Letters from Abbottabad: Guest comment by Jessica Huckabey

From "The Encrypted Jihad" © Salon.com, 2002

They used a lot of computers -- just like in the 14th century

Almost every time a terrorist lair gets wiped out by U.S. or allied forces, we find the usual detritus of the 21st century jihadi: flash drives, laptops, CDs (and of course, porn).

Those records are then transported to various intelligence agencies for further analysis. When Osama bin Laden was finally found in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and dispatched to Hell sent to his final reward, the haul was, apparently huge.

The U.S. government has since been releasing its findings on those materials. But what does it all mean? I’m not a terrorism expert and I don’t have any specific training or background in the region. (Complete lack of expertise hasn’t stopped dozens of other academics from claiming to be terror mavens, of course; one of the corrosive intellectual side-effects of 9/11 was the instant creation of an industry of ersatz “terrorism experts.”)

Hmm. If only I knew someone really smart who could fill in for me on this subject, and discuss it for The War Room at length.

Oh wait — I do.

Jessica Huckabey is a researcher with the Institute for Defense Analyses — and yes, that’s as cool as it sounds — where she’s worked with captured al Qaeda records since 2005. She’s one of the co-authors (along with my colleague John Schindler, who’s been a visitor to the blog here a few times) of The Terrorist Perspectives Project: Strategic and Operational Views of Al Qaida and Associated Movements.  Jessica was also the acting director of the Conflict Records Research Center at the National Defense University when it was established in 2010.

Her paper on “Jihads in Decline: What the Captured Records Tell Us” was published in March 2012 in Ten Years Later: Insights on al-Qaeda’s Past & Future Through Captured Records, Conference Proceedings. Most recently, she also presented “Captured Records: Their Public Role in Combating Terrorism” to the Combating Terrorism Working Group in Zagreb, Croatia last month.

Translation: She knows her stuff.

Herewith, her take on the revelations from the Abbottabad haul and others. And remember our standard disclaimer here: Jessica’s opinions are her own and not representative of IDA, the U.S. government, or anyone else, including me.


The U.S. government — specifically, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) — last week released a trove of documents captured last May in the Navy SEAL raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. This first release, however, should be viewed as just the start of a larger process.

The document release is important, because it suggests that the U.S. government understands that these types of records (or at least a subset of them) should not be kept solely in intelligence channels, and should not be held for decades awaiting declassification, but rather should be shared with a larger audience.

Hopefully, this also represents the firm realization that al Qaeda captured records are a unique resource and are themselves beneficial as a public instrument in combating violent extremism.

Actually, this was not the first DNI-approved release of Al-Qaeda’s captured records. In 2005, the U.S. released correspondence between Ayman al-Zawahiri — then Bin Laden’s #2, and now the supposed leader of AQ — to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, their chief havoc-wreaker in Iraq. The letter showed that Corporate, so to speak, was not happy with the branch office’s actions, especially Zarqawi’s fixation on killing Shia Muslims and thus hurting AQ’s credibility.

Ow ow ow ow...take the picture, hurry up...ow ow ow ow

This gem was followed-up with the classic blooper reel of Zarqawi fumbling about and grabbing the hot barrel of an automatic weapon. Releasing that one image was worth more than a thousand counter-messaging words: why try hard to convince impressionable Muslim youth that AQ is dangerously incompetent when you can just roll the video?

Of course, the recent bin Laden release was an unusual, attention-grabbing way to mark the one year anniversary of bin Laden’s death — even though a DNI spokesman said, incredibly, that the release was not linked to the anniversary. (When I emailed several colleagues that the world was about to hear bin Laden’s “last words,” more than one joker replied that they were probably “Oh shit!”)

As it turns out, author Peter Bergen has since revealed that Osama’s last words were actually something to his youngest (and favorite) wife about not turning on the light. (Not as funny, but we’re all about getting to truth here, and that means not always going for the easy punch lines.)

As Tom [Nichols] has already noted, how bin Laden spent his final days with his cat-fighting wives and watching news and porn – his vanity competing with his boredom – is comedy that just writes itself.

For my money, the funniest line came from Seth Meyers on Saturday Night Live:

No, he's not Jewish, but al-Qaeda thinks he is.

