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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 August 2014

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Scholars, journalists, and government officials have tried to understand al-Qa'ida and its predecessor, Maktab al-Khidamat, since the early 1980s. These efforts increased significantly after the 11 September 2001 attacks against the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon. Yet, despite this attention, questions remain unanswered. What factors have influenced al-Qa'ida leaders over time as they have made and executed strategic decisions? How have they defined their relationship with affiliated groups in the context of these decisions? This present article utilizes private al-Qa'ida documents, captured by United States Navy Seals during a raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan, and recently released to the public, to answer these questions. In doing so, it casts doubt on some of the conventional explanations for al-Qa'ida's trajectory between 2004 and 2013.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

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1 Bergen, Peter, Manhunt: the ten-year search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad (New York, NY, 2012)Google Scholar.

2 ‘AQAP tries again: good intelligence work still leaves questions over airport security’, Economist, 16 May 2012.

3 ‘Intercepted al-Qaeda message led to shuttering embassies, consulates’, CNN, 4 Aug. 2013; and ‘Interpol issues global security alert advising increased vigilance for terrorist activity’, Interpol Media Release, 3 Aug. 2013.

4 Fishman, Brian, ‘Using the mistakes of al-Qaeda's franchises to undermine its strategies’, ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 618 (July 2008), pp. 4654CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 See, for example, Wright, Lawrence, ‘The man behind Bin Laden’, New Yorker, 16 Sept. 2002Google Scholar; and Wright, Lawrence, The looming tower: al-Qa'ida and the road to 9/11 (New York, NY, 2006)Google Scholar.

6 Sageman, Marc, Leaderless jihad: terrorist networks in the twenty-first century (Philadelphia, PA, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and ‘Barack Obama fears a “lone wolf” extremist attack more than al-Qaeda spectacular’, Telegraph, 17 Aug. 2011.

7 This wider jihadi movement has been explored at length in a number of publications, including Kepel, Gilles, Jihad: the trail of political Islam, trans. Roberts, Anthony F. (London, 2002)Google Scholar; and Gerges, Fawaz A., The far enemy: why jihad went global (New York, NY, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 Bergen, Manhunt, p. 3.

9 Olson, Parmy, We are anonymous: inside the hacker world of LulzSec, anonymous, and the global cyber insurgency (London, 2012)Google Scholar.

10 Historically, much of the research on terrorist groups has been interview-based. This article does not intend to minimize the value of that research, but, rather, argues for other methodological approaches as well. Some examples of past work beyond al-Qa'ida include Bell, J. Bowyer, The secret army: the IRA (3rd edn, New York, NY, 2007)Google Scholar; and Sprinzak, Ehud, Brother against brother (New York, NY, 1999)Google Scholar; Ballen, Ken, Terrorists in love: the real lives of Islamic radicals (New York, NY, 2011)Google Scholar.

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14 Gerges, The far enemy; and Cragin, ‘The early history of al-Qa'ida’.

15 Bruce Lawrence, ed., Messages to the world: the statements of Osama bin Laden, trans. James Howarth (London, 2005); Mansfield, Laura, His own words: a translation of the writings of Dr. Ayman al Zawahiri (Raleigh, NC, 2006)Google Scholar; Wiktorowicz, Quintan, ed., Islamic activism: a social movement theory approach (Bloomington, IN, 2004)Google Scholar; and Abu-Rabi, Ibrahim M., Intellectual origins of Islamic resurgence in the modern Arab world (New York, NY, 1996)Google Scholar.

16 Cragin, ‘The early history of al-Qa'ida’.

17 Abdullah Azzam, ‘Defense of Muslim lands’, unpublished, 1984.

18 Ayman al-Zawahiri, ‘Bitter harvest: the Muslim Brotherhood in sixty years’, trans. Nadia Oweidat, unpublished manuscript released in 1991, translated in 2006.

19 Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanese Hizballah, explained the danger of takfiris to his followers in his ‘Speech delivered on 25 May 2013’, trans. Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, available online at, last accessed 23 Dec. 2013.

20 John Rollins, Al-Qaeda and affiliates: historical perspective, global presence and implications for US policy, Congressional Research Service Report 7–5700, 25 Jan. 2011.

21 Bergen, Manhunt, p. 10.

22 Ayman al-Zawahiri, Knights under the prophets banner, Part Seven, summary sections released by al-Sharq al-Awsat in Dec. 2001; see also Mansfield, His own words.

23 Letter from Ayman al-Zawahiri to Abu Musab Zarqawi, 9 July 2005, released by ODNI on 11 Oct. 2005, ODNI News Release No. 2–05, p. 2.

