Abbottabad Insights: How al-Qa‘ida in Iraq Was Formed (Part 2)

In the first article in this series, we saw how in 2004 al-Qa‘ida’s “general manager” Abu al-Faraj al-Libi engineered an alliance with Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi’s Iraq-based group. Acting on behalf of Usama bin Ladin and Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Libi met with al-Zarqawi’s emissary Abu Ja‘far al-Iraqi in mid-2004 to discuss the “reality of the situation” in Iraq and negotiate a merger. It was during this meeting that the deal was sealed between the two organizations: al-Libi told Abu Ja‘far that “the subject of the allegiance, God willing, has been completed”, leaving only technicalities to be worked out. After several months of subsequent secret messages between Pakistan and Iraq, a public communiqué released on October 17, 2004 announced that al-Zarqawi’s group was now operating under al-Qa‘ida’s umbrella. Al-Qa‘ida in Iraq was born.

During these months of negotiations, al-Libi had been in charge of carrying out the talks with al-Zarqawi and his group on behalf of al-Qa‘ida. Yet, al-Libi still had to report and answer to his two bosses, Bin Ladin and al-Zawahiri. Given that Bin Ladin was particularly difficult to contact at this time, al-Libi turned to al-Zawahiri for guidance during the process, even as he chose to ignore some of al-Zawahiri’s concerns, including the latter’s disapproval of al-Zarqawi’s sectarian agenda. However, the Libyan would eventually brief Bin Ladin about all the details of the negotiation, including the correspondence with al-Zarqawi’s group, in a message written a day after the merger was proclaimed.

Al-Libi’s letter to Bin Ladin, the most detailed account of the negotiation process that we have, was discussed in the first installment of this series. What remains to be addressed here is the subsequent reactions of the top two al-Qa‘ida leaders, Bin Ladin and al-Zawahiri, to the merger. Once again, the Abbottabad files offer insights. On October 20, 2004, al-Zawahiri penned a missive to Bin Ladin—saved as “Risala li-l-Hizbar” (Letter to the Lion) in Bin Ladin’s archives—in which he provided his account of the merger and outlined the internal divisions al-Qa‘ida was facing as it came to terms with al-Zarqawi. Nearly two months later, on December 9, 2004, Bin Ladin responded to al-Libi’s and al-Zawahiri’s letters in a message to which he attached several other documents.

Al-Qa‘ida’s Internal Squabbles

In his message to Bin Ladin, Abu al-Faraj al-Libi was clearly concerned by the upcoming dispatch of al-Qa‘ida’s senior military leader, ‘Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, to al-Zarqawi’s group in Iraq. Al-Libi portrayed al-Iraqi as a divisive figure at the heart of “the problems” al-Qa‘ida was going through at the time, noting that some within the Waziristan-based jihadi milieu pointed to al-Iraqi to justify not allying with Bin Ladin’s men. According to al-Libi, these internal tensions had “significantly decreased” with the Egyptian Khalid al-Habib taking over al-Qa‘ida’s military affairs portfolio from al-Iraqi and the popular field commander Abu al-Layth al-Libi joining forces with the organization in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

Al-Zawahiri’s October 2004 letter to Bin Ladin substantiates al-Libi’s account about the organization’s internal squabbles, admitting that “some problems” were persisting within its senior ranks, including with al-Iraqi. “The affairs of ‘Abd al-Hadi [al-Iraqi] have been in a state of struggle, as he has admitted to me”, al-Zawahiri writes, pointing to the “problems” and “conflict” between the Iraqi and Shaykh Sa‘id al-Misri (“al-Qari”), a founding member of al-Qa‘ida who would later become its general manager. “Each of them is complaining to me, but I am far away and all I can do is send letters at infrequent intervals”, al-Zawahiri laments. As is apparent from the letter, al-Iraqi was also quarreling with Hamza al-Jawfi, a senior Egyptian explosives trainer and weapons supplier whose strained relations with al-Iraqi had led him to stop working with al-Qa‘ida. Al-Jawfi, al-Zawahiri explained, “claimed that the problem was with ‘Abd al-Hadi [al-Iraqi] and that he was waiting for his departure” before going back to the fold. With al-Iraqi’s demotion, al-Jawfi expressed “his commitment” to resuming his cooperation with al-Qa‘ida.

