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


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Kévin Jackson

April 7, 2022

*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.


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. 




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Apr. 26 2022

During the mission that killed Osama bin Laden, Navy SEALs seized thousands of the al Qaeda leader’s personal letters and notes. Sharyn Alfonsi speaks with the woman who’s analyzed it all.

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Interesting story, I though you were shouting me out at first though...


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