Following our initial analysis of the Osama bin Laden letters released by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point, we’ll more closely examine interesting moments from the letters and size them up against what was publicly reported as happening in the world in order to gain a deeper perspective on what was known or unknown at the time.
There was a frenzy of summarization and highlight reel reporting in the wake of the Abbottabad documents being publicly released. Some focused on the idea that Osama bin Laden was ostracized, some pointed to the seeming obsession with image in the media, and others simply took a chance to jab at Joe Biden for the suggestions made about his lack of preparedness for the presidency.
What we’ll do in this post is take a different approach, and rather than focus on analyst viewpoints we’ll compare reactions to the Abbottabad documents from a unique source – Islamist discussion forums.
There we find rebukes over the veracity of the documents released, support for the efforts of operatives such as Faisal Shahzad, and a little interest in the Arab Spring.
Looking into the ForumsWe started this process in similar manner to our initial text analysis of the letters. Using Recorded Future technology, we harvested and processed text posted in response to the Abbottabad documents on four message boards: Islamic Awakening, As-Ansar, Hanein, and Muslm.net.
Forum Content in English and Arabic
Out of this text, we were able to extract and visualize several different slices of data using Recorded Future. The first area to examine dovetails off our previous link analysis done on Bin Laden’s network in Yemen, and provides an overview of the individuals and organizations mentioned in these discussion forum posts.
See below for a network detailing the people and organizations mentioned in forum posts reacting to release of the Abbottabad documents:
Individuals and organizations mentioned in forums - click for full size
General ReactionThe most notable sentiment identifiable in the forums is that of disbelief and claims of a conspiracy.
Reactions from Islamic forums to Bin Laden letters
Operatives Mentioned in Documents and ForumsThe large network shown above provides a broad overview describing who and what was mentioned on forums in reaction to the letters. But let’s do some comparative analysis and see which individuals related to al-Qaeda that were part of the letters (either as authors or reference in the communications) bubbled up in the forum chatter.
UBL Letters and Forum Overlap
There are three names that stand out as being referenced in both sets of documents (the UBL letters and discussion forum reactions):
Adam Gadahn – American born media spokesman for Al-Qaeda.
- Letters – Presumed to be the author of one document that focuses on media strategy, and referenced by his kunya Azzam al-Amriki in two separate letters attributed to Bin Laden. In a 2006 letter, Bin Laden asks whether Gadahn has been arrested, and then in 2007 requests that Gadahn translate a Robert Fisk book and recommend a US media channel to deliver a taped al-Qaeda message.
- Forums – he’s both lauded for his media analysis (one post suggesting that Gadahn’s description of the major U.S. network “seems pretty up to date on recent media news”) and criticized for his background (“a grandson of a member of the board of the ADL”) and trustworthiness.
Mention of Gadahn in forums
Faisal Shahzad – Pakistani American, attempted attack in New York City in 2010
- Forums – mentioned in a lengthy post that praises the efforts of those such as “Faisal” (as he’s referred in the comment), despite his failure, in attempting to strike against American targets. The post uses Shahzad as an example of a an attacker that the United States has physically seen and made an example of the failure before going on to suggest that the idea of “this jihad” facing “calamity after calamity” is wrong based upon the emergence and continued activity of groups in various areas of the world.
- Letters – Shahzad is cited in several locations. One simple reference to his attempted attack in Times Square, and another is a rebuke from Bin Laden of Shahzad’s behavior when standing trial. You can see the reference as extracted from the original document below.
Reference in Letter from UBL
There is also an interesting comment on Shahzad’s failed operation in a letter from Bin Laden that reveal his insight into strategic shortcomings of al-Qaeda. In the network below, you can see a connection extracted from the letters by Recorded Future showing Shahzad tied to Waziristan, which comes from the following comment in a letter by Bin Laden:
So, for example, the operation of brother Faysal Shahrazad, Allah release his imprisonment, was possible to avoid his capture and the errors that happened easily by one who had experience in that area, so if a brother purchased the vehicle and then travelled from America to Waziristan before the operation, it would have made it difficult to capture the brother that fast… after which the Americans commented that the Mujahidin have become unable to conduct a large operation that is well planned.
