Qaeda affiliates should publicly apologize. He writes that this is a “great issue” and that attacks are resulting in “the alienation of most of the nation from the Mujahidin.” Likewise, he complains about civilian deaths in Iraq, saying they are the wrong targets.

Clearly, bin Laden sees the need to cease killing Muslims as a strategic imperative. There’s no emotional remorse shown in the letters written by al-Qaeda’s leader about the slayings, and bin Laden never indicated, for example, sadness over the estimated 31 Muslims who perished during 9/11.

What he’s seeking to do with his strictures is to get regional jihad groups and other al-Qaeda leaders to understand that resources and manpower are limited and are being degraded by the U.S. especially through drone strikes in Pakistan that are taking a high toll. He wants a relentless focus on U.S. targets.

In one letter believed by U.S. analysts to have been written by bin Laden, the al-Qaeda boss likens the U.S. to the trunk of a tree with allies and Muslim regimes cooperating with Washington DC the branches. “Our abilities and resources, however, are limited, thus we cannot do the job quickly enough. The only option we are left with is to slowly cut that tree down by using a saw. Our intention is to saw the trunk of that tree, and never to stop until that tree falls down,” he writes.

With the trunk in mind, bin Laden, writing to one of his top lieutenants in 2010, says he wants “qualified brothers to be responsible for a large operation in the US.” He urges his top followers to nominate al-Qaeda members distinguished by “good manners, integrity, courage and secretiveness, who can operate in the U.S.”

And he envisions repeating 9/11, arguing that air attacks worked well. Ten “brothers” — preferably from the Gulf States — should be sent to the U.S. to “study aviation”, enabling them to conduct suicide attacks.

He is emphatic also about trying to assassinate President Barack Obama or Gen. David Petraeus, when the latter was in command of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. He believes their violent deaths would alter the course of events and precipitate a U.S. crisis. He ordered that watch units be established at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and in Pakistan to target planes carrying Petraeus or Obama.

“I asked Shaykh Sa’id, Allah have mercy on his soul, to task brother Ilyas to prepare two groups – one in Pakistan and the other in the Bagram area of Afghanistan – with the mission of anticipating and spotting the visits of Obama or Petraeus to Afghanistan or Pakistan to target the aircraft of either one of them,” bin Laden wrote.

A lot of bin Laden’s focus in the letters is on the tenth anniversary of the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC and how best to craft and disseminate the al-Qaeda line to international audiences.

“We need to benefit from this event and get our message to the Muslims and celebrate the victory that was achieved,” bin Laden writes in an October 2010 letter. “This is a chance to explain our motives for continuing the war.”

Almost like a corporate PR adviser he discusses the best dissemination methods and which TV channels and companies to approach and in what manner.

Despite the micro-management he attempts, there is a sense of drift in the network and confusion about what direction to take, especially as the Arab Spring dawns. His isolation in Abbottabad leaves him testy and at times inward looking.

His urging his subordinates to think again about aviation-based attacks in the U.S. comes across as an attempt to re-live a 9/11 that seems beyond the tactical grasp of the network.

To Publish Or Not

Should newspapers publish photographs released by the White House of the dead Osama bin Laden, even if they are gruesome? The Washington Post has a thoughtful news report on the debate some newsrooms are having over whether to publish any photographs that are released.

White House aides are debating also what to do. According to the Post, President Obama’s spokesman, Jay Carney, says officials are worried about releasing such photos because: first, their disturbing nature per se, and, second, because of the danger they may inflame anti-American protest around the world and prompt a more violent Muslim backlash.

At the same time officials want to rebut skepticism among bin Laden’s supporters that his death is part of some American conspiracy.

But would publishing the pictures dissuade those who don’t want to believe: they could also maintain that the pictures are inaccurate and made up.

Surely, there is plenty of evidence around to prove the U.S. claim: for example, the testimony to Pakistani officials of bin Laden’s 12-year-old daughter, who witnessed her father’s death.

The traditional news media is confronting a similar question of sensitivity. As the Post points out, U.S. newspapers consider themselves family publications – the kids can see.

If the White House releases pictures, they are going to be all over the web and carried by traditional media in other countries: Latin America, for example, where the media have fewer qualms. If U.S. newspapers don’t publish, do they highlight the fact that their relevance is increasingly less in the digital age? If the do publish for that reason, do they debase themselves?