For al-Zawahiri, however, it was al-Libi, not al-Iraqi, who was the primary troublemaker in al-Qa‘ida’s hierarchy. “Abu al-Faraj [al-Libi] has been reckless and has exposed himself to hazards repeatedly”, al-Zawahiri wrote to Bin Ladin, adding that al-Libi had “caused a large problem with his continued absence that is nearly constant” as the Libyan “moves about frequently”. Over the past year, al-Libi had been mainly based in Abbottabad inside Pakistan while al-Iraqi and the bulk of al-Qa‘ida’s leaders operated from South Waziristan in Pakistan’s tribal areas. “I emphasized to Abu al-Faraj [al-Libi] that he must stick close to the location of ‘Abd al-Hadi [al-Iraqi]”, al-Zawahiri stated, “because his leaving is dangerous and could lead to numerous problems”. Yet, “neither giving advice nor giving direct orders has diverted him from his path”, he complained. The Libyan’s “continued absence” ended up leaving “affairs and responsibilities unclear” and “things proceeding in an undisciplined manner” inside al-Qa’ida, notably causing the “conflict” between al-Iraqi and Shaykh Sa‘id. “I have exhausted all avenues with Abu al-Faraj [al-Libi]”, al-Zawahiri lamented, urging Bin Ladin to “issue a clear order to him [i.e., al-Libi] that he keep to a reliable location, such as the locations of ‘Abd al-Hadi, and leave the cities”, as staying inside urban Pakistani areas was deemed too dangerous.

Mindful of his lieutenants’ grievances, Bin Ladin authored a seven-page document saved as “al-Shura” (Consultation), which he attached to his December 2004 letter. An updated version of a missive written “a long time ago”, the “al-Shura” document aimed at resolving al-Qa‘ida’s internal turmoil by charting a framework regulating command-and-control and duties within the organization. In setting all this out, Bin Ladin firmly stood by his decision to appoint al-Libi as al-Qa‘ida’s “general manager” and reaffirmed his confidence in his young Libyan commander. “I consider you apt to manage the work under these circumstances”, Bin Ladin assured al-Libi, adding that the latter should not be “embarrassed because of the other brothers who had previous experience in the jihad or are older than he is”. Well-aware of the criticism around al-Libi’s leadership, Bin Ladin wanted to make very clear to the “senior brothers” in the Af-Pak region that “the author of these lines [i.e., Bin Ladin] is the one who appointed Tawfiq [i.e., al-Libi] as the overall head for all the al-Qa‘ida brothers”, thereby making al-Libi “the most senior official in the [Af-Pak] area”.

On the other hand, Bin Ladin took al-Zawahiri’s admonishment of al-Libi’s operational security recklessness very seriously. Consequently, the leader of al-Qa‘ida, in one of the attachments to his main letter, directed al-Libi to undertake his activities “using letters and very few couriers” and to “refrain from moving around unless there is a dire need [to do so]”, underlining that this was “an obligatory order and is not subject to discussion”. Further, in his “al-Shura” document, Bin Ladin reminded his Libyan lieutenant that his critics were not nobodies, advising him to “always remember that the respected brothers whose names were mentioned have good past experiences in the jihad”. The al-Qa‘ida leader went on to praise al-Zawahiri as “the cream of the crop of what was left from the mujahidin during these past decades” and instructed al-Libi to “increase your consultation with him and take his opinion, in addition to the fact that he is the deputy of the overall emir”. As for the “virtuous” Shaykh Sa‘id, another player in the group’s discord, Bin Ladin suggested that, “if possible”, al-Libi should “make friends with him, without him trespassing your privileges”. In sum, Bin Ladin wanted al-Libi to play ball for the organization’s sake by getting along with the other leaders. At the same time, Bin Ladin instructed him, “go forward and do not look back and do not hesitate, even if some people would talk [negatively] about you”.

With regard to the contentious case of al al-Iraqi, Bin Ladin weighed in in favor of his detractors, headed by al-Libi, whose complaints had been voiced in the Libyan’s October 2004 letter. First, Bin Ladin validated al-Libi’s decision to demote al-Iraqi as al-Qa‘ida’s military leader. He initially considered replacing the Iraqi with Abu ‘Ubayda al-Misri, a veteran military figure who was then leading al-Qa‘ida’s operations in Kunar, as he was “proven [in our eyes]”, while Khalid al-Habib would become “a trainer or an administrator, assuring the preparations of the brothers”. Eventually though, “we learned you had appointed brother Khalid al-Habib [as] the military emir”, Bin Ladin wrote to al-Libi, essentially endorsing the Libyan’s choice by confirming al-Habib as the new military leader “for a period of a year from his being given the assignment”.

