Abbottabad Insights: How al-Qa‘ida in Iraq Was Formed (Part 1)

*Editor’s note: The “Abbottabad Insights” series aims at analyzing the files recovered from Usama bin Ladin’s compound in 2011 which have remained largely understudied to date, aside from the first batches released between May 2012 and January 2017. The first two articles of this series will deal with the inside story of the founding of al-Qa‘ida in Iraq, providing unique insights into the negotiation process between al-Qa‘ida Central and Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi in 2004. A third piece will tackle the relationship between Bin Ladin’s group and al-Zarqawi’s during the last months of the Jordanian’s career. Other articles covering a wide range of issues, from al-Qa‘ida’s external operations to its ties with other militant groups, will follow.

On October 17, 2004, al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad, the precursor organization to the Islamic State, issued a statement announcing with much fanfare that its leader Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi had pledged “allegiance” (bay‘a) on behalf of his group “to the mujahid Shaykh Usama bin Ladin, to listen and obey in times of difficulty and prosperity”. The communiqué specified that for eight months there had been “communications between Shaykh Abu Mus‘ab […] and the brothers in al-Qa‘ida and views were exchanged [between the two parties]”. The result was the creation of “al-Qa‘ida in the Lands of the Two Rivers”, better known as al-Qa‘ida in Iraq.

More than seventeen years later, much of the story behind these eight months of talks remains unknown. To date, the most widely known primary source on the topic has been a seventeen-page letter from al-Zarqawi to Usama bin Ladin and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri. Intercepted by the U.S. in January 2004, the text is a blueprint for insurgency in which the Jordanian outlines his vision for jihad in Iraq and proposes to join al-Qa‘ida if its leaders agree to his strategy. While important for understanding the beginning of the process, this letter is just one piece of a much larger correspondence in which a merger was discussed both between al-Qa‘ida Central and its counterpart in Iraq and among the al-Qa‘ida senior leadership. The question remains as to how the two groups eventually agreed to join forces.

Over the past two years, I have been digging into the materials recovered from Bin Ladin’s compound in Abbottabad and came across a number of documents which add significant new pieces to the puzzle. One document proved particularly illuminating. Written by a certain “Wakil Khan”, it is a five-page Arabic letter dated October 18, 2004 in which the author essentially updates Bin Ladin on al-Qa‘ida’s latest developments worldwide to keep his leader in the picture and seek his guidance on key issues. While a good portion of the document deals with the group’s various fortunes in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, the most pressing matter to Khan was clearly the Iraqi battlefield, which he described as “ablaze”.

This post focuses on the Iraqi angle of the letter. As will be seen, the letter provides the most detailed first-hand account of the negotiations between al-Qa‘ida Central and al-Zarqawi’s group leading to their union. It also presents new information on some of the lesser known players who were active in these talks between al-Qa‘ida in Pakistan and al-Zarqawi’s group in Iraq. In addition to the letter by Wakil Khan, the post draws on some additional Abbottabad letters cited here for the first time, including ones by Bin Ladin and al-Zarqawi, further helping to chronicle this milestone in the history of the global jihadi movement.

Wakil and ‘Abdallah Khan

If the name Wakil Khan sounds unfamiliar, it is because it is just one of the multiple aliases of Abu al-Faraj al-Libi. This Tripoli-born al-Qa‘ida veteran joined the organization after he was trained at its al-Faruq camp in Khost in early 1990. A member of al-Qa‘ida’s military committee, al-Libi emerged as a major figure in the group’s training efforts in Afghanistan during the 1990s, serving as an instructor for future cadres and operatives, from Fadil Harun to some of the 9/11 hijackers, and running the group’s training camps and guesthouses.

After the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001, al-Libi resettled in Pakistan along with another central player in the Khurasan-Iraq nexus, namely ‘Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, whom al-Libi refers to as “‘Abdallah Khan” in his letter. A former Iraqi army officer, al-Iraqi fought in the ranks of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar during the Afghan civil war in the early 1990s before participating in the training of Tajik volunteers in Khost, alongside al-Libi and others. After Bin Ladin’s return to Afghanistan in 1996, he joined up with the Saudi and became al-Qa‘ida’s frontline commander in Afghanistan and a member of its Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Council).

