Al-Qaeda never publicly acknowledged that in the last days of his life, Osama bin Laden led an organisation that was haemorrhaging so rapidly that he could not find successors to the leaders who were being continually killed or arrested.
When the organisation was able to find replacements, bin Laden did not know the leaders of groups that were supposedly taking orders from al-Qaeda and using its name.
This applied not only to al-Qaeda's central command in Waziristan but also to the organisation's branches around the world.
Recently published documents seized from bin Laden's residence in Abbottabad, Pakistan after he was killed in May 2011 confirm that the former al-Qaeda leader was aware that his leaders were falling at alarming rates in Waziristan. In response, he asked his leaders to move from Pakistan's tribal region to rugged areas in Afghanistan, according to a message he sent to al-Qaeda leader Atiyah Abdel Rahman.
The evacuation demand reflects bin Laden's conviction that Waziristan was no longer an adequate location for his organisation's headquarters, preferring instead that they move to Afghanistan and participate in combat operations there rather than remain at the mercy of aerial attacks that killed them in succession.
Bin Laden's acknowledgement of the organisation's continued losses is stated in several messages, particularly one to Abdel Rahman, who served as his primary link with the outside. Bin Laden, apparently cut off from the world, obtained information from satellite channels like Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya and via messages from organisation leaders such as Abdel Rahman.
In a message bin Laden sent to Abdel Rahman in 2010, bin Laden offered his condolences for al-Qaeda leader Sheikh Saeed al-Masri (Mustafa Abu Yazid), who at the time of his killing commanded al-Qaeda in the Khorasan region that includes parts of Afghanistan and neighbouring countries. An Egyptian, he worked for many years with Ayman al-Zawahiri in a financial capacity and became al-Qaeda's chief financial manager. The two were in jail for their involvement in the assassination of former President Anwar Sadat. He was known as "Sheikh Saeed the accountant" and was not known to be involved in combat operations.
The appointment of Sheikh Saeed as commander of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan was interpreted at the time as a sign of an acute shortage of candidates able to replace leaders who were killed or arrested. As a result, the organisation had to appoint an individual with no military background to a post that required him to lead combat operations.
Bin Laden said in his message to Abdel Rahman that he decided to appoint him as successor to Sheikh Saeed for two years starting from the date of receipt of the message. However, Abdel Rahman did not spend much time in his new post because he was killed in an airstrike in Waziristan in August 2011, three months after bin Laden's death.
In the same message, bin Laden inquired about a mission Sheikh Saeed was asked to assign to Elias al-Kashmiri, a leader of al-Qaeda in Pakistan, that involved killing US officials.
Bin Laden asked for communications from al-Kashmiri regarding the steps that were being taken to implement the assassinations plot since bin Laden had not received a response from him through Sheikh Saeed.
It is not clear whether bin Laden ever received a response from al-Kashmiri, who was killed in an air raid in Waziristan in June 2011.
Another message from bin Laden to Abdel Rahman in August 2010 revealed that bin Laden did not know much about key leaders in the organisation. In the letter, the former al-Qaeda leader said he rejected a request from Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), that Anwar al-Awlaki be appointed as the branch's new leader.
In explaining his rejection, bin Laden wrote that he knew very little about al-Awlaki even though the latter was gaining a reputation worldwide. Bin Laden seemed to know nothing about al-Awlaki other than that he "served jihad" (perhaps through al-Awlaki's online sermons). He requested that al-Awlaki send him a "detailed account of his views of the situation" in Yemen.
It is not known whether al-Awlaki, who was killed by an air strike in Yemen on September 30, 2011, ever wrote the report as bin Laden requested.
Bin Laden's knowledge of the leaders of the organisation's branch in Iraq appeared nonexistent as demonstrated by his request that Abdel Rahman provide him with as much information as possible about the identity of al-Qaeda in Iraq leaders.
"I wish you could provide us with adequate information on our brother Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was appointed as successor to our brother Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, may Allah have mercy on him, and on his first deputy, Abu Suleiman al-Nasser Lideen Allah," bin Laden wrote. "It would be preferable to seek information about them from many sources among brothers of ours you trust, so as to greatly clarify the situation."
This clearly indicates that bin Laden did not know al-Baghdadi, the emir of the Islamic State of Iraq, nor did he know al-Nasser Lideen Allah, who presumably was the group's "war minister" (the position previously held by Abu Ayyub al-Masri, who succeeded Abu Musab al-Zarqawi at the helm of al-Qaeda's branch in Iraq).
In any case, al-Nasser Lideen Allah was killed in February 2011 in an operation by the Iraqi army.
All this indicates that prior to his death, bin Laden led an organisation that was suffering from a serious haemorrhaging in its leadership ranks and a lack of control over the decisions of those groups.
One year after bin Laden's death, al-Zawahiri, his successor, appears to be wrestling with the same problems: haemorrhaging in the leadership ranks, a state of siege, and possibly limited knowledge about the leaders of the organisation's branches, unless he received the biographies that bin Laden had requested.