Also, Bin Ladin sided with al-Libi regarding al-Iraqi’s relocation to Iraq. As we saw in the first article in this series, the leader of al-Qa‘ida initially favored dispatching al-Iraqi to Iraq. Yet, he changed his mind after learning that this move was causing concerns and was opposed by numerous top al-Qa‘ida figures, including al-Libi and al-Habib. As a result, Bin Ladin recommended in his December 2004 letter that al-Iraqi “delay his travel at this stage”. Instead, the Iraqi commander should “be assigned the file of al-Tanbul [the short] if that is possible, or whatever you see fit”. “Al-Tanbul” possibly refers to al-Zarqawi, especially given that al-Iraqi continued to work as a liaison to al-Qa‘ida in Iraq after 2004 (more on this in the next installment in this series). 

The Al-Rabi‘a-Al-Zarqawi Nexus

Besides backing al-Libi on the al-Iraqi issue, Bin Ladin also rallied behind the Libyan’s proposal concerning al-Qa‘ida’s external operations. Earlier, al-Libi had recommended to Bin Ladin that the group “transfer the external work department to Iraq” by sending there Hamza al-Rabi‘a, the external wing’s head, or Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Muhajir, al-Qa‘ida’s best bombmaker, “or both of them”. In his December 2004 letter, Bin Ladin sanctioned the “transfer” of al-Rabi‘a to Iraq. He noted that “it is fine for him to travel alone”, hence implying that he did not see the presence of al-Muhajir as necessary.

Bin Ladin further advised that before traveling al-Rabi‘a should first reach out to and coordinate with al-Zarqawi to obtain “reassurance regarding the security of the road” between Pakistan and Iraq. The leader of al-Qa‘ida also wanted al-Rabi‘a to explain to al-Zarqawi the purpose of the mission at hand, namely to “form an independent apparatus to carry out external operations” from Iraq so as to capitalize on the numerous foreign fighters there who could easily travel abroad to mount these attacks. Al-Rabi‘a was also told that before setting off he ought to brief al-Zarqawi on external operations by sending the latter a message “comprising [information on] our previous experiences in this work”, with a focus on the “conditions necessary to be met” for would-be operatives. In doing so, Bin Ladin reasoned, al-Rabi‘a would not be starting from scratch if he managed to get to Iraq as al-Zarqawi would already be working on global attacks; on the other hand, if al-Rabi‘a were unable to travel, then external plotting would still continue from Iraq.

Bin Ladin attached a document to his December 2004 letter specifying the joint mission on which al-Rabi‘a and al-Zarqawi ought to cooperate. In it, the leader of al-Qa‘ida stipulated that, among their top priorities, the two should focus on planning attacks in the U.S., especially in “the states which elected [George W.] Bush, starting with Florida and Ohio and Texas”. Indeed, Bin Ladin seemed inclined to spare the states that did not vote for Bush, stipulating that there should be “some kind of security [guarantee] for them” and that al-Qa’ida should “issue a special message clarifying their status”. This echoes the conclusion of a public video by Bin Ladin released earlier in October 2004 in which he stated that “every [American] state that doesn’t play with our security has automatically guaranteed its own security”.

Another Abbottabad file indicates that Bin Ladin’s instructions were then communicated to al-Zarqawi. In a draft of a statement entitled “The America Speech”, Bin Ladin refuted the notion that al-Qa‘ida’s international attacks had waned and gloated that the war in Iraq had even strengthened the organization’s “military wing responsible for operations against America”. To further his point, he announced that “we have asked our brother … Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi to establish another wing there [i.e., in Iraq], for recruiting those energies qualified to operate against America and its allies”. He went on to threaten that “the best witness of the success of this wing will be the operations undertaken in the capitals of Europe”, mentioning the 7/7 London bombings as the wing’s latest success. Lastly, while Bin Ladin acknowledged that “no operations have occurred in America recently”, he claimed that it was not because of the U.S. intelligence community’s efforts but the “result of some mistakes committed by some of the brothers in Pakistan [who] were discovered by … the apostate Pervez [Musharraf]”. The al-Qa‘ida leader nonetheless warned the U.S.: “what will come to you all is the most bitter thing you will have tasted … And the results will come … when the preparations are completed”.

