Geoff Dyer in Washington
May 22, 2015
A spate of massive car bombs in an Iraqi city and a slew of new al-Qaeda documents have pulled off the improbable feat of making Osama bin Laden seem like a soft touch.
Just as Islamist militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant were taking control of the Iraqi city of Ramadi this week, the US government released part of a treasure trove of material recovered from the former al-Qaeda leader’s compound in Pakistan.
The two events have cast a light on the fierce competition between the jihadi groups and help explain why Isis has been so much more effective than al-Qaeda at exploiting instability in the Middle East since the so-called Arab Spring.
While bin Laden wanted to play a long game and constantly fretted about alienating fellow Muslims, Isis has been happy to pursue its goals through indiscriminate violence against anyone—including setting off 10 huge bombs in Ramadi on Sunday before its forces made their final push to take the Iraqi city.
“They are two very different views about how to establish an Islamic state,” says Will McCants, a former state department counter-terrorism official now at the Brookings Institution. “The documents show bin Laden focused on hearts and minds, but the Isis approach is all about brutality.”
The dispute over jihadi strategies stretches back to the anti-Soviet struggle in Afghanistan in the 1980s and first came to prominence when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of an Isis forerunner known as al-Qaeda in Iraq, launched a wave of frenzied violence in Sunni areas of Iraq in 2004.
The 103 documents from bin Laden’s compound that were released by the US intelligence community this week provide one of the clearest statements yet of his ideas. The al-Qaeda leader argued the US should be the focus of attacks and that an Islamic state would not be viable until America had been pushed out of the region. He consistently warned colleagues about the premature declaration of a new state and about violence that affected other Sunnis.
“We should stress the importance of timing in establishing the Islamic state,” he said in one letter, warning that the US could “lay siege”. “We have to continue with exhausting and depleting them [the US] till they become so weak that they can’t overthrow a state that we establish,” he said. In another letter to an al-Qaeda affiliate in east Africa, he cautioned:“Please remind the brothers in Somalia to be compassionate with the people.”
He asked an aide in one letter to tell al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in north Africa to stop attacks on local security forces. Their “job is to uproot the obnoxious tree by concentrating on its American trunk”, he wrote. “By fighting the local enemy we don’t get the result that we deployed for, which is to reinstate the wise caliphate.”
In effect, bin Laden was arguing against the very tactics that Isis used this week to gain control of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, after more than a year of fighting in the city.
According to a senior US official, Isis was able to weaken the resistance of Iraqi forces by orchestrating about 30 suicide bombs in Ramadi last weekend, including 10 that had the “capacity of an Oklahoma City-type attack”.
Since the city fell on Sunday, there have been reports that anyone left in Ramadi who was connected to the security services has been killed.
During the 2004-06 period in which it operated, Mr. Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq was considered a benchmark among jihadi groups for ruthless violence. “Isis is an organisation that is better in every respect than its predecessor AQI,” the US official said.
Given the tactics that Isis has adopted, Cole Bunzel, a Princeton academic who has studied the groups, calls the al-Qaeda approach “Jihadi Salafism Light”. “The Arabic press has started to call al-Qaeda‘moderate’ Salafism,” he said in a talk last month. “I could not
believe my eyes when I saw that.”
Bin Laden argued that an Isis-style strategy would provoke a powerful backlash, from the local population and from the US—a prediction that might still be borne out. But what is striking about recent events is the far greater capacity of Isis to take advantage of the chaos in the region.
The al-Qaeda leader was also optimistic about the implications of the Arab Spring, which broke out shortly before his 2011death. In one letter, he urges senior colleagues to pay less attention to Afghanistan and to “mobilise our literate writers and poets” to help push the revolutionary fervour in al-Qaeda’s direction.
Yet his letters missed the way that Isis’s violent tactics have galvanised support among young jihadis, aided by an aggressive use of social media. The picture revealed in the bin Laden documents is of a long-established leader being eclipsed by a new generation of more ambitious, ruthless and bolder rivals.