In Pakistan, according to another Abbottabad document written on November 19, 2002, al-Libi initially acted as al-Iraqi’s deputy. By the time he composed his letter to Bin Ladin, however, the Libyan had been promoted, according to the U.S., to the position of al-Qa‘ida Central’s “general manager subordinate only to Usama Bin Ladin and Ayman al-Zawahiri”. Meanwhile, al-Iraqi continued to play a leading role in the organization’s military efforts in Afghanistan.

Besides their portfolios in Khurasan, the two also managed al-Qa‘ida’s “Iraq file” and were instrumental in cementing ties with al-Zarqawi’s group in Iraq. For example, it was al-Iraqi who dispatched Hassan Ghul—a prominent Pakistani facilitator formerly affiliated with the Khaldan camp in Khost—as al-Qa‘ida’s emissary to al-Zarqawi. Ghul served in this role until his capture in Iraqi Kurdistan on January 23, 2004; with him was found the seventeen-page letter from al-Zarqawi to Bin Ladin and al-Zawahiri. Around this time, al-Iraqi considered traveling to Iraq himself but al-Zarqawi rejected the idea.

Al-Iraqi’s involvement in al-Qa‘ida’s Iraq dossier would eventually lead to his capture. In June 2006, Bin Ladin instructed him to go to Iraq but al-Iraqi was arrested in Gaziantep, Turkey, on October 16, 2006, in an episode well-documented by Brian Fishman

One of the things that the Abbottabad files reveal is that his 2006 failed attempt was not the first time al-Iraqi was supposed to travel to Iraq. A letter from Bin Ladin to al-Libi  indicates that as early as June-August 2004, al-Iraqi was preparing his departure for Iraq from Pakistan’s Tribal Areas. “We are eager for him to depart as quickly and safely as possible”, says the leader of al-Qa‘ida, who also advises that once in Iraq al-Iraqi should primarily focus on bolstering jihad against the U.S.-led coalition while “[preventing] the opening of other secondary fronts, such as [against] the Shi’ites”.

If Bin Ladin was enthusiastic about al-Iraqi heading to Iraq, al-Libi’s letter to Bin Ladin (the one he signs as “Wakil Khan”) shows that this sentiment was far from being shared by everyone inside al-Qa‘ida. According to al-Libi, the plan sparked opposition from “many of the brothers” within the group’s senior cadre, including the two Egyptian commanders Khalid al-Habib and Abu al-Hasan al-Misri. At the time, al-Habib headed al-Qa‘ida’s military operations in Afghanistan—a portfolio he had recently inherited from al-Iraqi—while al-Misri was in charge of the Zabul and Kandahar areas. The brothers, according to al-Libi, worried that al-Iraqi’s arrival might cause troubles in Iraq, citing his problematic “way of dealing” with others. Al-Libi himself refers to the difficulty that al-Iraqi has with taking orders (“he is not easily led”), and later in the letter he mentions “problems” with al-Iraqi’s leadership in Afghanistan, noting that these “problems (…) have significantly decreased” since al-Habib took over for him. 

If al-Iraqi went to Iraq, it was not clear to al-Libi what status he would enjoy once there. Would he serve as al-Zarqawi’s amir? Would he be al-Zarqawi’s “subordinate” (tabi’)? Or would he work independently? Considering all three options to be bad, the Libyan and his inner circle suggested to Bin Ladin that he dispatch al-Iraqi as an “adviser” (mustashar) to al-Zarqawi. Given the sensitivity of the issue, al-Libi urged Bin Ladin to personally weigh in and “to define the mission and role of [al-Iraqi] and to set forth regulations for him and a clear plan for his departure”, especially since contacting al-Iraqi would be more difficult once he is on his way out of Pakistan.

News from Iraq

Al-Libi’s concerns about al-Iraqi’s upcoming journey were not the only reason he wrote his missive. The Libyan also needed to brief Bin Ladin on his meeting with Abu Ja‘far al-Iraqi, a senior facilitator who, like Hassan Ghul, used to be affiliated with the Khaldan camp and worked closely with its leading figures Abu Zubaydah and Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi. At the time of his meeting with al-Libi, Abu Ja‘far was acting as al-Zarqawi’s representative to al-Qa‘ida in Khurasan. Following the central organization’s request “to learn about what is happening [in Iraq], and thereby to be able to arrange the work of the brother ‘Abdallah [‘Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi]”, Abu Ja‘far went and saw al-Libi to discuss the “reality of the situation there.”.

