Federal prosecutors have introduced eight documents recovered in Osama bin Laden’s compound in May 2011 as evidence in the trial of a terrorism suspect in New York. Abid Naseer is alleged to have taken part in al Qaeda’s plotting in Europe and New York City. And U.S. attorneys argue that the documents are important for understanding the scope of al Qaeda’s network and activities.
The Long War Journal has obtained the bin Laden files introduced as government exhibits. One of the documents is a memorandum dated June 19, 2010 written by “Mahmoud,” the alias used by Atiyah Abd al Rahman, to Sheikh Abu Abdallah, a nom de guerre used by Osama bin Laden.
Rahman, who served as al Qaeda’s general manager, was subsequently killed in a US drone strike in August 2011.
One section of Rahman’s memo details al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan at the time.
“Our groups inside Afghanistan are the same for every season for many years now,” Rahman wrote. “We have groups in Bactria, Bactica, Khost, Zabul, Ghazni and [Wardak] in addition to the battalion in Nuristan and Kunz,” the US government’s translation reads. Bactria and Bactica are probably poor translations of Paktia and Paktika, two provinces where al Qaeda’s allies are known to have a strong presence. Also, Kunz is likely Kunar.
Therefore, Rahman indicated that al Qaeda had a presence in at least eight Afghan provinces.
The size of these “groups” was not disclosed. But earlier in the letter, Rahman mentioned that al Qaeda has “a full battalion in Nuristan and Kunar.” A translator or analyst from the US government estimated that this battalion consisted of “around 70 individuals.”
The Afghan provinces where Rahman said al Qaeda operated are consistent with the International Security Assistance Forces’ (ISAF) press releases on operations against al Qaeda and allied groups, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Lashkar-e-Taiba, from 2007 until the release of information was halted in June 2013. During that time period, ISAF targeted al Qaeda and its allies at least 338 different times, in 25 of 34 of Afghanistan’s provinces, and in 110 of Afghanistan’s nearly 400 districts. Al Qaeda alone was targeted by ISAF in the provinces of Nangarhar, Wardak, Laghman, Paktia, Paktika, Khost, Ghazni, Zabul, Kandhar, Helmand, Kunar, Nuristan, Balkh, Takhar, Badakhshan, Baghlan, Kunduz, and Farah. [See LWJ report, ISAF raids against al Qaeda and allies in Afghanistan 2007-2013.]
US military and intelligence officials have repeatedly claimed that al Qaeda has just 50-100 fighters in all of Afghanistan and that they are isolated in the remote eastern terrain. But Rahman’s memo indicates that al Qaeda was operating throughout Afghanistan as of mid-2010.
And the US government’s translation indicates that al Qaeda had roughly 70 fighters in Kunar and Nuristan alone.
Cooperation with Haqqani Network
Rahman made a point to highlight al Qaeda’s ongoing cooperation with the Haqqani Network, a powerful Taliban subgroup, in their operations.
“We have very strong military activity in Afghanistan, many special operations, and the Americans and NATO are being hit hard,” Rahman wrote.
“The last special operations we participated in,” Rahman explained in the memo, “was (the Bagram operation), in summary: We cooperated with Siraj Haqqani and another commander down there (Kabul/Bagram).”
The plan was to “sneak into the Bagram base with the infiltrators unit wearing explosives vests, a good amount of Kalashnikov ammunition, some with Beka [PK machine gun, called BKC in Arabic], and some with R.P.G.” Rahman described the attack as a success.
The operation described in the memo is the May 19, 2010 suicide assault at Bagram Air Base in the central and normally peaceful province of Parwan.
Rahman identified the “leader of the infiltrator martyrs” as “our brother,” Abu Talha al Almani, a German-Moroccan al Qaeda leader known as Bekkay Harrach. Rahman explained how Harrach wasn’t prepared “psychologically,” and Abu Ubaidah al Masri, al Qaeda’s former operations chief who died of natural causes in 2008, “wanted him as a leader and an effective element.” Harrach insisted al Qaeda allow him to fulfill his pledge to become a martyr.
Abu Ubaidah had assigned Harrach to his branch, which is tasked with striking at the West. Harrach quickly rose through the ranks and became a member of the external operations council, a senior US military intelligence official told The Long War Journal in October 2009.
Interestingly enough, Harrach’s martyrdom statement was issued by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which is closely allied to al Qaeda and has integrated its military command with the Taliban in northern Afghanistan.
In addition to his al Qaeda and IMU roles, Harrach was a close confidant of the Haqqani Network, which operates on both sides of the border and is closely tied to both al Qaeda and Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment. Harrach was under the direct protection of Siraj Haqqani, the military commander of the family network and a member of al Qaeda’s ruling council.
Haqqani Network commanders are said to have sought Harrach’s advice on the planning and execution of major attacks.
“If we want to do something, we always ask the German [Harrach] for his opinion,” a source in the Haqqani Network told Spiegel in January 2009.
Relocating to Afghanistan
The drone strikes have had a significant effect on al Qaeda’s operations, as Rahman remarked in his correspondence with bin Laden. But al Qaeda has also sought ways to mitigate the impact of the airstrikes. In particular, the group likely relocated leaders out of Waziristan to safe areas of Afghanistan.
In another letter to Bin Laden used as a trial exhibit, Rahman wrote that al Qaeda had decided to keep a low “media image” to “reinforce our invisibility and security and help us avoid monitoring by spies.” Rahman continued: “The war of espionage is causing us to suffer, and we are drawing American pressure on Pakistan.” These words were written during the height of the US drone campaign, which has since become far less prolific.
Rahman discussed relocating to Afghanistan. “We have thought about moving out of Waziristan soon, we might go to Nuristan, some of us, and some may stay.”
Rahman elaborated: “I mean the leaders, and the members of the different organizations like media, the Sharia Committee and the like. We will divide ourselves, one group stays and the other goes.”
Al Qaeda had capable leaders still operating in Afghanistan, Rahman wrote. “As I have reported before, we have a good battalion over there led by brother Faruq al-Qatari. He is the best of a good crew. He recently sent us a message telling us that he has arranged everything to receive us; he said the locations are good, there are supporters and everything.”
Faruq al Qatari remains one of al Qaeda’s most effective commanders in Afghanistan. And Rahman’s letter to bin Laden made it clear that Qatari was reporting to al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan.
Rahman’s plan for relocating part of al Qaeda’s leadership to Afghanistan is consistent with another, previously released letter found in bin Laden’s compound. In a letter dated Oct. 21, 2010, bin Laden told Rahman that al Qaeda should relocate as many “brothers” as possible to the eastern Afghan provinces of Nuristan, Kunar, Ghazni and Zabul to avoid the US drone campaign in North and South Waziristan. [See LWJ report, Bin Laden advised relocation of some leaders to Afghanistan due to drone strikes in Waziristan.]