It is worth noting that Bin Ladin’s December 2004 letter, the attached document threatening the states that voted for Bush and “The America Speech” all corroborate claims by U.S. intelligence back in 2007 that the leader of al-Qa‘ida had asked al-Rabi‘a “to send Zarqawi a briefing on al Qaeda’s external operations, including information about operations against the American homeland”. The same intelligence sources reported that Bin Ladin had also “tasked [al-Zarqawi] with forming a cell to conduct terrorist attacks outside of Iraq” and that he had “emphasized that America should be Zarqawi’s number one priority in terms of foreign attacks”. It is most likely that al-Libi was the one who transmitted Bin Ladin’s directives to al-Zarqawi, as the Libyan is reported to have called on al-Zarqawi “to target U.S. interests outside of Iraq”. The same U.S. intelligence sources added that al-Zarqawi had “welcomed this direction and claimed he had already come up with some good proposals”.

On January 19, 2006, al-Jazira broadcasted a new audio statement from Bin Ladin, who had not been heard in the media for a year. Entitled “A Message to the American People: The Way to End the War”, this message was a heavily edited version of “The America Speech” in which the leader of al-Qa‘ida was far less candid about his group’s planning for international attacks. The public address made no mention of the “external wing” or the nexus with al-Zarqawi in Iraq and instead remarked that “Iraq has become a point of attraction and recruitment for qualified forces”. Bin Ladin also chose not to evoke the “mistakes … of the brothers in Pakistan” to explain al-Qa‘ida’s failure to strike inside the U.S., rephrasing the passage as follows: “As for the delay in the occurrence of similar operations in America, it is not because of the impossibility of penetrating your security arrangements, but rather, operations are in preparation and you shall see them on your own soil when they are completed”. Finally, Bin Ladin did not issue threats against Europe, contenting himself to celebrate the achievements of “the mujahidin … as evidenced by what you have seen in terms of bombings in the capitals of the most important European States”, referring to the Madrid and London bombings in 2004 and 2005.

Al-Zawahiri’s “Glad Tidings”

In his October 2004 letter, al-Zawahiri recounted to Bin Ladin that two days earlier, he had heard “the glad tidings” in the media: al-Zarqawi had declared his allegiance to Bin Ladin and “urged the umma to unite against the Crusaders and the Jews”. The news had been reported by newspapers such as al-Sharq al-Awsat, al-Hayat, al-Quds and Radio America (in Pashto) but was “completely ignored” by the BBC, despite the latter “filling its bulletins with a lot of rubbish!!”, al-Zawahiri fumed.

Al-Zawahiri went on to narrate the negotiation process between al-Qa‘ida and al-Zarqawi’s group, citing details that largely match those of al-Libi’s version. Before the merger, al-Zawahiri wrote, al-Libi had “sent [me] a message about the conditions of Iraq”. The main points of this message were that the “mujahidin” were thriving as they “controlled large areas” of Iraq, were well-resourced and had “hundreds” of recruits coming “from the neighboring countries”; that they were “about to form a unified group” that would include “most of those working on behalf of the jihad”; that they were planning “large-scale operations in neighboring countries”; that they had begun targeting the Shi‘a only after the Badr Corps started attacking “the Sunnis and their scholars”; and that after they had asked to swear allegiance to Bin Ladin, al-Libi told them to go ahead with the oath of allegiance, saying he would reach out to al-Zawahiri “to speed up the matter”. Al-Libi then “requested the approval of Abu Fatima [i.e., al-Zawahiri] with brief directives”, which would be followed by more detailed guidance at a later time.

It is worth noting here that al-Zawahiri’s letter helps to clarify al-Zarqawi’s rationale for joining al-Qa’ida, something which was missing in al-Libi’s letter. In discussing al-Zarqawi’s eagerness to pledge allegiance, al-Zawahiri specified that the Jordanian’s group initially showed “some hesitancy as concerns [Bin Ladin’s] forbearing from fighting the client rulers” but that Bin Ladin’s most recent message had “reassured” them. Although not more explicit, this passage echoes the account of a member of al-Zarqawi’s group who related that al-Zarqawi used to see al-Qa‘ida as “soft” on “the apostate rulers – especially the Saudis – and their armies” and had thus refused to join al-Qa‘ida in Afghanistan. In the aftermath of 9/11, however, Bin Ladin “explicitly declared the obligation to fight [the Saudi regime] in some of his addresses” and “the obstacles preventing the unification … were thereby removed”. It thus appears that it was the post-911 takfiri friendly agenda embraced by al-Qa‘ida that “reassured” al-Zarqawi and prompted him to join forces with an organization he saw as previously not adhering to the “correct” methodology.

