In a letter addressed to Mullah Omar in late 2010, Osama bin Laden argued that the West had been “undermined and weakened in every respect” by the war in Afghanistan. The al Qaeda master believed the jihadists simply needed to be patient, as the West lacked the will to keep fighting and had suffered “socially, politically, militarily and economically” from the war.
Bin Laden offered an economic justification for his assessment, claiming that “America’s wise men are telling the government it must reduce the size of the Pentagon budget to lower payments and interest on their (national) debt, which is now a truly astronomical number.”
“You are well aware that some members of NATO — mainly Canada — have announced that they will pull out in 2011, and opposition parties in the Western countries are calling for them to get out of Afghanistan,” bin Laden wrote. “Even Obama believes they need to withdraw in the coming months, as he said publicly, but the Republicans and military generals have been pressuring him and [are] saying that their pulling out would be [seen as] a defeat that would affect their standing and interests throughout the world.”
Bin Laden compared President Obama to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who oversaw the Russians’ withdrawal from Afghanistan after a prolonged war. Bin Laden argued that Obama was making the same kinds of statements that Gorbachev once did in his conversations with Russian generals. “I don’t have money to buy milk for the troops,” bin Laden quoted Gorbachev as saying, according to the US government’s translation of the letter.
Bin Laden also complained about the jihadist operations that caused civilian casualties in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The al Qaeda master’s files are littered with references to the deleterious effects of such attacks. And bin Laden wanted Omar to address the situation directly.
“On another note, you may have heard the many news reports of people praying in mosques and being targeted in attacks that were attributed to mujahidin — especially in Pakistan and Afghanistan recently — as well as attacks on certain markets,” bin Laden wrote. “Dozens of Muslims have been cut down in mosques and public gathering areas just to kill one enemy, and that is not legally permissible [under Islamic law].”
“Muslims in general, and the mujahidin in particular, need to hear you [Mullah Omar] cautioning them on the serious matter of shedding Muslim blood unjustly,” bin Laden advised.
Two copies of the 2010 letter were included in a cache of 113 declassified files released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) this week. The letters and memos were recovered during the raid on bin Laden’s Abbottabad, Pakistan compound in early May 2011.
One version of the letter is dated Nov. 5, 2010. The second, revised copy is dated early Dec. 2010. Both are addressed to the “Commander (Emir) of the Faithful,” a title usually reserved for the Caliph, or Muslim ruler. Al Qaeda used the title for Mullah Omar after bin Laden swore allegiance to him sometime prior to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Omar, who likely died sometime in 2013, was succeeded by Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour. Ayman al Zawahiri swore fealty to Mansour on behalf of al Qaeda in Aug. 2015. Al Qaeda has referred to Mansour as the “Commander (Emir) of the Faithful” since then. (Al Qaeda’s rivals in the Islamic State use this same honorific when referring to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who has been renamed “Caliph Ibrahim” by his followers.)
Bin Laden’s letter to Omar shows that al Qaeda used the title “Commander of the Faithful” for the Taliban’s chief even in its private correspondence.
Indeed, bin Laden emphasized his loyalty to Omar, writing: “We are ready to obey your command.”
Another letter addressed to the “Emir of the Believers”
A short letter addressed to the “Emir of the Believers,” written in Sept. 2010 by an unidentified author, was also released by the ODNI this week. The missive is brief and its contents are difficult to assess given that its context is unclear. The correspondence is a reply to a letter that was apparently authored by Omar, or by Omar’s subordinates on his behalf.
“I have received your kind letter,” the Sept. 2010 letter reads, referring to correspondence attributed to Omar. “I was so happy reading it and I understood what it contained,” the author wrote.
The letter reiterates al Qaeda’s fealty to the Taliban’s leader: “We are saying to you, we heard and are in obedience regarding what you had mentioned. We are your soldiers and we are with you heart and soul in supporting the religion of God Almighty.”
Al Qaeda skeptical of statements attributed to Mullah Omar
The files from late 2010 reveal that bin Laden was likely corresponding with the Taliban’s senior leadership. And previously released memos found in bin Laden’s possession demonstrate that al Qaeda was closely cooperating with the Haqqani Network, which is part of the Taliban alliance, that same year.
However, communications between bin Laden and Mullah Omar were interrupted for some time.
In January 2010, “Abu Yahya” wrote to “our honorable Shaykh” (almost certainly bin Laden) that “[o]ne of the important issues” was “to increase the consolidation of the relation[ship] with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” which “praise be to God” was already “very good.”
The author, who was likely Abu Yahya al Libi (a senior al Qaeda official killed in a US drone strike in June 2012), warned that the Taliban “published statements on some occasions” using “expressions and phrases that were not known or used before by them.” These “statements were issued under the name of Emir al-Mu’minin [“Emir of the Believers,” or Mullah Omar],” but were “far from his style and tone.”
The Taliban’s “Shura Council might have the authority to issue statements on his [Omar’s] behalf,” Abu Yahya explained. In fact, the Taliban did falsely issue statements in Mullah Omar’s name long after he passed away.
Abu Yahya recommended that the “Shaykh” (bin Laden) correspond directly with Mullah Omar. “Our respected Shaykh, what I see is to activate the relationship between you and Emir al-Mu’minin [“Emir of the Believers”] through correspondence…so that [it] will create a good impression for them and make them feel that you are close and adopting their case,” he wrote.
Abu Yahya wanted to thwart any “enticements” from the Americans, which he didn’t think would lure most Taliban commanders but could still cause problems. (The US government has held talks with Taliban representatives, hoping to end the group’s alliance with al Qaeda. These efforts have failed.)
Writing to Omar would allow al Qaeda to “show a kind devotion toward” to the Taliban “for their huge sacrifices that they provided and are still offering, especially [because] they are facing enticements from the Americans and their allies, which might reach a high level,” Abu Yahya wrote. “Only the truthful could stay firm; praise be to God, they are the majority in the [Taliban’s] Emirate. Nevertheless, they need to be stabilized, and your speeches have a special influence upon them, yet this is one of the great jihadi methods.”
Abu Yahya believed that bin Laden’s writings could “maintain” al Qaeda’s “unity” with the Taliban and “unite our voice.”
Bin Laden evidently agreed with Abu Yahya, and began writing to Mullah Omar later that same year. The full scope of their communications cannot be ascertained based solely on the documents released thus far. It is likely that additional evidence of communications with Mullah Omar was recovered in bin Laden’s home. But al Qaeda was clearly skeptical, at least for a time, about who was issuing statements in Mullah Omar’s name.