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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