Based on his understanding of Bin Ladin’s policy, al-Zawahiri sent a response to al-Libi urging al-Zarqawi’s group to “prepare immediately to announce the bay‘a”. He added that the oath “should not be in the name of a person”, namely al-Zarqawi, but rather on behalf “of the collectivity of the mujahidin in Iraq”. Al-Zawahiri’s message also addressed the scope of jihad for al-Zarqawi’s group: the Jordanian’s men should “stop working against the Shi‘a” and “postpone activity against the client rulers at the present time, so that their efforts are not scattered across two fronts given that we are now in the stage of mobilizing the umma for jihad”. Nonetheless, he added, “confronting the client rulers will eventually come, God willing, and victory will not be achieved without it”. As mentioned earlier, al-Libi withheld some of these instructions from al-Zarqawi’s group. While al-Libi notified Bin Ladin about this, none of the files I’ve reviewed indicates that al-Zawahiri was informed about this.

Bin Ladin’s Guidelines

In his December 2004 letter, Bin Ladin rejoiced over the news of al-Zarqawi’s bay‘a, saying that it pleased him greatly and describing it as “great and promising”. The leader of al-Qa‘ida urged al-Zawahiri and al-Libi to “pay close attention to this event” as it was “a major step toward unifying the efforts of the mujahidin … not only in Iraq, but in the whole region”. In view of the fact that unity among Muslims is “one of the most obligatory of legal duties”, Bin Ladin wanted his two lieutenants “to ask the brother Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi to urge the other mujahid groups in Iraq and its environs to unite their efforts with him”, adding that al-Zawahiri and Abu al-Layth al-Libi should issue public messages calling for unity among the elements of the Iraqi insurgency. Bin Ladin also suggested publicizing the additions to al-Zarqawi’s group, even the “small” ones, as doing so would “raise the morale of Muslims and increase their interest and support for the mujahidin”. Bin Ladin commented on the rest of the Iraqi insurgency by stating that the Islamic Party and Ansar al-Sunna “should be encouraged and supported” in their operations.

As explained in the first installment in this series, al-Zarqawi and al-Libi wanted Bin Ladin to deliver a public pronouncement endorsing the Jordanian’s group, inciting the militants in Iraq and the Levant to rally behind it and “encourag[ing] the youth there” as they were in the midst of heavy military pressure from the U.S. in Fallujah. Following al-Libi’s and al-Zarqawi’s advice, Bin Ladin recorded an audio addressed to “the Muslim brothers in Iraq in particular and the umma in general” in which he lauded “the free people in the land of al-Anbar, particularly the residents of the heroic city of al-Fallujah” who were giving “an example of steadfastness for others in the face of U.S. barbarism”.

More importantly, the statement formally sanctioned the bay‘a of “the dignified brother” al-Zarqawi and his group. “We, in the al-Qa‘ida organization, warmly welcome their union with us”, Bin Ladin said, emphasizing that “this is a great step toward rendering successful the efforts of the mujahidin to establish [an Islamic state]”. He further stressed that “it should be known that the mujahid brother Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi is the emir of al-Qa‘ida in the Lands of the Two Rivers [i.e., al-Qa‘ida in Iraq]” and that “the brothers in the group there should heed his orders and obey him”. Bin Ladin also encouraged others in the jihadi landscape in Iraq to come together under al-Zarqawi’s leadership, stating that “the mujahid groups [there] ought to coordinate amongst themselves in order to unite their ranks under one banner”.

Bin Ladin’s audio advocated broad mobilization for fighting in Iraq and elsewhere in the Islamic world where “the Crusader-Zionist coalition” was seeking to subjugate the umma, including Afghanistan and Palestine. “The most important and serious issue today,” he explained, “is this Third World War”. In these circumstances, jihad was an “individual duty” (fard ‘ayn) on every member of the Muslim umma, who “are required to devote of their resources, sons and wealth what is sufficient for fighting the unbelievers and driving them out of their lands”. Adopting a more takfiri rhetoric more in tune with al-Zarqawi’s thinking, Bin Ladin also touched on “a number of the most important and serious legal judgments” concerning those who refrain from supporting this jihad. The first pertained to “those who support the unbelievers against the Muslims”. According to Bin Ladin, “giving support to America or [Ayad] Allawi’s apostate government … in any way whatsoever … is greater unbelief that expels one from the community”. This included “the owners of companies and the workers who transport fuel, ammunition, food supplies and any other needs”. All these “have apostatized from the religion and it is necessary to fight them”. In the same vein, he stated that “those Iraqis … who belong to Allawi’s apostate government, such as members of the Army, the security agencies and the National Guard … their blood is licit”. The second issue was about “participation in the upcoming elections” in Iraq. Given that the Iraqi constitution was “a constitution of unbelief” and that the elections “will be held upon America’s orders”, Bin Ladin maintained that “if anyone participates in [these elections] knowingly and willingly, he will have rejected God”.