Surely news is news, though, and the pictures are the very definition of news. Publishing would not be in these circumstances gratuitous: there is real journalistic value.

Back in the mid-1980s when I was on the Sunday Telegraph an intense debate was prompted when an excellent reporter, Walter Ellis, managed to secure photographs of the bodies of two British soldiers who had been killed in Northern Ireland after blundering accidentally into a massive Irish Republican funeral.

The soldiers had been stripped to their underpants, slapped around and then shot. One of the bodies was left in the shape of a human cross.

After much soul-searching it was decided that however gruesome the pictures were, there was journalistic value to publishing. The photographs helped illustrate the hatred and violence of the Northern Ireland troubles and also showed how no one in the funeral crowd lifted a hand to help the soldiers or protested their ill-treatment.

“A Good Day For America” — Obama

Some Muslim scholars are already questioning the burying of Osama bin Laden’s body at sea, claiming the action breached Muslim burial rules and was meant as an insult. The Guardian has a good piece here on religious reaction. And here is some more background on Muslim burial rules.

What is noticeable is the absence of anti-U.S. protests in Muslim countries. Maybe that is not surprising. In recent months the narrative seems to have been tugged away from the jihadists and grabbed by those in the Middle East arguing for democratic reform in this Arab Spring. Pew has been monitoring how Muslim attitudes towards the Al Qaeda leader have shifted dramatically.

Pew says: “Over time, support for bin Laden has dropped sharply among Muslim publics. Since 2003, the percentage of Muslims voicing confidence in him has declined by 38 points in the Palestinian territories and 33 points in Indonesia. The greatest decline has occurred in Jordan, where 56% of Muslims had confidence in bin Laden in 2003, compared with just 13% in the current poll. Jordanian support for bin Laden fell dramatically (to 24% from 61% the year before) in 2006, following suicide attacks in Amman by al Qaeda. In Pakistan, where 2011 data is still not available, confidence in bin Laden fell from 52% in 2005 to just 18% in last year’s survey.”

A 9/11 Memory

I was late talking my son to Takoma Park elementary school and was phoned by my foreign editor who said that in light of what had happened all editorial plans for the day were scrapped. Being the veteran I was I muttered, “Of course,” while wondering what the blazes he was on about. He asked me what I had heard and I said,”Bear with me, things are very fluid here and I need to make some more calls.”

The car radio in my old Fiat Spyder wasn’t working and I drove like the wind back to my home and switched on CNN in time to see the second plane strike the twin towers. I thought to myself, “Al Qaeda.” And then thought, “Life is going to be very different from now on.”

I then worked like fury. Business AM got a European press award for coverage that day. Much later in the day I toured the outside of the still-smoking Pentagon, had a drink on the way home in one of the few bars open in an eerily deserted DC and drafted in my mind my column for the Washington Times Corp. It was a plea not to throw out civil liberties in the fight against terrorism. Next day I tried to explain to my son about the bad people….

In Defense of the American Soul

“We are engaged in a battle for the soul of America,” TV actor Joseph Phillips writes in the Daily Caller – a political journalism site I contribute to. Apparently the building of a mosque dedicated to the principles of integration, tolerance and inter-faith understanding two blocks from Ground Zero would mean America losing its soul.

Phillips’ argument goes thus: if the Muslims who want to build the mosque were really tolerant and understanding, they would build the mosque somewhere else, and anyway the only Americans supporting the mosque are leftists who just hate America. In fact, about half of Phillips’ article opposing the mosque is dedicated to a rant against leftists. An argument can be correct even if you don’t like the people making it.

He adds: “It is important to point out that there have been no pronouncements from opponents of the mosque that the American Society for Muslim Advancement does not have a right to build the mosque wherever they wish.  Opponents have simply asked that the building not be built in that location. What remains unclear and unanswered is why the supporters of this mosque are choosing to move forward in spite of its offense and emotional injury to others.”

While Phillips recognizes Muslims constitutional right to build the mosque he can’t help but wonder why the federal government can’t step in to prevent it – a point that totally undermines his recognition of the rights of American (sic) Muslims. “I am fascinated that the same people who have been able to find a Constitutional right to government control of education, health care, and the energy industry are unable to divine from that same document any rational basis for the government to prevent a mosque from being built on Ground Zero,” he writes. So much for the constitutional rights of Muslims – if Phillips could have his way the feds would step in.

