Recently released files recovered in Osama bin Laden’s compound show that parts of the Pakistani government made attempts to negotiate with al Qaeda in 2010. The letters were released as evidence in the trial of Abid Naseer, who was convicted on terrorism charges by a Brooklyn jury earlier this month.
One of the files is a letter written by Atiyah Abd al Rahman (“Mahmud”), who was then the general manager of al Qaeda, to Osama bin Laden (identified as Sheikh Abu Abdallah) in July 2010. The letter reveals a complicated game involving al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban, the brother of Pakistan’s current prime minister, and Pakistan’s intelligence service.
“Regarding the negotiations, dear Sheikh, I will give you an overview, may God support me in this,” Rahman wrote. “The Pakistani enemy has been corresponding with us and with Tahreek-i-Taliban (Hakeemullah) for a very short time, since the days of Hafiz, may God have mercy on him.” Hakeemullah Mehsud was the head of the Pakistani Taliban at the time. The “Hafiz” mentioned is Mustafa Abu Yazid (Sheikh Saeed al Masri), who served as al Qaeda’s general manager prior to his death in May 2010. Rahman succeeded Yazid in that role.
“We discussed the matter internally, then we talked with Abu-Muhammad later once we were able to resume correspondence with him,” Rahman explained. “Abu-Muhammad” is the nom de guerre of Ayman al Zawahiri. As a result of these discussions, al Qaeda was willing to broker a deal in which the jihadists’ would ease off the Pakistanis so long as the military and intelligence services stopped fighting al Qaeda and its allies.
“Our decision was this: We are prepared to leave you be. Our battle is primarily against the Americans. You became part of the battle when you sided with the Americans,” Rahman wrote, explaining al Qaeda’s position towards the Pakistani government. “If you were to leave us and our affairs alone, we would leave you alone. If not, we are men, and you will be surprised by what you see; God is with us.”
Al Qaeda’s negotiating tactic was simple. Either the Pakistanis leave them alone, or they would suffer more terrorist attacks. Rahman’s letter reveals how bin Laden’s men sought to convey their message. They relied on Siraj Haqqani, the senior leader of the Haqqani Network, which has long been supported by the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment.
Rahman summarized al Qaeda’s plan thusly: “We let slip (through Siraj Haqqani, with the help of the brothers in Mas’ud and others; through their communications) information indicating that al Qaeda and Tahreek-i-Taliban [the Pakistani Taliban] have big, earth shaking operations in Pakistan, but that their leaders had halted those operations in an attempt to calm things down and relieve the American pressure.”
“But if Pakistan does any harm to the Mujahidin in Waziristan, the operations will go forward, including enormous operations ready in the heart of the country,” Rahman explained. This is the message al Qaeda “leaked out through several outlets.”
In response, “they, the intelligence people…started reaching out to” al Qaeda through Pakistani jihadist groups they “approve of.”
One of Pakistani intelligence’s emissaries was Fazlur Rehman Khalil, the longtime leader of Harakat ul Mujahedin (HUM). Khalil is a well-known bin Laden ally, as he signed the al Qaeda chieftain’s infamous fatwa calling for jihad against the “Crusaders and Zionists” in 1998. Pakistani intelligence used Khalil’s HUM to send al Qaeda a letter.
“We received a messenger from them bringing us a letter from the Intelligence leaders including Shuja’ Shah, and others,” Rahman wrote, according the US government’s translation. “They said they wanted to talk to us, to al Qaeda. We gave them the same message, nothing more.”
Beyond his role as a leader in Pakistani intelligence, “Shuja’ Shah” is not further identified in the letter. Ahmad Shuja Pasha was the head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency at the time. Some have alleged that Pasha knew bin Laden was located in Abbottabad. Pasha has denied this. Rahman’s letter does not indicate that “Shuja’ Shah” or Pakistani intelligence knew of bin Laden’s whereabouts, but it does show that they knew how to get in touch with his top lieutenants. All they had to do was ring jihadists such as HUM’s Khalil, one of the many jihadists the Pakistanis “approve” of.
Pakistani intelligence got in touch with al Qaeda again a “little later,” sending the “same man” who had acted as a messenger the first time. But now the messenger had back up, including a former head of the ISI with well-known jihadist sympathies.
Rahman noted: “This time the surprise was that they brought Hamid Gul into the session, and Fazlur Rehman Khalil attended with them as an advisor!” Gul headed the ISI in the late 1980s. During that time and after, he cultivated and the maintained deep ties to Pakistan’s jihadists.
