On reports that bin Laden wasn’t really running al Qaeda

Yesterday, McClatchy reported that anonymous US and Pakistani officials have claimed that at the end of his life, Osama bin Laden wasn’t really running al Qaeda. These officials say that the evidence collected from the Abbottabad compound demonstrates that he “was out of touch with the younger generation of al Qaeda commanders, and they often didn’t follow his advice during the years he was in hiding in northern Pakistan.”

If their conclusion is true, it is highly significant to anyone trying to understand al Qaeda because it directly contradicts early reports of what the Abbottabad evidence reveals. For example, an Associated Press report published within a week of bin Laden’s death had noted that analysts who examined the information came to believe that bin Laden “was a lot more involved in directing al Qaeda personnel and operations than sometimes thought over the last decade,” and that he had been providing strategic guidance to al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Somalia.

At the outset, I should note two reasons for my skepticism about the new claims of bin Laden’s irrelevance. First, the anonymous officials whom McClatchy quoted hadn’t actually seen the primary source material themselves. Rather, McClatchy describes the anonymous US official who seemingly serves as the key source for the entire report (he was quoted multiple times) as someone “who’d been briefed on the evidence collected from the Abbottabad compound.” There is a critical difference between sources who have reviewed critical intelligence themselves and those who were merely briefed on it: anybody who played the ‘telephone game’ in elementary school will know that basic information has a tendency to become distorted as it goes through multiple narrations.

I alluded to my second reason for skepticism somewhat elliptically on Twitter yesterday, writing that this revelation is “seemingly part of a running debate in CT circles.” That is, the initial information coming out of the Abbottabad compound significantly challenged the previous conventional wisdom within the intelligence community, that bin Laden was irrelevant or marginalized. Some analysts and thinkers had become heavily invested in that narrative, and nobody likes to admit when they are wrong. So pushback, in my view, was inevitable.

I reached out to a US intelligence analyst who has reviewed the relevant information taken from the Abbottabad compound, and he wrote:

McClatchy has long had excellent contacts in certain quarters of CIA dating back to the Iraq war, so I’m not surprised that they were the choice for this pushback. This is not in any way supported by the evidence IMO and I am prepared to offer several hundred pages of primary source material to challenge that assessment. Nor is this the position of Brennan, Panetta, or other members of the administration. The argument that all of bin Laden’s writings are aspirational and the like are being used to dismiss an entire body of evidence that contradicts certain people’s sacred cows.

At a broader level, people who are still arguing that bin Laden played no role in al Qaeda are basically in the same role as a Young Earth creationist. There is a massive amount of material that contradicts a position, so they are desperately trying to discredit it. I am limited to talking about what material is public, but just sticking to what has been discussed to date I think you can see that he was regularly in touch with senior leadership of his affiliates. The fact that they sometimes had tactical or strategic disagreements does not mean they weren’t responsive to his guidance.

OK, like McClatchy, my source is anonymous. And I understand that for outside observers these kinds of disputes can be confusing, because determining among anonymous intelligence sources can feel a bit like reading tea leaves. So my point is not that my anonymous sources are better than McClatchy’s (though I firmly believe that the above quote does represent the best reading of the relevant intelligence).

Rather, the main takeaway point for the reader is that there are positions or narratives within the intelligence community – as well as the policy community – that certain segments become quite invested in and will attempt to reinforce for reasons that are unrelated to the best reading of the applicable evidence. (Remember how long some Bush administration officials remained invested in the idea that Saddam Hussein had WMDs, even giving wink-and-a-nod support for theories about Iraqi WMDs being moved to Syria?)

When new reports emerge that completely contradict information released on a certain issue, it’s always worth asking what kind of debates and struggles are going on behind the scenes that may be driving both the release of information and also the spin given to it.

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  • TMP says:

    Any notion that doesn’t start from the reality that UBL was most certainly marginalized via ekking out his survival within a single shabby bedroom for the past 5 + years isn’t dealing with reality.
    The guy to those on the front lines, in any operational sense was most certainly irrelvent. Hell, his death and the lack of any real impact on the radical Muslim street shows this.
    Now, this death was very needed (for our side). But it has virtually caused no serious issues for AQ or AQ mimics.

  • steve says:

    I agree with you TMP.
    Outside of some short lived intelligence that may or may not have been gleaned, It looks to me like OBL’s death (thanks to our awesome spec ops alone) has only provided political cover for those seeking reelection or a face saving way out of a difficult war.
    Those people are short sighted and, as usual, are not thinking of our troops, their families, our the lives and future security of the US.
    It’s going to be a Long War .. we’re just getting started.

