CIA documents shed light on bin Laden’s Machiavellian mindset
LONDON - Osama bin Laden’s 228- page handwritten, yellow-bound diary was among the intelligence pearls of the vast trove of material seized during the US Navy SEALs’ raid on his walled compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 2, 2011, in which the al-Qaeda founder was killed. It provided unique insights into al-Qaeda’s history and the leadership’s operational planning.
Bin Laden’s diary appears to show that the former al-Qaeda leader considered political expediency more important than ideological and religious convictions.
An example of this Machiavellian perspective was his efforts to take advantage of the 2011 Libyan uprising against Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi.
“Tribalism among Libyan jihadists is strong; I’ve never seen anything like it. That’s why when we address the brothers [in Libya], we must be careful,” bin Laden wrote.
In Salafism, as well as in other schools of Islamic thought, tribalism is generally considered un-Islamic and belonging to al-jahiliyyah (the pre-Islamic period of “ignorance”). Bin Laden was clearly willing to sacrifice religious orthodoxy to gain a foothold in Libya.
Another example of such political pragmatism was revealed in an audio file of an al-Qaeda operative known as Abu Muhammad. The recording narrates how Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a notorious al-Qaeda leader who was killed in 2006 in Iraq, negotiated with his ideological nemeses — Iranian Shias — to gain entry to Iraq.
Zarqawi carried out murderous attacks against Shias in Iraq, despite calls from al-Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan for him to tone down his zeal.
The ultimate illustration of bin Laden’s Machiavellian nature was his cynical marriage of convenience with Iran.
“Anyone who wants to strike America, Iran is ready to support him and help him,” bin Laden noted in 2007. Iran offered al-Qaeda “money and arms and everything they need, and offered them training in Hezbollah camps in Lebanon, in return for striking American interests in Saudi Arabia,” he said.
This was a far cry from the 1980s, when bin Laden sided with the United States to combat the “godless” Soviet Union. That strategy was considered to be in conformity with Islam at the time since Americans — unlike Soviets — were among the “People of the Book,” an Islamic expression that refers to Christians and Jews, among others.
In Islam, people of the book are considered closer to Muslims than non-Muslims. Today, Shias are often viewed as apostates by al-Qaeda operatives but the group has a new mortal enemy – the United States – so mention of the people of the book does no longer provide a sufficient political rational.
While Shias remain a key target of al-Qaeda, its marriage of convenience with Iran was instrumental in transforming the United States into the terrorist organisation’s nemesis, determining the course of events for a long time to come.
The released documents also show that bin Laden had groomed a “new generation” of leaders to replace those assassinated by the Americans — among them his son Saad, killed in a US air strike in Pakistan in July 2009. Saad’s half-brother, Hamza, now in his late 20s and Osama bin Laden’s supposed favourite, is apparently being groomed to take command.
If this turns out to be case indeed, it could serve as another example of how bin Laden discarded orthodox Islam\'s principle of frowning upon favouritism, although his motivation in this instance may not have been necessarily political.