In the most recent batch of documents that were seized from Osama bin Laden’s library and released by the Official of the Directory of National Intelligence, there are interesting nuggets of information that provide details of the composition of al Qaeda over time. In one particular document, a letter dated March 5, 2008 that is likely written by al Qaeda general manager Mustafa Abu Yazid to “Shaykh Azmaray,” who is Osama bin Laden, there is a brief mention of the death of Abu Laith al Libi.
Abu Laith was a revered al Qaeda military commander who was killed in a US drone strike in North Waziristan, Pakistan, in January 2008. The US Defense Intelligence Agency previously described him as an “expert in guerrilla warfare.”
At the time of his death, it was reported that two Kuwaitis and one Libyan were killed alongside with Abu Laith.
But the letter recovered from bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, claims that far more than three people were killed in the strike (not just Arabs), and named the other Libyan killed. Note that the author describes all of those killed as “brothers.” From the letter:
In regard to Shaykh Abu al-Layth: he was martyred with Abu Sahil al-Libi and ten other brothers, among them Arabs, Tajiks, and Turkistanis, God accept them as martyrs.
Al Qaeda often uses the term “brothers” to describe members of its organization, but the term can also be used to describe fighters from an allied group. Osama bin Laden, in an interview with Al Jazeera in October 2001, said that “all the true believers are brothers.”
After a drone strike we frequently hear that members of an ethnic group, often “Uzbeks,” were killed. A common assumption is that these Uzbeks, or Taliks, or Turkistanis are members of another jihadist group that isn’t al Qaeda.
The “Tajiks” killed alongside Abu Laith could have been members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Islamic Jihad Union, or other groups that have and continue to operate in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The “Turkistanis” may have been Chinese Uighirs who were members from the Turkistan Islamic Party.
Or these Tajiks and Turkistanis could have been bonafide members of al Qaeda, as it is known to let a wide range of nationalities into its ranks.
At the end of the day, it matters little. Then as now, al Qaeda remains a dangerous enemy that adapts to its surroundings by either coordinating with local groups or getting members of these local groups to join its ranks.