“According to documents recovered from Osama Bin Laden’s compound before his death, the Al Qaeda leader was worried that morale in the terrorist organization was fading. Bin Laden was concerned that his men were so depressed they wouldn’t commit suicide.”

Back to the documents. Counterterrorism chief John Brennan (who’s paid to take AQ seriously) prepped the information battlespace  — read: alerted the media — in a major speech to the Woodrow Wilson Center on 30 April with the announcement that the bin Laden document release was coming later in the week. The records revealed an AQ core organization that was on the ropes.

Come on, you saw this joke coming a mile away

Brennan called the core AQ leadership (an important distinction from the AQ movement which is much harder to eradicate) “a shadow of its former self” and stated: “For the first time since this fight began, we can look ahead and envision a world in which the al Qaeda core is simply no longer relevant.”

Brennan was framing the grand narrative about AQ’s declining relevance, which has rightfully been an ultimate goal of US policy all along. Releasing the documents was a good move: what better weapon in the public arsenal than to show that the enemy leader — through an enemy leader’s own writings — is disheartened, delusional, and having second thoughts?

The counterterrorism community was naturally eager to show an al Qaeda demoralized and hampered by its own actions (especially killing too many Muslims and destroying the AQ “brand”), checkmated by U.S. and allied counterterrorism policies. It also showed the frustration of the al-Qaeda leadership with being sidelines while huge events, like the Arab Spring, were shaping the future Muslim world without them.

Anyone can now view or download these documents from West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center’s (CTC) website, which has hosted a select number of released AQ documents over the years. But this latest release is of a new magnitude, so here are a few thoughts for some context.

First, I was not surprised by the quantity or quality of the documents. Media reports indicate that U.S. forces seized a cache of more than 6,000 documents obtained from five computers, dozens of hard drives and more than 100 storage devices. (These thumb drives and disks, likely hand-delivered via courier, were bin Laden’s Achilles heel in the end).

To say that this was a highly selective release and chosen with an eye to make headlines and to control the AQ narrative is to put it mildly. But any release was going to be sensational, and this one has lived up to its promise. It’s a start, and to anyone who hopes that many more will be released, it’s also an important precedent.

There are some issues, noted on the CTC website, about the quality of translations. That’s been true for years, and I would recommend that anyone who wants to seriously understand not just the words but the meaning work from the original documents with someone who’s a highly proficient Arabic-to-English translator.

But what do the documents actually mean? That’s where it gets interesting. There are plenty of informed (and uninformed) pundits giving synopses of what the documents contain. But they do suggest specific AQ weaknesses and fears.

Gadahn was born and raised in Riverside, California. There's a punch line in there somewhere.

For example, U.S. born and raised AQ frontman Adam Gadahn offered advice in 2011 on media strategy and various American news outlets.

His bottom line? AQ Hates Fox News!

Gadahn’s memo, amusingly, also corrects Zawahiri that Benjamin Franklin was not a US president — but to be fair, he notes that many Americans don’t realize that either.

What Gadahn’s tutelage indicates is that, outside of a few Americans in the ranks, there’s only one in AQ’s trusted inner circle that understands how to shape a message toward their American enemies or what America’s bewildering politics mean for al-Qaeda.

Awlaki was busted twice for soliciting hookers in San Diego in the 1990s. What is it about Southern California that makes these guys so irritable?

Washington has been trying hard to take out Gadahn for years (for the same reasons they went after U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen), while ironically, some of the people in Somalia’s AQ affiliate (called “al-Shabaab”) are apparently trying to kill off one of the few Americans still working with them.

It’s further evidence that what AQ has here (to steal an immortal line from Cool Hand Luke) is a failure to communicate on the English-speaking front.

 In another example, earlier reports by David Ignatius in the Washington Post noted that bin Laden advised an evacuation from Waziristan “for more distant and remote locations.”  I initially thought this was the signal to make for the lovely garden spots of Yemen or Somalia.

But no. Bin Laden’s advice in October 2010 was for the “brothers” to escape the border region heat by heading into… Afghanistan! He specifically suggests the provinces of Kunar, Ghazni, or Zabul.

Hey, tell Gadahn to speak English to it. Maybe that'll work.

This is remarkable for several reasons. It shows that bin Laden was not overly concerned about the surge of U.S. forces into Afghanistan; his greatest fears for his men came from (1) “the aircrafts” (drone alert!) that could spot them if they weren’t hidden in rugged terrain, and (2) the traitors in their own ranks.

