Osama Bin Laden’s Files: Al Qaeda relocated operatives out of northern Pakistan

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Months prior to his death, Osama bin Laden ordered one of his chief lieutenants to evacuate “the brothers” from Pakistan’s tribal agencies of North and South Waziristan to “Afghanistan and Pakistan,” according to a letter seized by US forces in the al Qaeda master’s Abbottabad, Pakistan compound.

The letter is addressed to “Shaykh Mahmud,” a known alias used by Atiyah Abd al Rahman, who served as al Qaeda’s general manager until he was killed in a US drone strike in August 2011.

The missive is among the 113 documents from bin Laden’s cache that were released today by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). While the author of the letter is not explicitly named, it is clearly written by Atiyah’s superior. The tone and tenor is also consistent with other letters known to be written by bin Laden to his deputy.

The Dec. 3, 2010 memo was written at the peak of the US drone campaign in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The author describes the “airstrikes” as “a major and long-standing issue,” and “insist(s) on taking precautions at peoples’ homes, and cutting off surveillance as soon as (anyone) leaves them.”

“I insist on the brothers quickly leaving Waziristan for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and they should enter Afghanistan in small groups,” the author states. “They also should be advised how vital it is they take security precautions in Afghanistan, as well as Pakistan, and remind them of the harm that could befall every mujahidin from the carelessness of a few.”

A previously released letter showed that bin Laden had already advised key al Qaeda personnel to relocate to several provinces in Afghanistan. In an Oct. 3, 2010 missive to Rahman, bin Laden said 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.]

However, the Dec. 3, 2010 letter, which was released earlier today, confirms that al Qaeda’s emir also intended to move his followers into areas in Pakistan outside of the tribal areas. Al Qaeda is known to operate in all four of Pakistan’s provinces and in many of its major cities. These areas are off limits to the US drone campaign.

The relocation of al Qaeda members is one reason why the US drone campaign in Pakistan has slowed dramatically from its height of 117 in 2010 to just 11 in 2015. (There have been two strikes in Pakistan so far this year.)

The drone strikes have primarily focused on the small kill box in North and South Waziristan. The Long War Journal has tallied a total of 391 such bombings since the program began in 2004. Only 21 of these strikes have taken place in tribal areas outside of North and South Waziristan. 280 missiles have struck in North Waziristan and another 90 in South Waziristan.

Senior al Qaeda leaders have been killed in airstrikes in Afghanistan, but those based in Pakistan outside of the tribal areas are not in the drones’ crosshairs. The US has relied on cooperation from Pakistani security forces in some cases. In the raid that killed bin Laden, however, American forces snuck into Pakistan unannounced.

Al Qaeda maintains a significant foothold inside Afghanistan to this day. Another previously released bin Laden file discussed the group’s operations in at least eight of Afghanistan’s provinces. [See LWJ report, Osama Bin Laden’s Files: ‘Very strong military activity in Afghanistan’.]

Last month, the US Treasury Department designated Farouq al Qahtani, who is the head of al Qaeda’s eastern zone in Afghanistan. Qahtani plans operations against coalition forces and has also helped plot attacks against the West. Al Qaeda has relied on Qahtani to establish safe zones in Afghanistan for other members.

Despite bin Laden’s order to relocate al Qaeda leaders from Waziristan, the group was never able to completely vacate the key jihadist stronghold. Some of al Qaeda’s top leaders were killed in North and South Waziristan after bin Laden ordered the move, including Rahman and Ilyas Kashmiri (2011); Abu Yahya al Libi (2012); Abu Ubaydah Abdullah al Adam (2013); and Adam Gadahn, Qari ‘Imran, and Ustad Ahmad Farooq (2015).

For more information on the drone strikes targeting al Qaeda leaders and other high-value targets, see LWJ reports, Senior al Qaeda, Taliban, and allied jihadist leaders killed in US airstrikes in Pakistan, 2004 – 2016, and US Strikes in Pakistan, HVTs.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal. Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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1 Comment

  • Arjuna says:

    I wonder why they couldn’t find refuge outside AfPak for their most senior fighters? Was Iran off limits, having hit their quota? Yemen too dangerous?

    I suppose living in Paki cities is too expensive, because you have rich to pay your patrons. Bin Laden still had 29m pin money in Sudan. So much for them being broke. I think the whole fighting terrorism through the Department of the Treasury approach is a joke.

    This is the kind of pressure needs to be brought to bear on the Islamic State (hundreds of drone strikes, near complete leadership decapitation).


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