Speaking to al-Libi on al-Zarqawi’s behalf, Abu Ja‘far portrayed al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad as the undisputed leading militant group in the field, claiming that “90% of the jihadi operations that are carried out there are arranged by brother [Abu] Mus‘ab” and his allies. “All the major operations and most of the small operations” are attributable to al-Zarqawi, he noted, including the attack on the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad on August 19, 2003, the double suicide bombings against a Polish military camp in al-Hillah on February 18, 2004, and the suicide boat attacks against the Basra oil terminal on April 24, 2004. He added that “most of the mujahid groups there have joined Abu Mus‘ab”, that these newcomers were bound by “a legal oath to wage jihad”, and that the number of these groups was increasing. “During the meeting I counted with [Abu Ja‘far] the number of members of the groups, which reached thousands, not including the supporters from other countries, and these figures are not exhaustive”, wrote al-Libi.

The Iraqi theater was also promising owing to the ease of access for volunteers from neighboring Arab countries. “The roads are open from Syria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan”, Abu Ja‘far explained, and large numbers of foreign volunteers were pouring in, so many “that the brothers were beginning to stop their influx” and send some back to their home countries.

The leading status of al-Zarqawi’s group was illustrated by the territorial control that it enjoyed in Iraq’s Sunni areas. Abu Ja‘far told al-Libi that they had “complete control” over Fallujah, Samarra, Baqubah and large parts of Ramadi. In Fallujah, where al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad had established its headquarters, the jihadis enjoyed such power that they were the ones patrolling the city at night, allowing Iraqi police officers and soldiers to patrol during the day though these were accompanied by “the mujahidin”.

There was also “no shortage of weapons and ammunition”, as “more than 80% of the Iraqi army’s weapons and ammunition had fallen into the hands of the brothers”, according to Abu Ja‘far. He further claimed that they were in heated competition with the U.S. to buy the explosives and weapons being sold in the markets. As for financing, Abu Ja‘far indicated that the group was able to raise funds internally from the “war booty” acquired during operations and that it still hadn’t used its hostages to obtain ransom payments despite the amount offered by its enemies, including during the detention of the U.S. national Nicholas Berg who was beheaded by al-Zarqawi in the spring of 2004.

The broader insurgency in Iraq was also a topic of discussion between al-Libi and Abu Ja‘far. Among those discussed was Ansar al-Sunna, a Kurdish-dominated jihadi group cooperating with al-Zarqawi’s group and linked to al-Qa‘ida Central. According to al-Libi, “their work appears to be very limited” and “they are unwilling to operate in their areas (Kurdistan)”. This had led many of their members to defect to al-Zarqawi.

The discussion also revolved around non-jihadi elements of the Iraqi insurgency. Regarding the Islamic Army, a Sunni Islamist armed faction, al-Libi was told that it was made up of “unidentified Iraqi brothers” who were not veterans of known jihadi fronts, but that they were “good brothers” and there was “good cooperation” between them and al-Zarqawi’s group. As for the Islamic Party, another Sunni Iraqi armed group, al-Libi was not enthusiastic, saying that “their position is known to you” and adding that some of their members had begun to carry out small operations. 

External Operations

In light of these promising reports from al-Zarqawi’s group, al-Libi was keen on capitalizing on the Iraqi jihad to further al-Qa‘ida’s global ambitions. In the letter he envisages, together with the colleagues he has consulted, relocating the Pakistan-based external operations wing to Iraq, suggesting that “one of the brothers with experience in [the field of] special activity” (i.e. terrorist attacks) redeploy there. Two Egyptian veterans of the first Afghan jihad are mentioned as the top candidates for the job: Hamza al-Al-Rabi‘a and Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Muhajir. A former bodyguard of al-Zawahiri’s, al-Al-Rabi‘a began his career in the Egyptian al-Jihad Group, whose security committee he headed, before joining al-Qa‘ida and running its external operations branch. As for al-Muhajir, he was al-Qa‘ida’s top bombmaker for its attacks in Khurasan and overseas, including the 1998 East Africa bombings, which earned him the nickname “the martyrdom operations engineer”.

To justify this risky shift, al-Libi underlines the difficulties faced by al-Qa‘ida in Pakistan as a result of the growing security pressure on its members in the country. Over the past months, a series of raids against al-Qa‘ida’s infrastructure in Karachi, Lahore and Quetta had battered the network Al-Rabi‘a and al-Libi relied on to facilitate and direct international attacks. Among the losses was Naeem Noor Khan (“Talha”), a Pakistani computer engineer involved in al-Qa‘ida’s plotting in the U.K. As a result of this crackdown, “most of the members of [Al-Rabi‘a’s] group were caught”, laments al-Libi.