Rahman summarized for bin Laden what the Pakistani intelligence liaisons had to say at the meeting. “Be patient with us for a little bit,” Rahman quoted them as saying, indicating that the Pakistanis had requested a cooling off period of up to two months. The Pakistani representatives continued: “We are trying to convince the Americans, we are putting pressure on them to negotiate with al Qaeda and we are trying to convince them that negotiating with the Taliban separate from al Qaeda is pointless. So please wait a little.”
If “we can convince the Americans,” the Pakistanis said, then we “have no objection to negotiating with you and sitting with you,” meaning al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda’s representatives agreed to pass the message onto to their leaders.
The Punjab government also wanted to negotiate
The very next paragraph of Rahman’s letter to bin Laden recounts a separate negotiation. This one, according to the letter, was initiated by Shah Baz Sharif of “the Punjab government.” Shah Baz Sharif is the brother of Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s current prime minister.
Rahman informed Hakeemullah Mehsud and Qari Husayn of the Pakistani Taliban that Shah Baz Sharif had “sent them a message indicating they [the government] wanted to negotiate with them, and they were ready to reestablish normal relations as long as they do no conduct operations in Punjab.” Rahman clarified that the proposed deal was restricted to the “governmental jurisdiction” of Punjab and didn’t include other areas such as Islamabad.
“The government said they were ready to pay any price…and so on,” Rahman wrote. “They told us the negotiations were under way.” Rahman then made it clear that the Pakistani Taliban was to keep al Qaeda’s leadership in the loop at all times. “We stressed that they [Pakistani Taliban] needed to consult us on everything, and they promised they would.” Rahman noted that he had discussed the talks in his “last meeting” with Hakeemullah Mehsud, and the Pakistani Taliban leader told him “there was nothing new” and Mehsud agreed to “report anything new to” bin Laden.
“I let him know what has been happening with us, and advised him to be careful of them,” meaning the Pakistanis, Rahman wrote. Mehsud believed that al Qaeda “should not appear in the picture” and “should not sit” with the Pakistanis during the negotiations. Al Qaeda was evidently content to have the Pakistani Taliban handle the direct talks. “I agreed with him on this in principle,” Rahman wrote, stressing that al Qaeda’s “leadership” would be consulted and bin Laden’s “consent” was needed before any decisions were made.
Rahman’s summary of Shah Baz Sharif’s position is entirely consistent with Sharif’s public rhetoric at the time. On Mar. 15, 2010, the Pakistani newspaper Dawn published an article discussing Sharif’s desire for the Pakistani Taliban to halt its attacks in the Punjab. Sharif blamed the escalation of violence in Pakistan on Pervez Musharraf, the former president. Sharif stated that the Taliban and his political party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), were both opposed Musharraf.
Sharif was therefore “surprised that this common stance has failed to stop the Taliban from carrying out terror attacks in Punjab.” Sharif harshly criticized American policy, portraying Musharraf as a puppet for outside powers.
“Gen Musharraf planned a bloodbath of innocent Muslims at the behest of others only to prolong his rule, but we in the PML-N opposed his policies and rejected dictation from abroad and if the Taliban are also fighting for the same cause then they should not carry out acts of terror in Punjab (where the PML-N is ruling),” Dawn quoted Sharif as saying.
Al Qaeda was cautious, but willing to make a deal
Rahman’s July 2010 letter to bin Laden reveals that al Qaeda was cautious, but willing to make a deal with the Pakistani negotiators. Rahman wrote: “Are the Pakistanis serious, or are they playing around and dissembling?” Rahman believed, “Caution is mandatory, as is preparedness, awareness, and staying focused on the mission and resolve.”
Rahman also cited an opinion that bin Laden had previously expressed. “O Sheikh, we see it the way you said it: We will make use of any opportunity for a truce with the Pakistanis in order so we can focus on the Americans. That is clear.” Bin Laden’s subordinate noted “there will be some trouble for many of our Pakistani brothers, and do not forget the brothers in Swat, the brothers in Mas’ud,” but “we will clarify things and help them understand the issue and how important it is, and that it is the best possible result, with God’s support.”
A previously released letter from bin Laden to Rahman, authored in May 2010, shows that bin Laden had requested information on the negotiations. Rahman’s July 2010 letter was, therefore, part a running conversation on the topic within al Qaeda.