In his December 2004 letter, Bin Ladin had advised that al-Zarqawi’s men “focus [their] operations against the Americans, their allies and the apostate government of Allawi”, arguing that “undoubtedly, they have the right to defend themselves and their brothers against any force wanting to harm them”. Similarly, the audio praised al-Zarqawi’s jihad in Iraq, highlighting the “daring operations against the Americans and Allawi’s apostate government”. Yet, the leader of al-Qa‘ida also argued that the “mujahidin” should “beware the shedding of innocent blood, except for what the law permits, such as in the case of people being used as shields (tatarrus), without going to excess”, a likely reference to the numerous Iraqi civilians killed in jihadi bombings in Iraq. In his December 2004 letter, Bin Ladin also recommended that al-Zarqawi’s group “avoid opening fronts that could be delayed”, which is almost certainly a reference to delaying an all-out war against the Shi‘a in Iraq.


In addition to the one on Iraq, Bin Ladin would record an additional audio statement in late 2004 focusing on the Arabian Peninsula. These two files as well as the other documents cited in this article, including Bin Ladin’s operational security directives to al-Libi, were all supposed to be sent together as a response to al-Libi’s and al-Zawahiri’s messages from October 2004. But as another document from the Abbottabad files suggests, Bin Ladin’s effort to reach out to his two deputies failed, at least initially.

This document is a letter addressed to al-Libi (“Wakil Sahib”) signed by a certain “Jaragh al-Din”. Clues from this missive and from al-Libi’s October 2004 letter to Bin Ladin indicate that Jaragh al-Din was part of Bin Ladin’s inner circle, living with or in close proximity to the leader of al-Qa‘ida in Haripur and transmitting the latter’s messages to his aides. In his October 2004 letter, al-Libi asked Bin Ladin “to permit brother Ahmad … to meet with us” so that “we can introduce him to at least one or two new brothers … so that you might benefit from us regarding sending communications”. Al-Libi also told Bin Ladin that “we can take advantage of the meeting to teach the brother some of the new means of encryption that we have”. In his letter to al-Libi, Jaragh al-Din wrote: “as for your request to meet with me, I would love to see you … but the Professor [i.e., Bin Ladin] would like us to arrange the meeting at a later time and also would like the study of encryption … to take place via correspondence”. These excerpts show that Jaragh al-Din and Ahmad were one and the same and that he was part of Bin Ladin’s courier network. Given his profile, it is possible that “Ahmad” is just short for the infamous Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti, who would end up being killed along with “the Professor” during the Abbottabad raid.

In any event, Jaragh al-Din’s letter to al-Libi reveals that the files Bin Ladin produced in late 2004, from the “al-Shura” document to the audio statements on Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula, “were lost with Salih”. Together with a certain “Hassan”, Salih was one of “the two current lines” in al-Qa‘ida’s courier network on the receiving end of the correspondence from Bin Ladin at the time. Although the circumstances of the losses were not explained, in his letter to Bin Ladin al-Libi had warned that “the two current lines” were “overstretched” and “not safe on account of the extent of the demand on them” inside the organization.

Eventually though, Bin Ladin’s files reached their intended recipients. In his December 2004 letter, he notified al-Libi that he wanted the audio about the Arabian Peninsula to be released first, either on December 14 or 15, as there was an unspecified “interest related to this date”. If that was not possible, he continued, then the Iraq audio should be released before the Arabian Peninsula speech. Jaragh al-Din instructed al-Libi to “find a secure path” for “the two audio messages” to be released on “the internet” as “we do not think they will be published in their entirety in the media”. He asked the Libyan to “give a copy of them to al-Zarqawi’s representative if he visits you” so that the “important legal judgments” contained in these “messages” could be disseminated in Iraq.

On December 16, Bin Ladin’s Arabian Peninsula audio address was released on jihadi forums, the same day that anti-monarchy protests were planned in Riyadh and Jeddah at the initiative of the Saudi Islamist Sa‘d al-Faqih. Eleven days later, on December 27, the Iraq audio was released.