In the process, the organization also lost “some important documents”, al-Libi says, referring in particular to the raid against al-Qa‘ida’s “documents office” (maktab al-watha’iq) in Punjab’s city of Gujarat on July 24, 2004. The raid had led to the arrest of Ahmad Khalfan Ghailani (“Haytham”), a senior member of the office from Tanzania involved in the 1998 East Africa Embassy bombings, and Abu Tariq al-Pakistani, an al-Qa‘ida trainer. While al-Al-Rabi‘a himself narrowly evaded arrest during the Gujarat raid, “the work of our brother Al-Rabi‘a was severely affected” and “his work has practically halted”, assesses al-Libi.  

By contrast, the Iraqi front presented a new opportunity for al-Qa‘ida to revitalize its transnational attacks. In the eyes of al-Libi and his aides, moving there would enable the external operations department to tap into a massive influx of foreign fighters from diverse backgrounds, train new recruits who could then be deployed in future missions, and more generally develop capacity and experience. Iraq also had the advantage of being easily accessible, unlike Pakistan, where “simply renting a home or bringing in a brother from abroad” could cost as much as carrying out an entire operation. “Unless matters speed up or you agree to relocate the activity to Iraq”, al-Libi says to Bin Ladin, then al-Qa‘ida’s capacity to plan attacks overseas will remain limited.  

Targeting the Near Enemy

During their meeting, al-Libi and Abu Ja‘far also addressed the contentious issue of targeting priorities, i.e., whether to attack the far enemy (the U.S. and the West) or the near enemy (apostate governments and their allies). Al-Libi relates that Abu Ja‘far asked him about “some of the issues pertaining to fighting the apostates”, noting that al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad had been making preparations for neighbouring countries, including Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Besides transporting and storing weapons, these preparations included training large numbers of recruits and sending them back to their countries “in anticipation of the collapses and changes that may occur in the region when the Americans leave”.

Al-Libi answered that it was his understanding that while Bin Ladin “did not oppose fighting the apostates” he viewed it as “an advanced stage” of jihad, believing that “the current stage is the stage of fighting the greater unbelief (the Americans) and that this is the key to our struggle”. Nonetheless, al-Libi had positive feedback for Abu Ja‘far, maintaining that he agreed with al-Zarqawi’s strategy. “What al-Zarqawi is doing”, al-Libi told Abu Ja‘far, namely “striking the Americans in Iraq and all the apostates who help them”, and using “the Iraqi theater to make preparations for neighboring countries in terms of training and arrangements”, is “absolutely correct”.

While al-Zarqawi at least consulted with al-Qa‘ida regarding his plans for the broader region, he appeared more uncompromising when it came to his stance on Iraq’s Shi’a, whom his group had been attacking in hopes of igniting a sectarian civil war. In his letter, al-Libi recounts that he asked Abu Ja‘far specifically about the operations against the Shi‘a, notably in Karbala and Najaf, and that the Iraqi did not shy away from claiming responsibility for “almost all of them”. The justification for this campaign of violence, according to Abu Ja‘far, was the Shi‘a machinations in the post-war political void. In Abu Ja‘far’s words, the Shi‘a had established the Badr Corps which went to Baghdad and took control of Sunni mosques. They had also arrested Sunni religious figures and attacked Sunni men and women. The Sunnis lived in a “state of fear” of the Shi‘a, al-Libi was told, and this was not to mention that they were “the nucleus of the police and army” formed by the “nations of unbelief”. Because of all this, the Sunnis deemed it necessary to “restrain” the Shi‘a, and the situation has since “significantly changed and the Shi‘a have begun to reckon with the mujahidin”.

