As if SEAL Team Six’s successful elimination ofOsama bin Laden weren’t a big enough score, the raid on his compound in Abbottabad also yielded captured documents for analysis by experts in the Intelligence Community. These communications between bin Laden and his lieutenants have so far led to interesting revelations about al Qaeda, such as the jihadist organization’s perceptions about exploiting Western media to promote its propaganda to the public.
The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point released a memorandum to the public last Thursday which summarizes and analyzes seventeen of the seized, translated documents. Among them were letters in which bin Laden expressed concern about al Qaeda’s deteriorating public image, particularly among other Muslims, which he desperately sought to rectify by enlisting the aid of the media.
Having a focused, coherent media strategy was critical for bin Laden. Like all of America’s enemies who can’t compete with us on the battlefield, he understood that winning the media campaign is just as critical to victory than military campaigns – possibly more so. “The issue of Jihadi media,” wrote bin Laden in a letter dated October 20, 2010 among the Abbottabad papers, “is a main piece of the war.”
Part of that campaign was to trumpet in the media the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 atrocity (referred to in the documents as the “Manhattan battle”), an anniversary the SEALs didn’t let him live to celebrate. He had hoped to extract great propaganda benefit from it. “This is a chance to explain our motives for continuing the war,” he wrote:
We need to benefit from this event and get our messages to the Muslims and celebrate the victory that they achieved. We need to restore their confidence in their nation and motivate them. We should also present our just cause to the world, especially to the European people.
Bin Laden suggested contacting Al-Jazeera for their cooperation, and also pondered the merits of U.S. television news networks:
We should also look for an American channel that can be close to being unbiased, such as CBS, or other channel that has political motives that make it interested in broadcasting the point of view of al-Mujahidin. Then, we can send to the channel the material that we want the Americans to see.
In addition to feeling out Al-Jazeera, bin Laden wanted to contact internationally known British journalist Robert Fisk of the Independent (an American foreign policy critic who had actually interviewed bin Laden three times in the mid-90s) and other reporters to emphasize the message to the Western powers that perhaps the energy spent pursuing al Qaeda would be better directed by addressing climate change. Yes, climate change.
In a letter that dates from January 2011 or later, its recipient unknown, California-born al Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn shared his thoughts on bin Laden’s request for a media strategy to mark the 9/11 anniversary. He too mentions sending “special media material” on the date to a number of print journalists around the world, including Fisk. The intent was to win infidel hearts and minds by showing “the fairness of our case to the whole world and the European peoples in particular.”