Documents recovered from Osama bin Laden's home in Abbottabad, Pakistan reveal that his organisation was having difficulty controlling its branches around the world, especially actions that led to the killing of Muslims.
The documents, which were publicly released Thursday (May 3rd), show the former al-Qaeda leader was aware of the negative effect that attacks by its proxies and affiliates were having on al-Qaeda's reputation.
Al-Qaeda's declining reputation among the public led even him to consider changing the organisation's name.
The documents show that the killings and bombings al-Shabaab carried out were a source of concern to bin Laden, who turned down the movement's request to publicly become an al-Qaeda affiliate, warning that their operations sometimes bring harm upon Muslims, and that a merger with al-Qaeda might deprive Muslims in Somalia of foreign aid they desperately need after decades of civil war.
Although bin Laden's message on August 7, 2010 to Ahmed Abdi Godane (Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr), the emir of al-Shabaab, was delicately phrased, its content and that of other related messages reveal concerns on the part of the late al-Qaeda leader that al-Shabaab was committing acts that could alienate Somalis away from the movement. This is a position that was consistent with a large segment of Somalis, including well-known "jihadists" such as the former leader of Hizb ul-Islam, Sheikh Hassan Tahir Aweys, who warned al-Shabaab in March about the danger of killing Muslims in Somalia.
Bin Laden's advice indicates that he was aware of al-Shabaab's application of hadd punishment -- amputating thieves' hands, flogging qat users and people who watched television -- could turn the population against them.
Although bin Laden did not explicitly state his reservations in his message to al-Zubayr, he did so very clearly in a letter to al-Qaeda leader Atiyah Abdul Rahman in April 2011.
"It would be good to send advice to the brothers in Somalia about the benefit of doubt when it comes to dealing with crimes and applying sharia, similar to what the Prophet said, to use doubts to fend off the punishments," bin Laden wrote, referring to an interpretation of Islamic law that prohibits the strict application of hadd punishment if any doubt exists regarding the charges a suspect faces.
Bin Laden's message to the al-Shabaab leader also reveals that he had reservations about the Somali group's military operations. The group's attacks often led to casualties among Somali civilians who were not involved in the conflict.
"Regarding your strike against the African Forces, you must review it enough to minimize the (damage) on Muslims from their onerous attacks against Bakara market," bin Laden wrote.
Al-Shabaab's method of launching attacks has apparently not changed even after the group was forced to vacate the capital Mogadishu. There are continuing reports of bombings carried out by al-Shabaab that cause significant civilian casualties, including an April 4th attack that targeted the National Theatre in Mogadishu .
The documents show that bin Laden's decision to spurn al-Shabaab's request to become an official al-Qaeda branch in Somalia did not have consensus within the ranks of al-Qaeda's leadership. A message believed to have been written in December 2010 by Ayman al-Zawahiri called on bin Laden to reconsider his decision to reject al-Shabaab's request to become an official branch of al-Qaeda.
In February, al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's successor, and al-Shabaab's leader al-Zubayr announced that the Somali group became an official al-Qaeda affiliate in East Africa.
It is unclear whether the al-Shabaab movement, now that bin Laden's reservations about some of its actions have been unveiled, will alter some of its hard-line policies. Its operations in the last few months suggest otherwise.
Another document recovered from bin Laden's home, written by Adam Gadahn, an American member of al-Qaeda, is a message of great significance. Gadahn recounted a series of actions by al-Qaeda branches and affiliates and called for dissociating al-Qaeda from those groups because in his view they were violating Islamic teachings.
The author lists glaring examples of bombings in which civilians were killed in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia. Gadahn cited incidents that involved him personally and illustrated the desire of some jihadists to bomb mosques under the pretext that their patrons are not true Muslims.
"It is known that taking over mosques and spilling the [blood of] innocents was known through history to be associated with the worst groups and individuals," Gadahn wrote. "Now, those who are famous for such acts are counted on the side of the mujahedeen, like Hamas and the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan."
"I have no doubt that what is happening to the jihadist movement in these countries is not misfortune but punishment by God against us because of our sins and injustices, or because of the sins of some of us and the silence of the rest of us," he added.
It is not clear whether this message had an effect on bin Laden because in another message also recovered at his home, Atiyya Abdul Rahman and Abu Yahya al-Libi wrote to Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud, severely reprimanded the actions of the Pakistani Taliban for alleged violation of Islamic teachings, especially "killing Muslims in martyrdom operations that occur in marketplaces, mosques, roads assembly places".
Al-Qaeda's severe criticism of the Pakistani Taliban is significant because many al-Qaeda members reside in Pakistan under Mehsud's protection.
As for Iraq, it appears the al-Qaeda leadership was also aware of the anger that al-Qaeda's operations were causing in the country, starting with Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi and ending with the leaders of the Islamic State of Iraq.
The Islamic State of Iraq "is -- whether we like it or not -- known to people as al-Qaeda in Iraq," Gadahn wrote.
He said the Islamic State of Iraq's actions and statements after the Baghdad church bombing in October 2010 did not help the group to obtain sympathy from the people but led to greater alienation.
"Is this the justice that we are talking about and what the sheikh [bin Laden] talks about in his statements and messages?" Gadahn wrote, criticising the double standards between the positions declared by al-Qaeda leaders who advocate justice on one side, and the actions of al-Qaeda branches on the other that run radically contrary to such talk.
The messages that were seized from bin Laden's home also include criticisms he made against the group's branch in Yemen for its haste in launching attacks against government forces. He acknowledged that such actions could turn Yemen's tribes against the organisation, which happened in several regions where tribesmen have joined forces with the government to repel al-Qaeda attacks.
It is clear from all these criticisms that bin Laden was aware of the extent of the damage the practices of his organisation's branches around the world were causing, which prompted him to consider a re-branding, including changing the name of al-Qaeda. But what benefit would that provide if the organisation's branches did not change their practices?
Probably little, as the al-Qaeda branch in the Arabian Peninsula now uses the name Ansar al-Sharia in a move that clearly seeks to attract public support. However, the group's persistence in implementing hadd punishment and conducting operations that kill soldiers and citizens and engender widespread public condemnation, provides clear evidence that a superficial change in appearance does not lead to real change unless it is accompanied by change in substance as well.