CIA documents shed light on bin Laden’s Machiavellian mindset

November 12, 2017
Face of terror. A 2015 file picture shows a journalist looking at documents on bin Laden on the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s website. (AFP)

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.