24 Al-Zawahiri, ‘Bitter harvest’.

25 Zayyat, Montasser Al, The road to Al Qaeda: the story of bin Laden's right-hand man, trans. Ahmed Fekry (London, 2004), p. 70Google Scholar.

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27 ‘al-Zarqawi declares War on Iraqi Shia’, al-Jazeera News, 14 Sept. 2005.

28 This backlash was reported widely at the time. The increase in Iraqi violence also corresponded with the July 2005 bombings in London. So it is difficult to separate out what series of events had a bigger impact on public opinion. Sheikh Yusef al-Qaradawi, for example, well known for his support for suicide attacks against Israeli targets, was less-than-supportive of the same tactic in Iraq, . ‘Full al-Qaradawi Transcript’, BBC News, 8 July 2004Google Scholar.

29 ‘Support for terrorism wanes among Muslim publics’, Pew Global Attitudes Survey, released July 2005, available online at, last accessed 22 Sept. 2013.

30 Jonathan Finer and Naseer Mehdawi, ‘Bombings kill over 50 at three hotels in Jordan’, Washington Post, 10 Nov. 2005.

31 Cordesman, Anthony and Davies, Emma R., Iraq's insurgency and the road to civil conflict (Washington, DC, 2008), p. 159Google Scholar.

32 Partly, these denunciations were evidence of splits within the al-Qa'ida movement – or its supporters – and the Muslim Brotherhood more generally. Lawrence Wright wrote of these divisions in an article on the animosity between Dr Fadl and Zawahiri in 2008. Wright, Lawrence, ‘A rebellion within: an al-Qa'ida mastermind questions terrorism’, New Yorker, 2 June 2008Google Scholar.

33 Letter from ‘Atiyah Abdul Rahman to Abu Musab Zarqawi, 11 December 2005, released by West Point CTC on 25 Sept. 2006, document number 3OO31006-english-25639–05, p. 16.

34 Wright, Lawrence, ‘The terrorist’, New Yorker, 19 June 2006Google Scholar; see also Letter from ‘Atiyah Abdul Rahman to Abu Musab Zarqawi, document number 3OO31006-english-25639–05.

35 Thomas Hegghammer, ‘The failure of jihad in Saudi Arabia’, Occasional Paper Series, released by West Point CTC on 25 Feb. 2010.

36 Letter from unknown person to Usama bin Laden, 14 September 2006, released by West Point CTC on 1 May 2012, document number SOCOM-2012–0000018-HT, p. 2.

37 Ibid., p. 5.

38 Abu Musab al-Suri, The responsibility of the people of Yemen to participate in jihad in the Arabian Peninsula, SITE Intelligence Group, 1 Feb. 2007, document number 2007020105.

39 Rassler, Dan, Gabriel Koehler-Derrick, Liam Collins, Muhammad al-Obaidi, and Nelly Lahoud, Letters from Abbottabad: bin Laden sidelined? (New York, NY, 2012)Google Scholar.

40 Al-Suri, The responsibility of the people of Yemen.

41 Osama bin Laden, ‘Today there is a conflict between world heresy under the leadership of America on the one hand and the Islamic nation with the Mujahideen in its vanguard on the other', Dec. 2004; see also Chris Zambelis, Terrorism Monitor, 6 (17), 4 Sept. 2008.

42 Apology from ISI to Sheikh Abed Lufan al-Hadeb, exact date unknown, released by West Point CTC, document number NMEC-2007–657736.

43 Al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb denies attack on leader of the socialist forces Front Party in Algeria, posted 18 Feb. 2008, released by SITE Intelligence Group, 18 Feb. 2008, document number 2008021801.

44 ‘Review of the listing of AQAP and the re-listing of six terrorist organizations – appendix B’, House of Representatives, Parliament of Australia, 22 Aug. 2011.

45 Osama bin Laden, The way to contain the conspiracies, an audio message posted by as-Sahab Media, 27 December 2007, trans. and released by SITE Intelligence Group, 28 Dec. 2007, document number 2007123001.

46 Open meeting with Sheikh Ayman al Zawahiri, 3 April 2008, released by as-Sahab Media, translated copy available online at, p. 2.

47 Letter from Usama bin Laden to Shaykh Mahnud [`Atiyya Abdul Rahman], May 2010, released by West Point CTC, 1 May 2012, document number SOCOM-2012–0000019, p. 3.

