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.