WASHINGTON — As Osama bin Laden watched his terrorist organization get picked apart, he lamented in his final writings that al-Qaida was suffering from a marketing problem. His group was killing too many Muslims and that was bad for business. The West was winning the public relations fight. All his old comrades were dead and he barely knew their replacements.
Faced with these challenges, bin Laden, who hated the United States and decried capitalism, considered a most American of business strategies. Like Blackwater, ValuJet and Philip Morris, perhaps what al-Qaida really needed was a fresh start under a new name.
The problem with the name al-Qaida, bin Laden wrote in a letter recovered from his compound in Pakistan, was that it lacked a religious element, something to convince Muslims worldwide that they are in a holy war with America.
Maybe something like Taifat al-Tawhed Wal-Jihad, meaning Monotheism and Jihad Group, would do the trick, he wrote. Or Jama’at I’Adat al-Khilafat al-Rashida, meaning Restoration of the Caliphate Group.
As bin Laden saw it, the problem was that the group’s full name, al-Qaida al-Jihad, or The Base of Holy War, had become short-handed as simply al-Qaida. Lopping off the word “jihad,” bin Laden wrote, allowed the West to “claim deceptively that they are not at war with Islam.” Maybe it was time for al-Qaida to bring back its original name.
The letter, which was undated, was discovered among bin Laden’s recent writings. Navy SEALs stormed his compound and killed him before any name change could be made. The letter was described by senior administration, national security and other U.S. officials only on condition of anonymity because the materials are sensitive. The documents portray bin Laden as a terrorist chief executive, struggling to sell holy war for a company in crisis.
At the White House, the documents were taken as positive reinforcement for President Barack Obama’s effort to eliminate religiously charged words from the government’s language of terrorism. Words like “jihad,” which also has a peaceful religious meaning, are out. “Islamic radical” has been nixed in favor of “terrorist” and “mass murderer.” Though former members of President George W. Bush’s administration have backed that effort, it also has drawn ridicule from critics who said the president was being too politically correct.
“The information that we recovered from bin Laden’s compound shows al-Qaida under enormous strain,” Obama said Wednesday in his speech to the nation on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. “Bin Laden expressed concern that al-Qaida had been unable to effectively replace senior terrorists that had been killed and that al-Qaida has failed in its effort to portray America as a nation at war with Islam, thereby draining more widespread support.”
Bin Laden wrote his musings about renaming al-Qaida as a letter but, as with many of his writings, the recipient was not identified. Intelligence officials have determined that bin Laden only communicated with his most senior commanders, including his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, and his No. 3, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, according to one U.S. official. Because of the courier system bin Laden used, it’s unclear to U.S. intelligence whether the letter ever was sent.
Al-Yazid was killed in a U.S. airstrike last year. Zawahri has replaced bin Laden as head of al-Qaida.
In one letter sent to Zawahri within the past year or so, bin Laden said al-Qaida’s image was suffering because of attacks that have killed Muslims, particularly in Iraq, officials said. In other journal entries and letters, they said, bin Laden wrote that he was frustrated that many of his trusted longtime comrades, whom he’d fought alongside in Afghanistan, had been killed or captured.
Using his courier system, bin Laden could still exercise some operational control over al-Qaida. But increasingly the men he was directing were younger and inexperienced. Frequently, the generals who had vouched for these young fighters were dead or in prison. And bin Laden, unable to leave his walled compound and with no phone or Internet access, was annoyed that he did not know so many people in his own organization.
The U.S. has essentially completed the review of documents taken from bin Laden’s compound, officials said, though intelligence analysts will continue to mine the data for a long time.