Thus, bin Laden greeted the revised U.S. strategy to keep AQ out of Afghanistan by directing more AQ foreign fighters into Afghanistan. Go figure.

One final example worth noting is the mid-2010 letter from bin Laden to Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr, al-Shabaab’s leader in Somalia. Osama recommends that the Somali jihadists declare an emirate in their mind only and not involve any paperwork “in order to avoid these documents leaking out to the enemies.” (That doesn’t happen, does it?) He also told them to forgo all that swearing bayat (loyalty) to him as emir and openly declaring a formal alliance with al Qaeda.

Yes, that's where the drones come from. Up there.

For those keeping score, AQ’s new emir — the aforementioned al-Zawahiri — and al-Shabaab decided to ignore this sage advice and formally announced their affiliation in February of this year.

The letter is significant because it shows that bin Laden felt that AQ had finally learned its lesson given past disasters: “If the matter becomes declared and out in the open, it would have the enemies escalate their anger and mobilize against you; this is what happened to the brothers in Iraq or Algeria.”

Can’t say now he didn’t warn them.

 As someone who has seen scores of captured documents over the years, I find some of the reactions to this release more fascinating than the documents themselves, as AQ’s internal correspondence has always been chock-full of discussions of schisms, betrayal, and the difficulties of waging jihad.  Daveed Gartenstein-Ross’ recent blog entry, for example, does a good job of laying out the criticisms of the analysis and reporting on the documents from an informed view.

I would add that the highly selective documents were previewed only to a privileged few — but for good reason. Reporters of Peter Bergen’s and David Ignatius’ stature were needed to create buzz for the release. Yet any reporter or historian who’s fed documents from a restricted archive has issues and doubts about what is not being shared and would approach them with caution without more context.

Nonetheless, captured documents in general allow for a comparison of private and public narratives, and in this case, the documentary record suggests that the founder and leader of AQ was deeply troubled about its past, present, and future – contrary to most of the propaganda being fed to those  in chat rooms and reading glossy magazines like Inspire.

The current records storage center.

 What’s next? I hope the demand signal to see much more from the bin Laden cache continues. It would make sense — and here I’m revealing my own bias — that the Conflict Records Research Center at the National Defense University should be the eventual and natural home for any larger collection. The bin Laden records could then be viewed in context of an already sizeable and growing collection of earlier AQ records captured in Afghanistan.

If this all has truly been a war of ideas, then let’s have a debate over what this all means by reading more of bin Laden’s mail and exposing AQ core’s plans, hopes, fears, and disputes. Captured records, when taken in context with other intelligence and outside expert knowledge, are a valuable resource in combating violent Salafi extremism. A bin Laden document release so soon after their capture is a hopeful step.


Thanks, Jessica.  Comments and questions out there?

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  1. Jesscia: So, lemme get this straight … you’re saying the USG is kinda-sorta-maybe selectively releasing AQ docs? Come on, that’s crazy talk! 🙂

    OK, my two cents, which no one in DC will listen to. Release it all. As in it ALL. Except maybe the 3% that has current sources-and-methods intel value. Send to CRRC. Stat! No delay, except the traffic geting there on 395. Let anyone – yes, anyone, including my weird uncle Steve – who wishes to decide what s/he makes of it. You wanna self-translate, have at!

    I was working with captured AQ laptops/digital media before anyone “outside” had even heard of it, and it’s a fabulous look “inside” – but only if you see it ALL. Snapshots are the devil’s (taghout?) handiwork here.

    So thanks for kicking off a VERY necessary debate.

    PS I preferred Adam “G-Dawg” Gadahn when he was into death-metal.

    • Hi John! You have some strong opinions on this? How rare! 🙂

      As usual, they’re highly informed and spot-on. As you know, it was a struggle to get documents released that were just “For Official Use Only” and not those stamped “Property of SOCOM – Don’t Peek!” But some brave souls did decide to release both kinds, and I think this is a promising sign. I agree that today and not decades from now is the time for the USG to share as many AQ captured records as possible (even with our strange relatives). This is an important and necessary debate.

      And you’re also correct that you need to look at what the docs say in toto and not piecemeal. It also helps to know what you’re looking for and what you’re talking about.

      Re PS: Sounds like another episode from AQ: Behind the Music.