Exclusive: When U.S. Special Forces raided Osama bin Laden’s compound last year, they grabbed al-Qaeda documents describing internal debates, including how the terror group should continue exploiting Israel’s abuse of Palestinians as a crucial recruitment pitch, reports Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
The documents captured in last year’s raid that killed Osama bin Laden reveal al-Qaeda’s intent to keep its propaganda focus on Western double standards and Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians. One internal document, criticizing mistakes made in al-Qaeda’s public messaging, stated simply: “It was necessary to discuss Palestine first.”
This emphasis on the plight of the Palestinians to rally support for an extreme Islamist agenda recurs throughout the documents, which were translated by West Point’s Center on Combating Terrorism and released this month.
The U.S. press highlighted bin Laden’s desire to strike again at the United States and his troubles controlling his decimated band of terrorists. And it’s true that you will find bin Laden’s U.S. obsession in the documents along with many references to slain militants who now need “God’s mercy.”
But the documents also reflect al-Qaeda’s determination to exploit old propaganda themes against the U.S. and Israel while working in some new angles from the Arab Spring.
For instance, “A Letter of Hope and Good News to Our People in Egypt” credits al-Qaeda’s “blessed attacks on New York, Washington and Pennsylvania” with forcing the United States to alter its interventionist policies and pull its support from some of the Mideast’s “oppressors and the tyrants.”
Yet, while boasting about al-Qaeda’s supposed role in the West’s abandonment of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, the letter also warns of the West’s new tactics for containing the Islamic revolutionary cause. The letter cites the West’s new “attempt to deal with the Muslim people through the policy of softness, deception, and soft power.”
The letter describes the West’s gentler tone as just new trappings for the old policy of subjugating Muslims, extracting Mideast oil and continuing military occupations. “They want our countries to have a democracy that will allow the continuation of their [Western countries’] occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan and will allow their armies and fleets to continue to control the sources of oil,” the letter said.
Then, trying to exploit both Western double standards and Israel’s military threat to the region, the letter added: “They want a democracy that will accept the Israeli military supremacy with nuclear weapons, which [former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohamed] ElBaradei did not dare to demand that they be inspected or impose any sanction against Israel because of them.”
The letter continued: “They [Western nations] want a democracy that accepts the confiscation of most of Palestine and giving it to the Zionist entity. They want a democracy that will continue the siege on Gaza and the suffocation of the resistance against Israel. … This deceit by the Western governments goes beyond democracy and applies to their complaints about freedom of press and the bad treatment of journalists in Egypt, while they are the ones who bombed Al Jazeera’s offices in Baghdad and Kabul.”
Al-Qaeda’s propagandists clearly understand the anger of many Muslims over the West’s sanctimonious pronouncements about human rights and the rule of law, while ignoring those principles when they’re not convenient.
Another document urges al-Qaeda operatives to package the 9/11 attacks as a victory for Muslims over the West.
“The tenth anniversary to the attack 9/11 is coming and due to the importance of this date, attention should be paid to start preparing for now,” the message read. “We need to benefit from this event and get our messages to the Muslims and celebrate the victory that they achieved. We need to restore their confidence in their [Islamic] nation and motivate them. …
“We should shed light on the fact that in some past documentaries on al-Jazeera, some specialists confirmed that the events of 9/11 are the main reasons for the financial crisis that America suffers from.”
Another document recommended that “our work and messages concentrate on exhausting and straining the Americans, especially after September 11. We will continue to pressure the Americans until there is a balance in terror, where the expense of war, occupation, and influence on our countries becomes a disadvantage for them [the Americans] and they become tired of it, and finally withdraw from our countries and stop supporting the Jews.”
Bin Laden and his high command also seemed aware of the harmful impact to the United States from President George W. Bush’s decision to prosecute two wars while also cutting taxes, creating a huge budget deficit and then presiding over an economic collapse. “I would like to remind you that America will have to withdraw during the next few years because of many reasons, the most important of which is America’s high deficit,” the document said.
Though the authorship of the documents is often unclear, many appear to represent the words and opinions of bin Laden, possibly dictated to his wives while he hid out in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
The trove of documents also included some criticism of bin Laden. One letter chastised him for attacking the United States prematurely and thus provoking a counterattack that drove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan.
“Before the state was able to stand on its feet and complete its control of the entire country, you started to operate externally … targeting the head of the snake. You were moved [by young jihadists who were] eager, ready for sacrifice. … Then came [the 2000 attack on the USS] Cole, and then 9/11, which ended the Taliban (the Islamic Emirate) on which many hopes” rested.
The Palestinian Cause
One of the captured documents bristled at criticism of al-Qaeda for not truly caring about the Palestinians. “Several ill-informed scholars and state men [said] the mujahedeen are not interested in the Palestinian cause, and the blockade of our brothers in Gaza – rather that their concern is to fight, corrupt and argue with the security men and not with the usurper Jews,” the document said.
Dismissing this criticism as “driven by jealousy,” the document reaffirmed that a key argument for the jihadist cause was that “there were one and half million Muslims [in Gaza] under siege, and most of them were women and children. They have more than 10,000 prisoners with the Jews, many of whom are sisters and children in tragic circumstances. …
“This [criticism] is contrary to our reality and our general policy, as it weakens our stance when we say that we are an international organization fighting for the liberation of Palestine and all of the Muslim countries to erect an Islamic caliphate that would rule according to the Shari’ah of Allah.”