When al-Zarqawi’s bay‘a to Bin Ladin was announced on October 17, 2004, the communiqué noted that “our most generous brothers in al-Qa‘ida came to understand the strategy of [our group], and their hearts warmed to its methodology”. Here, al-Zarqawi was signaling that, while nominally under Bin Ladin’s leadership, it was his “strategy” and “methodology” that Bin Ladin was agreeing to sign up for, and not the other way around.

The Abbottabad files studied in this series lend credence to the communiqué’s claim. As noted earlier, al-Zarqawi’s willingness to come under Bin Ladin’s leadership appears to have been facilitated, at least in part, by the more avowedly anti-regime stance adopted by al-Qa‘ida in the wake of 9/11. Indeed, it was only when al-Qa‘ida moved away from its “attack the West only” program to include a local component closer to al-Zarqawi’s line of thinking that he agreed to join forces. He likely reasoned that if he were to subordinate himself to al-Qa‘ida, he would not be encumbered by what was before 9/11 al-Qa‘ida’s exclusive focus on the far enemy.

Besides the positive signals in the form of Bin Ladin’s more takfiri statements, al-Zarqawi must have felt even more vindicated when, behind the scenes, al-Libi commended his strategy in Iraq, telling the Jordanian’s envoy that “what al-Zarqawi is doing, i.e., striking the Americans in Iraq and all the apostates who help them” while using “the Iraqi theater to make preparations for neighboring countries in terms of training and arrangements”, was “absolutely correct”. After the meeting where al-Zarqawi’s emissary outlined his group’s vision for Iraq and the region to al-Libi, the latter sent a message to his counterpart in Iraq announcing that al-Zawahiri had accepted the bay‘a and asking al-Zarqawi to present the bay‘a in public.

With all this in mind, it is easy to see why al-Zarqawi would think he had succeeded in bringing al-Qa‘ida on board with his strategic vision. However, the Abbottabad files also show that, despite the positive signals, al-Qa‘ida’s top leaders were not in full agreement with the Jordanian when his bay‘a was first accepted by al-Libi. Bin Ladin was originally keen on keeping al-Zarqawi in check by dispatching a senior figure, al-Iraqi, to Iraq in order to uphold al-Qa‘ida’s true agenda there, namely “the escalation in the resistance to the occupying forces” and “the prevention of the opening of other secondary fronts, such as [against] the Shi’ites”. Al-Zawahiri, for his part, wanted al-Zarqawi’s group to “stop working against the Shi‘a” and to “postpone activity against the client rulers”, which was to form a later stage of jihad. Likewise, al-Libi had notified al-Zarqawi’s emissary that Bin Ladin considered jihad against the Arab regimes “an advanced stage” and that the current priority was “the stage of fighting the greater unbelief (the Americans)”.The Libyan also appeared concerned by the mass-casualty attacks against Iraq’s Shi‘a community.

Nevertheless, al-Qa‘ida—or al-Qa‘ida central, as it would soon come to be known—was in no position to strong-arm al-Zarqawi into following its preferred path in Iraq. From the start, al-Zarqawi had made clear that it was up to al-Qa‘ida to embrace his program, telling Bin Ladin and al-Zawahiri that “if you are convinced of the idea of fighting the sects of apostasy, we will be your readied soldiers, working under your banner”. In the aftermath of the first battle of Fallujah, the Jordanian had the upper hand in the negotiation as he had become the leading figure in the most important battleground for jihad. By contrast, letters from al-Libi and al-Zawahiri highlight that al-Qa‘ida was then enduring intense military and security pressure in Pakistan as well as internal rifts. The level of strain was such that the planning of external operations had “practically halted” and Bin Ladin had to write a guidance document (the “al-Shura” letter) focused entirely on bringing harmony to the ranks. In this precarious context, the prospect of a merger with al-Zarqawi appeared particularly attractive to al-Qa‘ida, which viewed Iraq as a new El Dorado which could reverse the organization’s fortunes, especially in terms of planning international attacks.