After his discussion with Abu Ja‘far, al-Libi sent the minutes of the meeting to al-Zawahiri. While the Egyptian responded similarly to al-Libi as regards “the apostates” (meaning neighboring countries), he told the Libyan that he was opposed to “opening a front” against the Shi’a in Iraq—a stance similar to Bin Ladin’s. Given the sensitivity of the issue, however, al-Libi explains to Bin Laden that he refrained from sharing this response of al-Zawahiri’s with al-Zarqawi’s team. This decision was made in consultation with, among others, Hamzah al-Al-Rabi‘a and ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Maghribi, al-Zawahiri’s son-in-law and head of al-Qa‘ida’s al-Sahab Media Foundation. Al-Libi’s view was that it was best to keep al-Zawahiri’s opinion from al-Zarqawi for the time being, given that Zawahiri’s “decision” on the Shi‘a would “clash with the reality there as far as the brothers are concerned”. The Libyan likely reasoned that al-Zawahiri’s instructions would put them between a rock and a hard place, and that in any event it was not necessary to relay them at this point since, as he believed, once the bay‘a process was finalized then such an order would be binding on al-Zarqawi’s group. Since al-Zawahiri’s views were based on al-Libi’s briefing, the Libyan decided to ask al-Zarqawi for a “detailed report” on this issue which would then be sent to Bin Ladin or al-Zawahiri so that they could make a more informed decision which would not “put the brothers in an uncomfortable position with the first order coming from our side”. 

In a subsequent Abbottabad document, almost certainly a letter from al-Zarqawi to al-Libi, the anonymous author explains how important it was for him that al-Qa‘ida understand and support his action in Iraq. “Our strategy here differs from any other location”, he writes, adding that “for this reason, we sent [Abu] Ja‘far to you all to express this”. Part of Abu Ja’far’s mission was thus to dispel any concerns that al-Qa‘ida might have regarding al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad, most importantly regarding the Shi‘a issue, such that “everything would be clear” and there would be no impediment to a merger. Cognisant of al-Qa‘ida’s lingering misgivings about his takfiri-leaning methodology, al-Zarqawi was worried that if there were “some opinions that oppose the nature of our work here, then undoubtedly this would lead to disturbance and conflict that we are in no need of during this trying time”. The fact that al-Zawahiri did have concerns with his strategy was deliberately withheld from al-Zarqawi by al-Libi.

Joining al-Qa‘ida

When he dispatched his representative Abu Ja’far to meet with al-Libi, al-Zarqawi entrusted Abu Ja‘far not only with conveying the “reality of the situation” in Iraq to al-Qa‘ida Central but also, more importantly, with offering his allegiance (bay‘a) to Bin Ladin on his behalf. Abu Ja’far informed al-Libi that al-Zarqawi was waiting for Bin Ladin’s approval before announcing the good news. In his letter, al-Libi provides Bin Ladin with a detailed picture of how the merger process was finalized, attaching the latest correspondence— written in code words—between himself and al-Zarqawi’s group that paved the way for the latter’s bay’a declaration on October 17, 2004. 

As recounted to Bin Ladin, al-Libi told Abu Ja‘far that as far as he was concerned, “the subject of the bay‘a, God willing, has been completed”, and the only issue requiring consultation with al-Qa‘ida’s senior leadership related to the framing of the announcement. After the meeting, al-Libi discussed the matter with al-Zawahiri, who gave his blessing to the union but added a caveat: the announcement should not be made in al-Zarqawi’s name alone but rather on behalf of  “the collectivity of the mujahidin in Iraq”. Al-Libi and his entourage, including Hamza al-Al-Rabi‘a and ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Maghribi, disapproved of al-Zawahiri’s idea. In his letter, the Libyan explains to Bin Ladin that given that al-Zarqawi could not claim authority over those outside his own group, any statement on behalf of “the mujahidin in Iraq”, as if representing the entire insurgency, could create a backlash and weaken the initiative. These concerns may have been driven by what al-Libi knew of al-Zarqawi’s limited reach within the local militant environment. An “Iraqi leadership” was nowhere to be found in the Jordanian’s group, and veteran Iraqi jihadis had turned their back on the fight.

After these consultations with al-Zawahiri and other close companions, al-Libi sent a message to al-Zarqawi’s group to inform them about the al-Qa‘ida leadership’s final deliberations. “The companion of the father [al-Zawahiri] tells Ahmad [al-Zarqawi] to put his trust in Allah and announce what has taken place. And he suggests that the announcement be made in the name of your group [al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad].” In addition to giving al-Zarqawi the go-ahead, al-Libi informed him that al-Qa‘ida needed “a more detailed report concerning your conditions in order to put our brothers here in the picture and enable them to consult with you on some of the issues”, alluding to the divergences between al-Qa‘ida and al-Zarqawi on the Shi’a in Iraq.