Why exactly the building of a mosque would be of such an affront necessitating the intervention of the federal government is not explained overtly, except for that talk of “offense and emotional injury.” So all we get in terms of true substance is a tautological argument – the mosque is an affront because it has caused offense. And then his article relies on the “secondary” argument: the mosque should be opposed because “hard-core leftists” who “do not respect America’s traditions or institutions” support it — in other words, traitors.

So, presumably Mayor Bloomberg is a leftist traitor. And apparently I am as well, even though I am an American by choice and not by accident. By the by, my 25 years of writing and journalism has seldom been characterized as leftist.

I don’t disagree with Phillips that this fight over the mosque is a fight for the soul of America. From my point of view the fight is over whether the country will stay true not only to the letter but more importantly the spirit of the Declaration of Rights and the U.S. Constitution – the bedrocks of the United States of America. I can’t recall reading anywhere in either document any comments suggesting either that Muslims should not be allowed to build mosques or that they should not be permitted to build one in a place deemed sensitive or out-of-bounds by others. Yes, we have local zoning rules nowadays but the so-called Ground Zero mosque apparently does not infringe them.

In fact, the First Amendment of the Constitution is uncompromising when it comes to the practice of religion – any religion and not just religions deemed “American” by Phillips or anyone else for that matter. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Rights are at their most important when most under threat, when the clamor is at its loudest to deny them. Alas, when the Patriot Act was being forced through too few people were raising a hue and cry about the tremendous and disturbing civil rights violations it brought with it. Anyone who truly values the Constitution should be supporting the building of the mosque – and this has nothing to do with the left-right spectrum of American politics, or shouldn’t have.

The real affront that is going on in the controversy over the Ground Zero mosque is that of seeing the First Amendment as unimportant or something that one is loyal to when convenient rather than uniformly and consistently.

There are other affronts, too. The opposition to the mosque relies on two other arguments, sometimes made openly and sometimes issuing more covertly. It relies heavily on the notions that American Muslims are somehow not real Americans and that all Muslims are somehow collectively responsible for 9/11 and the odious Osama bin Laden.

This is exactly what is implied when Newt Gingrich argues, as he did the other day, this: “Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. We would never accept the Japanese putting up a sight next to Pearl Harbor. There’s no reason for us to accept a mosque next to the World Trade Center.” These are emotive but erroneous comparisons: German Nazism was a political ideology and Japan is a nation – Islam is a religion with Americans who are also adherents. The real comparison to make would be German Nazism with Al Qaeda – and as far as I am aware no one has shown that the proposed mosque is going to support Al Qaeda or the philosophy espoused by Osama bin Laden.

So now we have the added affronts from those who oppose the mosque – namely, their suggestion that there are different classes of Americans – some real and others not – and that a whole religion, or all the adherents of a religion, should be held accountable and responsible for the actions of a small minority claiming to speak in the name of that religion. That is the kind of language and thinking of Osama bin Laden and his medieval ilk. Are we to allow him and the radical Islamists to change us – to make us the mirror image of them? If we do so, then we have allowed him a victory and handed him something even more damaging to us than 9/11. We would have added to the risk of a war of religions.

And that is precisely the point that answers Phillips’ when he writes: “What remains unclear and unanswered is why the supporters of this mosque are choosing to move forward in spite of its offense and emotional injury to others.” The Ground Zero mosque should go ahead in defiant answer to Osama bin Laden and to all those who would damage the soul of America and who fail to understand that you can’t pick and choose when it comes to the fundamental rights announced by the U.S. Constitution and its amendments. It should go ahead because the people who want to build are American and want commemorate those who died at 9/11. It should go ahead because we don’t believe in collective punishment, unlike Al Qaeda.

Gingrich and those Republicans opposing the mosque may think they have stumbled on a Willie Horton moment ahead of the mid-term elections. But it is a Willie Horton moment profoundly damaging to the soul of America and one that they may well regret indulging in.

Islam Wasn’t Responsible for 9/11 — Al Qaeda Was

Sadly some American politicians and talk show hosts have decided that the proposal to build a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero should be opposed — their arguments lean heavily on conflating Islam and Al Qaeda. My take on the Cordoba House debate was carried by the Daily Caller today.