In May 2010, Bin Laden ordered Rahman to ask the Pakistani Taliban “about the truth in the news…about [the] beginnings of negotiations and truce talks between them and the Pakistani government.” Bin Laden wanted to know what the Pakistani Taliban’s opinion of the talks was and also Rahman’s take. The al Qaeda boss told Rahman that “much of what I have said about Yemen can be applied to the situation on your side.” At the time, bin Laden was trying to keep al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) out of a full-scale fight with the Yemeni government, preferring to keep al Qaeda focused on American targets. His advisors, including Ayman al Zawahiri, pushed back, noting that the Yemeni government was already taking the fight to AQAP. The documents reveal that al Qaeda had an extensive discussion on the proper war strategy for Yemen.
Bin Laden clearly wanted the jihadists to come to an accommodation with the Pakistani government if possible. Another letter from bin Laden to Rahman, dated August 2010, was introduced in the Brooklyn trial. “In regards to the truce with the Pakistani government, continuing the negotiations in the way you described is in the interest of the Mujahideen at this time,” bin Laden wrote, thereby offering his endorsement of Rahman’s negotiation plan.
A tip from the “Pakistanis”
In November 2010, Rahman wrote to bin Laden again. There were “renewed concerns and rumors about a possible campaign that will be waged by the [Pakistani] army on northern Waziristan, under pressure from the Americans, of course,” Rahman wrote. The “pressures” seemed to have “eased” after President Obama visited India without stopping in Pakistan. But Rahman reported that the Americans were using intercepts as leverage to urge the Pakistanis to fight the jihadists.
“The Pakistanis told some of the students here in the north that unless communications from Miram Shah and Mir Ali stop, the campaign is a possibility,” Rahman wrote. “They are referring to the pressure the Americans are putting on them because of the intercepted communications.”
Thus, someone in the Pakistani establishment tipped off the jihadists in northern Pakistan. Rahman assured bin Laden that the intercepts weren’t owed to a flaw in al Qaeda’s operational security, but instead due to undisciplined foreign fighters.
“The problem is not with us (the organization) and the disciplined, but rather in those loitering in the markets of Miram Shah and Mir Ali, who are not disciplined, and do not listen to anyone,” Rahman wrote. “They are Arabs, Turks, Azeris, even Germans, and many more mixtures. We always try to advise the group leaders and those who are wise, and we communicate with them to mitigate the bad, and make them understand public interest.”
Al Qaeda was taking steps to rein in the unruly jihadists. Rahman explained that al Qaeda was “currently in the process of establishing a Coordination Council for Turkish speaking groups (Turks, Turkmen, and Uzbeks, some of them are not part of the Taher Jan group, Azeris, and Bulgarians, probably.)”**
The “Taher Jan group” is a reference to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which was headed by Tahir Yuldashev (also known as Taher Jan) before his demise in 2009. As Rahman saw it, part of the problem was caused by Uzbeks who were not affiliated with the IMU.
Small subset from a much larger cache of documents
There was widespread outrage after the location of Osama bin Laden’s compound was revealed in early May 2011. He wasn’t living in the remote regions of northern Pakistan, where the drones had killed other al Qaeda leaders, but instead in a city not far from Islamabad. Abbottabad houses an elite Pakistani military academy and other elements of the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment. It is difficult to believe that no one in the Pakistani establishment knew of bin Laden’s location.
The bin Laden files released thus far are not sufficient to draw firm conclusions concerning the extent of the al Qaeda master’s support network in Pakistan. But the documents indicate that some key Pakistanis were at least willing to cut a deal with al Qaeda. Both Shah Baz Sharif and Pakistani intelligence leaders were willing to negotiate to put an end to the jihadists’ attacks. However, this does not mean that these same officials were collaborating with al Qaeda. And al Qaeda clearly disapproved of some of the Pakistani Taliban’s operations, even as the two groups were communicating at the senior leadership level.
More files need to be released to tell the whole story. Just two dozen documents out of the more than one million captured during the bin Laden raid have been made public.
Still, there are hints of even more nefarious connections in the small set of documents released thus far.
The letters introduced as evidence in Naseer’s trial confirm that the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment considers prominent al Qaeda-allied jihadists, such as HUM leader Fazlur Rehman Khalil, to be acceptable partners. And the Pakistanis knew that to get in touch with al Qaeda’s senior leadership all they needed to do was reach out to men such as Khalil.
Indeed, previous accounts indicate that a cellphone recovered from bin Laden’s courier revealed contacts with HUM commanders. [See LWJ report, Bin Laden’s courier tied to Pakistani-backed terror group.]
Some of Pakistan’s jihadist proxies are also al Qaeda’s closest allies.
**The US government’s translation of this letter identifies some of the jihadists as “Bulgarians,” but the letter may actually be referencing Bulgars, another ethnicity/nationality.