Hence, the concerns of al-Qa‘ida’s leadership, and its divergences, were transmitted in attenuated form or even hidden from al-Zarqawi altogether. The one “warning” to al-Zarqawi against “excess” contained in Bin Ladin’s audio about Iraq was only briefly expressed and came very late in what was otherwise a speech endorsing the Jordanian’s actions. Bin Ladin was not much more assertive in private. He eventually gave up on trying to rein in al-Zarqawi, instructing al-Iraqi to “delay” his journey to Iraq and, instead of confronting the Shi‘a elephant in the room head-on, merely shared his view in his letter to al-Libi and al-Zawahiri that al-Zarqawi’s group should “avoid opening fronts that could be delayed”. Even then, he made sure to qualify his subtle criticism with the expression “the witness sees what the absent one does not see”, in deference to al-Zarqawi and his team. It is telling that while Bin Ladin devoted an entire missive to resolving al-Qa‘ida’s internal disputes (the “al-Shura” letter), his strategic instructions to al-Qa‘ida in Iraq were limited to a six-line paragraph shorter than the one discussing wedding arrangements for his son Khalid”. This somewhat lax approach on the part of Bin Ladin would later be confirmed by al-Zawahiri, who stated in 2006 that while Bin Ladin had instructed the “brothers in Iraq” to “focus their efforts on the Americans and neutralize the rest of the powers as best as they could”, he had still given “them some freedom of movement, telling them that the witness sees what the absent one does not see.”

With regard to al-Zawahiri, although he was the bluntest in criticizing al-Zarqawi’s sectarian agenda internally, his disapproval was purposely concealed from the Jordanian by al-Qa‘ida’s general manager, al-Libi. From the Abbottabad files, the Libyan emerges as the most driven and ambitious of al-Qa‘ida’s top officials in brokering a deal in Iraq, as illustrated by his Iraq-focused October 2004 letter that provided detailed guidance on the topic. Bin Ladin’s and al-Zawahiri’s messages on the matter were rather laconic by contrast. It can be argued that al-Libi’s influence in forging the merger was more significant than either of his two bosses’. Besides his role in brokering the deal with al-Zarqawi’s group, he was also instrumental in convincing Bin Ladin to “delay” the dispatch of al-Iraqi, who was supposed to maintain al-Qa‘ida’s interests in Iraq. Furthermore, determined as he was to expedite the negotiation process and remove any remaining impediments, al-Libi, of his own initiative, accepted al-Zarqawi’s bay‘a on behalf of his bosses even as he withheld some of al-Zawahiri’s opinions from al-Zarqawi.

Although al-Libi’s resourcefulness likely facilitated the positive outcome of the negotiation, it also put al-Qa‘ida central in a precarious position in its relationship with its brand new subsidiary and helped to sow the seeds of the coming discord between the two sides. A union had been proclaimed, but strategic divergences had not been fully resolved—let alone conveyed to Zarqawi’s side. Before the announcement of the bay‘a, al-Libi had asked al-Zarqawi for a “detailed report on your situation”, which al-Libi intended to send to his bosses so that they could make well-informed decisions regarding the course of the Iraqi jihad. The files I have archived do not tell if this “report” was ever sent. In any case, the unresolved issues hidden by al-Libi and ignored by Bin Ladin would remain, proving an enduring source of tension as illustrated by al-Qa‘ida’s endless attempts over the years to “rectify” the policies of its affiliate behind the scenes.

Ultimately, al-Qa‘ida came to fully grasp the negative impact of the leeway granted to its Iraqi subsidiary from the outset. At least al-Zawahiri did. In a letter written to Bin Ladin in January 2011, the Egyptian was still arguing over issues that had been preoccupying him ever since the merger, including attacks against Iraq’s Shi‘a and “opening new fronts, whether inside or outside Iraq”. Another issue was the arrival of a new leader named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, whose presence was further eroding the already strained relations between al-Qa‘ida central and the Islamic State of Iraq, al-Qa‘ida in Iraq’s latest incarnation. Particularly vocal in his opposition to the Islamic State’s conduct, al-Zawahiri urged Bin Ladin to restrain al-Baghdadi’s men by sending them a message detailing the policies to follow in Iraq. In the past, al-Qa‘ida’s top leadership had postured diplomatically when questioning the actions of its troublesome affiliate, stating, in the case of Bin Ladin, “the witness sees what the absent one does not see,” and, in the case of al-Zawahiri, “I see the picture from afar, and … you see what we do not see”. Now, the same al-Zawahiri was telling Bin Ladin that “I hope that you do not conclude your message with sayings like … ‘the witness sees what the absent one does not see’, as these sayings nullify every directive preceding them”. As the coming divorce between the two groups later showed, al-Zawahiri’s plea for a more assertive approach was too little, too late—if it ever stood a chance in the first place.

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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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