Al-Zarqawi replied to al-Libi in a six-line message in which he said: “We are gladdened by your response and pleased by your message, and God willing we will announce publicly in the next 48 hours that we are children of the father [Bin Ladin] and a branch of the root [al-Qa‘ida] as you suggested, provided that the new name becomes ‘Kata’ib al-Tawhid’ instead of ‘Jama’at al-Tawhid’”. Al-Libi recounts to Bin Ladin that after receiving this message “we were awaiting the announcement” when he received another message from al-Zarqawi—which is not attached—saying that his group wanted “full incorporation” such that it would retitle itself and “claim operations in the name of al-Qa‘ida and under such-and-such a battalion or battalions”. Al-Libi replied that this was “exactly what we sought” and that al-Zarqawi’s group should claim operations in “the well-known company name [al-Qa‘ida] and under the name of a battalion or battalions belonging to our well-known company name”, insisting that the merger be proclaimed “in the name of your company, not just its director”.

In his last (oral) message sent to al-Libi before the merger, al-Zarqawi asked the Libyan to push for an official release from al-Qa‘ida in which the organization would bless the initiative and advise other militants in Iraq and the Levant to join and support it. The Jordanian wanted this statement to be delivered by Bin Ladin personally.

In his letter, al-Libi suggests that Bin Ladin do something along the lines of what al-Zarqawi requested. Given the hardships facing the brothers in Fallujah, he explains, Bin Ladin should make a statement that would “encourage the youth there” and urge Muslims in Iraq and the Levant to join al-Qa‘ida’s new franchise. According to al-Libi, this would also be an opportunity for Bin Ladin to officially sign off on the joining of al-Zarqawi’s group with al-Qa‘ida. Given the weight his words carry, Bin Ladin’s “blessing” would “strengthen [al-Zarqawi’s] position”.

Bin Ladin Out of the Loop?

Judging from the Abbottabad files, it appears that the leader of al-Qa‘ida was virtually left out of the talks between his organization and al-Zarqawi’s group.

First, it is worth highlighting that al-Libi composed the letter to bring Bin Ladin up to date about the negotiation process after the merger had taken place. The announcement by al-Zarqawi’s group had been made on October 17, 2004, the day before al-Libi was writing. The timeline of events discussed is also telling. While al-Libi does not date his meeting with Abu Ja‘far, he tells Bin Ladin that the number of al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad’s members provided by the Iraqi was from “four months ago”, i.e. June, and he notifies his leader about the death or capture of operatives that occured between May and July. This is probably the same “mid-2004 meeting” mentioned by Abu Ja‘far during his detention—he was arrested in Iraq in 2005—when he related that al-Libi had “requested al-Zarqawi [to] provide Chinese anti-aircraft missiles for al-Qa‘ida’s use against helicopters and other military aircraft in Afghanistan”. All of this suggests that the Libyan had not written to Bin Ladin in months.

That there had been a lengthy breakdown in communication between the two is further confirmed by al-Libi in his letter when he relates that, after his final correspondence with al-Zarqawi right before the merger, he received a message that ‘Abd al-Khaliq—the “go-between with Bin Ladin since mid-2003” according to al-Libi in his interrogation—was looking for him (i.e., al-Libi). “I was very happy and praised Allah for providing this opportunity to apprise you of this issue with you”, he writes, suggesting that he had not been able to do so previously. 

The significance of this breakdown lies in the nature of al-Libi’s duties. Given that the Libyan was the gatekeeper connecting Bin Ladin to the rest of the organization, any communication disruption between the two meant that the leader of al-Qa‘ida had very few options left to be kept informed or to send instructions in a timely manner. At this time, contacting Bin Ladin was not easy, even for someone as senior as al-Libi. The latter acknowledges as much in his letter, noting in response to al-Zarqawi’s request that Bin Ladin personally sanction the merger, “Of course, the brothers there [in Iraq] are not aware of how long our correspondence with you takes”.

With the amir of al-Qa‘ida being unable to oversee the merger process, it seems that the task befell his deputy. Indeed, it was al-Zawahiri, not Bin Ladin, whom al-Libi first updated and consulted with on the negotiations after his meeting with Abu Ja’far. It was also al-Zawahiri who greenlit the union and provided the final directives to the Jordanian’s group before the announcement. In al-Zarqawi’s letter mentioned above, he tellingly refers to the the issue of “the elder brother’s [Bin Ladin’s] delay in knowing about what happened between us”, adding that it is no worry “so long as the doctor [al-Zawahiri] is in the picture”. Delegating authority to the Egyptian presumably allowed al-Qa‘ida to speed up the decision-making process, as al-Zawahiri and al-Libi were both reported to be based in Bajaur, in Pakistan’s tribal areas, while Bin Ladin was hiding in Haripur.