But al-Qaeda’s strategy also remains focused on weakening American “hegemony” in the Middle East, according to the Abbottabad documents. As one document explained, “The plague that exists in the nations of Muslims has two causes: The first is the presence of American hegemony and the second is the presence of rulers that have abandoned Islamic law and who identify with the hegemony, serving its interests in exchange for securing their own interests. …
“The way to remove this hegemony is to continue our direct attrition against the American enemy until it is broken and is too weak to interfere in the matters of the Islamic world. … The focus must be on actions that contribute to the intent of bleeding the American enemy. As for actions that do not contribute to the intent of bleeding the great enemy, many of them dilute our efforts and take from our energy.”
Though many of the commentaries are rambling and littered with petty bickering, the overriding messages are that the United States must remain the organization’s top target and that Israeli mistreatment of the Palestinians must remain a key propaganda theme, illustrating what Muslims widely view as a stark example of Western hypocrisy.
However, American officials and the U.S. press continue to tiptoe around the second point, apparently to avoid being accused of criticizing Israel. Neocons are especially quick to denounce anyone who cites the plight of the Palestinians as motivation for Islamic terrorism.
As former CIA analyst Ray McGovern has noted, the U.S. news media behaves as if it has an allergic reaction to any linkage between Palestine and al-Qaeda terrorism. In an article after an al-Qaeda operative tried to blow up a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, McGovern observed that 89-year-old Helen Thomas was the only reporter who pressed the question of motive. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Not Explaining the Why of Terrorism.”
At a press briefing about the attack by a young, well-to-do Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, Thomas asked White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, “And what is the motivation? We never hear what you find out on why.”
Brennan: “Al-Qaeda is an organization that is dedicated to murder and wanton slaughter of innocents. … They attract individuals like Mr. Abdulmutallab and use them for these types of attacks. He was motivated by a sense of religious sort of drive. Unfortunately, al-Qaeda has perverted Islam, and has corrupted the concept of Islam, so that he’s (sic) able to attract these individuals. But al-Qaeda has the agenda of destruction and death.”
Thomas: “And you’re saying it’s because of religion?”
Brennan: “I’m saying it’s because of an al-Qaeda organization that used the banner of religion in a very perverse and corrupt way.”
Brennan: “I think this is a — long issue, but al-Qaeda is just determined to carry out attacks here against the homeland.”
Thomas: “But you haven’t explained why.”
As McGovern wrote about the exchange: “All the American public gets is the boilerplate about how al-Qaeda evildoers are perverting a religion and exploiting impressionable young men. There is almost no discussion about why so many people in the Muslim world object to U.S. policies so strongly that they are inclined to resist violently and even resort to suicide attacks. …
“Why isn’t there a frank discussion by America’s leaders and media about the real motivation of Muslim anger toward the United States? Why was Helen Thomas the only journalist to raise the touchy but central question of motive?”
McGovern noted that only occasionally does a key part of that motivation slip out, Israel’s abuse of the Palestinians, what al-Qaeda views as a ready-made and easy-to-use propaganda theme. McGovern cited, for instance, “an unusually candid view of the dangers accruing from the U.S. identification with Israel’s policies” in an unclassified study published by the Pentagon-appointed U.S. Defense Science Board on Sept. 23, 2004.
Taking on President George W. Bush’s favorite canard for explaining anti-Americanism in the Middle East, the board stated: “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the longstanding, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf States.
“Thus, when American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy.”
McGovern also spotted a brief reference to this reality in the 9/11 Commission Report, which states: “America’s policy choices have consequences. Right or wrong, it is simply a fact that American policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and American actions in Iraq are dominant staples of popular commentary across the Arab and Muslim world.” (p. 376)
There was also a notation in the report about why Khalid Sheikh Mohammed claimed to have “masterminded” the attacks on 9/11: “By his own account, KSM’s animus toward the United States stemmed … from his violent disagreement with U.S. foreign policy favoring Israel.”
Various suicide-bombers, like the failed underwear-bomber Abdulmutallab, have conveyed to associates that they also were radicalized because of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, especially the brutal assault on Gaza in 2008-2009.
A similar motive was attributed to Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi, a 32-year-old Jordanian physician from a family of Palestinian origin, who killed seven American CIA operatives and a Jordanian intelligence officer in Afghanistan on Dec. 30, 2009, when al-Balawi detonated a suicide bomb.
Al-Balawi’s widow, Defne Bayrak, said her husband “started to change” after the U.S. -led invasion of Iraq in 2003. His brother said al-Balawi “changed” during the three-week-long Israeli offensive in Gaza, which killed about 1,300 Palestinians.
At that time, Al-Balawi volunteered to treat injured Palestinians in Gaza, but was arrested by Jordanian authorities, according to his brother. Al-Balawi was then apparently coerced into becoming a spy to penetrate al-Qaeda’s leadership, but instead decided to kill himself and his “handlers.”
Today, the situation in Palestine (and especially Gaza) remains a festering wound, infecting U.S. efforts to improve relations with the Muslim world and open to exploitation by al-Qaeda and other violent extremists.
Ultimately, if peace in the region is ever to come and if the scourge of terrorism is ever to be minimized, the Palestinian issue must be resolved. Yet, Israel’s right-wing government shows little inclination to make meaningful concessions and the U.S. press appears more eager to gloss over the problem than to explain how it remains a key al-Qaeda recruiting tool.
[To read more of Robert Parry’s writings, you can now order his last two books, Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, at the discount price of only $16 for both. For details on the special offer, click here.]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there.