UBL wanted US operatives to train in Waziristan
Ayman al-Zawahiri – Current leader of al-Qaeda.
- Forums – mentions of Zawahari in the discussion threads that we analyzed generally refer to his role in past major events including his role as Bin Laden’s bodyguard and Zawahari’s role in the September 11, 2001 attacks.
- Letters – Zawahiri is referred to directly as well as, according to the CTC’s report, by the alias Sheikh Abu Muhammad used by Bin Laden. Interestingly, aside from Bin Laden, the persons mentioned along with Zawahari in the letters (circled in blue) are both unknown accomplices although Sahib al-Tayyib appears to be related to activity in Saudi Arabia.
Zawahiri network from CTC documents
Places of NoteAnother aspect of the letters that warrants comparison to forum reactions is the mention of locations. Remember that these letters are glimpses into the world as it was for UBL and correspondents between 2006 and 2011; the forums, while reactionary to the Abbottabad documents, instead provide the pulse for what’s in focus today.
Locations mentioned in UBL letters vs discussion forums
Obviously, the discussion forums are heavy on mentions related to Abbottabad and Pakistan since we specifically sought out the threads discussing the CTC documents that highlight the location where Bin Laden was killed. There are also several references in these threads mentioning other locations in Pakistan although they so far consist of text excerpted directly from other media including:
- a report published in October 2001 by French newspaper Le Figaro (pulled, but cited elsewhere) claiming that Bin Laden received medical attention in an American hospital and met with the CIA just months before the 9/11 attacks.
- an Al Arabiya report on the release of the letters that cites senior advisor John Brennan saying Bin Laden “had urged the leaders to flee from the tribal areas (in the north-west Pakistan)” and that strikes from unmanned aircraft, “especially in Pakistan” had resulted in the death of “cadres of Al Qaeda” in recent years.
As noted above we find discussion of operations in Waziristan with regards to Faisal Shahzad as well as the difficulties encountered by operatives in that region.
Even more interesting are the references to Peshawar (visible in the above table), a city just ~150 kilometers from Abbottabad. The letters tell us that Peshawar was a location for meetings between couriers as well as where al-Qaeda conducted kidnappings of Iranian and Afghan officials.
Peshawar References from UBL Docs - Click for full size
There is a similar contrast between the letters and forums regarding references to countries enveloped in the Arab Spring uprisings. Egypt in particular was a primary subject of the letters most recently published in April 2011.
However, the discussion threads examined include no mention of that country, perhaps signifying a perceived loss of opportunity to leverage the protests and instability on behalf of al-Qaeda.
ConclusionThis analysis takes us from the correspondence of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda associates to the raw response to these documents on Islamist discussion forums. We were able to identify leaders and themes that either continue to resonate today or have perhaps declined in interest, leaving us with a number of strands to follow for further analysis. These include individuals whose actions and resonance we’ll want to follow, both in the media and on forums, and locations to examine more closely both historically and currently.
Persons of interest:
- Adam Gadahn – Is his credibility and influence with leadership waning? He was clearly valued by Bin Laden, but what of the new al -Qaeda leadership?
- Faisal Shahzad - Will Bin Laden’s criticism of his actions in court deter copycat attacks? Are we able to discover whether efforts to send al-Qaeda recruits to Waziristan or other strategic centers have been successful?
- Ayman al-Zawahari - How is he being viewed in comparison to Bin Laden, and are his unique relationships (open alliance with Shabaab, for example) succeeding or alienating supporters?
- Peshawar – Is there more to discover about the individuals and activities in this city during the time of Bin Laden’s hiding in Abbottabad?
- Egypt – Is the opportunity perceived to be lost by al-Qaeda or is there activity under the surface as the government is reorganized?