  • JT says:

    As Bill discusses, early reports were that intel guys were surprised at how much obl was still in control.
    Over the past few weeks, what has really changed? The info gathered from the compound? no
    Interests in spinning things? certainly. One simple possibility is to downplay the hit against AQ. As significant as it was, it did not eliminate the threat. Somes might call it fear mongering, but the threat remains.

  • Charu says:

    Great post. Self-serving Pakistani statements (and those by their enablers in the US ranks) are like gifts borne by Greeks…. beware!

  • My2Cents says:

    It all comes down to your definition of

  • TMP says:

    @JT – Early reports on the OP were all completley wrong as well (all varying 50 different accounts over the first week). So the notion that the early reports / LEAKs regarding INTEL gathered were most likely complete BS as well.
    Reality is UBL was clearly not in control in any sense whatsoever of AQ. He remained hided in a shabby, isolated compound (again, remember the multi-million dollar mansion, the MSM kept spinning over the course of hte first week). That place isn’t close to 200K. It is a shabby, non-up kept compound in which UBL ekked out his survival basically within 2 small rooms watching old videos of himself. He had been isolated and reduced to a pathetic life.
    Of course some within the INTEL communinity would like to spin him as having much more influence because it makes his killing look that much better. Regardless, the man needed to die. The Op run by our Jedi warriors was brillant beyond words…….but that has nothing to do with the reality that this SOB was living a patheic and isolated life, in control of virtually nothing.

  • Charles says:

    Proof is in the pudding.
    Initial reports were that whole libraries of info were got from OBL. That OBL was in direct operational contact with all his lieutenants.
    In theory this should have resulted in a lot of take downs of high value targets. Especially Zawahiri as the Pakistanis have the least stake in this foreigner. Zawahiri is not a local boy.
    But nothing of the kind has happened. The take downs we have seen since OBL’s death do not appear to have come as a result of info gathered from OBL.

  • Slow says:

    @ Charles
    Consider the deaths of Abu Ayyub Al Masri and Abu Umar Al Baghdadi. Pairing site exploitation with ongoing lines of targeting takes time.

  • Graham says:

    I’m reminded of Hitler in the Fuererbunker.

  • villiger says:

    bin Laden wasn’t really running his kitchen either, but he managed to eat.
    He also wasn’t really running a hairdressing saloon, but managed to dye his beard.v

  • Charles says:

    I looked up the first reference wikipedia.
    Abu Ayyub al-Masri was a senior aide to former leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
    Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in an airstrike. There was not a library of information that came out as he went down.
    Abu Ayyub al-Masri died nearly four years later in Iraq during a joint US Iraqi raid in Tikrit. Abu Umar Al Baghdadi died with him. wikipedia reports that that takedown included computer intel with emails to Zawahiri and OBL.
    So without intel it took four years to get from al-Zarqawi to al-Masri and Al Baghdadi.
    With intel it took one year to get from al-Zarqawi to al-Masri and Al Baghdadi to OBL.
    Ok point taken. I would have thought the inference engine would have been shorter than a year. But maybe not.

  • RT0321 says:

    The more seasoned on the ground journalists, independent and otherwise, have all painted a picture of an AQ and Taliban that like in Iraq previously, had turned into a death cult. That largely coincides with AQ’s attention shift back towards Pakistan/A-stan and the subsequent changes in command of the Taliban ‘old guard’ to the new, more radical bunch that still run things. That came as a direct result of the foreign Arab influence that was becoming more radical in it’s own right.
    There was also significant evidence of a rift in the very highest levels of leadership within AQ and the Taliban, and that it did involve UBL and Zawahiri.
    That would also coincide with UBL audio statements about avoiding civilian casualties. And with statements made by UBL’s wife after the raid as to when and where they first moved to after leaving the tribal areas.
    The Emir could have seen the writing on the wall, or even gently nudged into retirement. The last 20+ years would not have been kind to his health.
    I dont like to marginalize such an important even like UBL seeing Americans about to stitch him up as his last vision on earth, but I think it is pretty clear that he was not the active leader of AQ. The methods of communication alone would simply not have let him be. Any communications are largely going to be out of context.

  • Charles says:

    Al Qaeda hit by credit crunch: Bin Laden emails reveal terror group is running out of cash
    Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2010617/Bin-Ladens-fears-Al-Qaedas-future-revealed-emails.html#ixzz1R0m12HmR


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