There were other communications shortcomings plaguing al-Qa‘ida Central as well, as is shown in the opening of al-Libi’s first attachment where he apologizes to al-Zarqawi’s group for “the delay in responding due to circumstances that recently affected us here”. This difficulty was most likely related to al-Libi’s own predicament at the time: by 2004, he had become one of Pakistan’s most wanted fugitives, having escaped several raids on his hideouts in Abbottabad where he had been living since mid-2003. This had prompted him to go underground and relocate to Bajaur in mid-2004. 


Taken together, the Abbottabad files studied in this article offer a rich and seminal layer to the history of the al-Qa‘ida-al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad relationship. Until now, only some of the early stages of the negotiations between the two had been examined. As was known before, the al-Qa‘ida commander ‘Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, from his base in Shkai, South Waziristan, was communicating with al-Zarqawi’s group throughout 2003, discussing personnel and technology transfer between Pakistan and Iraq. But contacts were cut off when al-Iraqi’s envoy Hassan Ghul, carrying al-Zarqawi’s proposal to al-Qa‘ida’s leadership, was arrested in January 2004 on his way back to Waziristan.

Thanks to the Abbottabad files, we now have a better view of what happened next and a fuller understanding of the players involved and the negotiation-related command-and-control dynamics inside al-Qa‘ida. As we saw, Bin Ladin remained largely absent during the process and likely heard of its successful outcome in the media. To be sure, the Saudi appeared very much eager to get closer to al-Zarqawi. In his June-August 2004 letter, he told al-Libi, in a likely reference to al-Zarqawi: “We emphasize the necessity of working with al-Tanbul [the short] and providing him with everything he needs”. But it was al-Zawahiri who actually oversaw the negotiation and was entrusted with executive decision making, a prominent role he would keep playing in relation to Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa and Somalia.  

The Abbottabad files also reveal that, beyond Bin Ladin and al-Zawahiri, al-Qa‘ida’s “general manager” Abu al-Faraj al-Libi was the one micromanaging the negotiation. Unlike the other players involved, al-Libi had direct access to al-Zarqawi’s group, meeting with the Jordanian’s emissary and sending messages to Iraq. Bin Ladin and al-Zawahiri thus relied on him to be  updated and to convey their directives to al-Zarqawi. We also learn from the Abbottabad files that al-Libi involved a small cadre of senior aides in these talks. While these names—Hamza al-Al-Rabi‘a, ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Maghribi, Khalid al-Habib, Abu al-Hasan al-Misri, Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Muhajir—were already known, this is the first time that they are shown to have been associated with the negotiations with al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad. Together, these figures represented an informal council advising the process, including al-Libi’s critical decision to hold back al-Zawahiri’s stance on the Shi’a to al-Zarqawi.

The Abbottabad files further illustrate how the difficult security environment faced by al-Qa‘ida in Pakistan pushed the organization to eye Iraq as an alternative terrain for its operations, as exemplified by its willingness to dispatch key figures such as al-Rabi‘a to hatch external attacks from there. The files also underline how Islamabad’s 2004 crackdown hampered the negotiation process by disrupting the organization’s communications channels and prompting al-Libi to go deeper into hiding. This might largely explain why, if al-Zarqawi’s bay‘a was accepted by al-Libi around June, it took four additional months for the union to be announced publicly. Finally, the files indicate that, even when the “good news” was announced to the world in October, the process was not finished, as unresolved issues remained between the two parties. Indeed, al-Libi had taken the initiative to conceal al-Zawahiri’s disapproval of al-Zarqawi’s sectarian agenda from al-Zarqawi’s team. At this time, he was then still waiting for the Jordanian’s “detailed report” so that Bin Ladin or al-Zawahiri could make a final decision on the issue. This highlights how eager to compromise al-Qa‘ida—or at least al-Libi and his informal council of advisers—appeared to be during the negotiations, as it chose to sweep its differences with al-Zarqawi under the rug to speed up the merger process, thinking that these issues could be resolved later.

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Kévin Jackson

Kévin Jackson is Research Director at the Center for the Analysis of Terrorism (CAT) in Paris.

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