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Bin Laden documents reveal al-Qaeda fissures

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Filed: IR-1/CR-1 Visa Country: Morocco

One year after the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, the US on Thursday (May 3rd) released 17 documents from among a massive trove of files recovered from the al-Qaeda leader's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

The declassified letters and other papers made public on Thursday total 175 pages written in Arabic. The earliest letter is dated September 2006 and the latest April 2011.

The documents reveal much about the inner workings of a-Qaeda, including a surprising focus on the group's very name.

"The name of an entity carries its message and often represents it," a letter says.

The letter by an unidentified writer said that "this name, (Qaeda al-Jihad), was abridged by the people and only a few of them now remember it".

The document suggested some new names for the terror network: "Jama'at wihdat al-Muslimin (Muslim Unity Group), Hizb Tawhid al-Umma (Nation Unification Party); Jama'at Tahrir al-Aqsa (Al-Aqsa Liberation Group), Jama'at Tahrir Wanahdat al-Umma (Liberation and Revitalisation of the Nation Group)."

The letter also stated that what was needed in the name was "to bring the message of al-Qaeda to the sons of the Muslim umma and not to be easily shortened".

To journalist Mohamed Sid al-Mokhtar, "the proposed change came because of what has been associated with the name in terms of heinous acts - attacks on civilians, killings, destruction, bombings and sabotage".

"Therefore, al-Qaeda today feels it has to change its name because of its history that made it isolated from Islam as a religion, as Muslims now look at this organisation as a movement exploiting their religion in its criminal acts," the journalist told Magharebia.

"Al-Qaeda is trying to get rid of its blemished name and take a new one as some sort of 'laundering of history," he said.

Al-Mokhtar added, "Young people no longer join it, its name has now become associated with blood and fire and it has lost its sources of financing, so it's shrewdly trying to approach Muslim societies through a new name."

A message sent by Bin Laden one year before his death to Sheikh Mahmud Atiyah in Yemen indicated that the group was indeed feeling the loss of Muslim support because of the killing of innocent people in al-Qaeda attacks.

The letters also touched on issues of particular interest in the Maghreb region, from AQIM hostages, to politics, to the toll taken on local terrorists by security offensives.

In one draft statement by al-Qaeda leader Aymen al-Zawahiri, the terror network noted Tunisia's successful revolution, saying "the tyrant ruler is gone, but the tyrant regime is still there". The statement urges followers to continue to wage jihad in Tunisia until they impose "the banner of Islam".

In another letter, Bin Laden discusses French hostages held by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in the Sahara. He urges the Maghreb affiliate to use the hostages as a bargaining chip in the run up to the French elections.

The document cache also contained a 2007 letter from al-Qaeda operatives in Algeria detailing their offensive against the government. The letter notes the group's losses following Algerian helicopter attacks on the terror group's convoys in the Sahara. The same letter discusses the arrival of Libyan jihadists in Tébessa, near Algeria's border with Tunisia.

Other released papers show the extent of differences between al-Qaeda leaders.

In a message sent by al-Qaeda leaders Mahmud Hasan Atiyah and Abu Yahya al-Libi to the emir of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Hakimullah Mehsud, dated December 3rd 2010, the two al-Qaeda leaders threatened the Taliban commander, saying his actions impacted al-Qaeda's work and were "contrary to the objectives of jihad".

To analyst Hamadi Ould Dah, such remarks show that a few months before Bin Laden's death, al-Qaeda leaders felt increasing isolation; something that explains their rivalry for leadership, which led to discord rather than solidarity.

The strongly-worded letter from Atiyah and al-Libi reveals the internal cracks within al-Qaeda. The letter ends with the two al-Qaeda leaders threatening the Taliban commander to comply with their demands or they will "have to take decisive, public Sharia actions from our end".

To journalist Rajel Ould Oumar, the "two leaders' letter on killing civilians is only a pressure card used to improve al-Qaeda's image".

It also shows the contradiction in the discourse of al-Qaeda.

Whether by its branches in Yemen, the Arabian Peninsula, Somalia, the Maghreb, or Boko Haram, Ould Oumar said, "Al-Qaeda has always been targeting civilians."

"And civilians have always been killed by al-Qaeda's heinous operations," he added.

This content was commissioned for Magharebia.com.

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