48 Ibid., p. 5.

49 This argument can be found in Rassler, Koehler-Derrick, Collins, al-Obaidi, and Lahoud, Letters from Abbottabad.

50 Letter from Usama bin Laden to Shaykh Mahnud, May 2010.

51 Letter from ‘Zamarai’ [Usama bin Laden] to Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr [leader of Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahidin], 7 August 2010, released by West Point CTC, 1 May 2012, document number SOCOM-2012–0000005, p. 2.

52 Ibid., p. 3.

53 Letter from unknown person [possibly Ayman al-Zawahiri] to Osama bin Laden on Merger with al-Shabaab, December 2010, released by West Point CTC, 1 May 2012, document number SOCOM-2012–0000006, p. 2.

54 Ibid., p. 1.

55 Glad tidings by the two Sheikhs, Abu al-Zubayr and Ayman al-Zawahiri, posted by as-Sahab Foundation and the Global Islamic Media Front, Feb. 2012, video transcript available online at, last accessed 14 Sept. 2012.

56 Letter from Abu `Abdallah (Usama bin Laden) to Shaykh Mahmud (`Atiyya), 26 April 2011, released by West Point CTC, 1 May 2012, document number SOCOM-2012–0000010.

57 Ibid., p. 3.

58 Ibid., p. 7.

59 Al-Zawahiri, ‘Move forward O Lions of Sham’.

60 See, for example, the discussion on the blog ‘jihadology’ dissecting this potential relationship. This discussion can be found online atḥab-media-presents-a-new-video-message-from-al-qaidahs-dr-ayman-al-ẓawahiri-onward-oh-lions-of-syria, last accessed 29 Sept. 2013; see also Rita Katz and Adam Raisman, ‘Special report on the power struggle between al-Qa'ida branches and leadership’, SITE Intelligence Group, 1 July 2013; and Jim Muir, ‘al-Nusra pledges allegiance to al-Qa'ida’, BBC News, 10 Apr. 2013.

61 ‘ISI leader rebrands ISI and al-Nusrah Front as “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant”’, posted 8 Apr. 2013, translated and released by SITE Intelligence Group, 16 Apr. 2013, document number unavailable.

62 Muir, ‘al-Nusra pledges allegiance to al-Qa'ida’; see also Katz and Raisman, ‘Special report on the power struggle’.

63 Muir, ‘al-Nusra pledges allegiance to al-Qa'ida’; and Stephanie d'Arc Taylor, ‘Jabhat al-Nusra's Rising Stock in Syria’, al-Jazeera News, 19 May 2013.

64 Ibid.

65 See, for example, ‘Himam news video shows al-Nusra fighters distributing food in Homs’, posted and translated by SITE Intelligence Group, 16 Aug. 2013.

66 Hussein Jemmo, ‘Al-Qaeda's internal divide grows in Syria’, al-Hayat, 12 Aug. 2013, trans. and re-posted by al-Monitor, 19 Aug. 2013.

67 Ayman al-Zawahiri, ‘Letter to Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Husseini and Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani’, 23 May 2013, trans. Aymenn Jawwad al-Tamimi, 9 June 2013, available online at, last accessed 10 Sept. 2013.

68 Ibid.

69 Ibid.

70 Abu Mohammed al-Adnai, ‘So leave them alone with their fabrications’, posted 19 June 2013, trans. and released by SITE Intelligence Group, 19 June 2013; see also Jemmo, ‘Al-Qaeda's internal divide grows in Syria’, al-Hayat, 12 Aug. 2013.

71 ‘Belmoktar unites al-Mulathameen with Taheed and Jihad in West Africa’, SITE Intelligence Group, 22 Aug. 2013; and Jemmo, ‘Al-Qaeda's internal divide grows in Syria’.

72 Ayman al-Zawahiri, ‘Guidelines for the work of a jihadi’, released by as-Sahab Media on 14 Sept. 2013.

73 Ahmed Rashid, ‘Al-Qa'ida's new tactic: prison breaks’, Financial Times, 5 Aug. 2013.

74 Ibid.; see also ‘Interpol issues global security alert’.

75 Koehler-Derrick, Rassler, al-Obaidi, Collins, and Lahoud, , Letters from Abbottabad; and Fishman, ‘Using the mistakes of al-Qaeda's franchises’, pp. 4654Google Scholar.

76 See Crenshaw, Martha, ed., Terrorism in context (University Park, PA, 2001), pp. 105–59Google Scholar; Sprinzak, Brother against brother; and Taylor, Lewis, Shining path: guerrilla war in Peru's northern highlands, 1980–1997 (Liverpool, 2006), p. 91Google Scholar.

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