There is no big news flash buried in the 17 al-Qaeda documents that were seized at Abbottabad and released today by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center. They will enhance public understanding of al-Qaeda only marginally while, of course, helping to keep alive the Osama bin Laden raid which President Obama is using for all it’s worth as part of his reelection strategy.
What the documents show—and what we already knew—is that running a terrorist organization is pretty much like running any other organization, whether an NGO or a business or a government. There are always bureaucratic headaches, especially for the head of a far-flung multinational who is trying to keep various component units marching in lockstep. That was particularly difficult for bin Laden because he had limited communications from his house in Pakistan. He was often exercised, it seems, by the actions of al-Qaeda in Iraq, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb—his “branded” franchises—to say nothing of fellow traveler organizations such as the Pakistani Taliban and the Shabaab in Somalia. As the West Point summary notes:
Rather than a source of strength, bin Laden was burdened by what he viewed as the incompetence of the “affiliates,” including their lack of political acumen to win public support, their media campaigns and their poorly planned operations which resulted in the unnecessary deaths of thousands of Muslims.
The latter point is a particularly telling one, because some critics of American counterinsurgency strategy think our troops are too careful in the application of firepower—they should be willing to kill more people in order to achieve success. The counterargument is that unnecessary deaths detract from the larger task of accomplishing the mission because they alienate the population, and low-intensity warfare is always a battle for popular support. Bin Laden endorsed that very view—he was afraid, and rightly so, that the actions of al-Qaeda affiliates in killing Muslims had alienated Muslim opinion and made it harder for al-Qaeda to achieve its goals. You might say bin Laden was a believer in “population-centric” insurgency, a counterpoint to the current U.S. doctrine known as “population-centric counterinsurgency.” He just wasn’t very good at carrying it out because his bloodthirsty subordinates did not pay much attention to his edicts.