By Murad Batal al-Shishani Islamic Groups Analyst, BBC Arabic
Documents found inside Osama Bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan following the US special forces raid that led to his death last year have revealed how the al-Qaeda leader sought to advise an affiliate group in Africa on “good governance”.
One of the 17 documents recently posted online by the US military’s Combating Terrorism Centre (CTC) at West Point – out of a total cache of 6,000 – is a letter addressed to the leader of the Somali Islamist militant group al-Shabab, Ahmed Abdi aw-Mohamud Godane, also known as Mukhtar Abu Zubair.
In the letter, dated 7 August 2010, Bin Laden gave Godane advice on leadership, saying he should “adhere to a noble character”, which could be seen in his “forgiveness, justice, patience and good relationship with his citizenry”.
Christopher Anzalone, a doctoral student studying Islamist movements at McGill University in Canada, believes this “suggests that the late al-Qaeda Central leader viewed Somalia as one of the locations where the ‘mujahideen’ had the greatest chance of setting up a kind of insurgent-jihadi state with broad territorial control, in this case over much of the country south of Puntland”.
The authors of CTC report on the documents, Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Ladin Sidelined?, conclude: “Bin Laden’s advice is not for stylistic flourish; it is intended to signal to Abu Zubair that his leadership is ultimately measured by how well Somalis are governed and their needs met”.
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Bin Laden was remarkably prescient with regard to the possible downsides of al-Shabab continuing its predatory behaviour”
In February 2012, Godane announced the merge of al-Shabab and al-Qaeda and “pledged obedience” to al-Qaeda’s new leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, but before his death Bin Laden advised him against such a move.
He also recommended not announcing the creation of an “Islamic state” in Somalia, saying it would “escalate” the enemies “anger and mobilize [them] against” al-Shabab.
The Saudi also thought the publicly revealing al-Shabab’s affiliation with al-Qaeda would affect aid efforts “to Muslims in Somalia”.
The released documents suggest that Zawahiri disagreed with this stance, with the Egyptian counselling in one letter that it would be better for al-Qaeda to be publicly associated with al-Shabab.
“Bin Laden was remarkably prescient with regard to the possible downsides of al-Shabab continuing its predatory behaviour,” says Mr Anzalone.
“This behaviour,” he adds, “includes imposing high taxation and requisitioning of livestock and other supplies, as well as battlefield tactics in Mogadishu which led to AMISOM (African Union Mission in Somalia) retaliation, which had an impact on the population and threatened to turn the public more against al-Shabab.”
A woman walks through the war-damaged streets of Mogadishu (26 June 2012) Al-Shabab’s affiliation with al-Qaeda and its tactics have alienated many Somalis
The editor of the Somali War Monitor website, A R Sayyid, says: “It is difficult to understand al-Qaeda/al-Shabab relations through these few released documents”.
“Somalia was seen as inhospitable for al-Qaeda to establish a foothold even after the ‘Blackhawk Down’ incident in 1993.”
“Nevertheless, Somalia has been important from the perspective of al-Qaeda, even before the al-Shabab movement emerged late 2007,” he adds.
‘Pens and swords’
At the end of his letter to Godane, Bin Laden writes: “Attached is a book [entitled] Niqat al-Irtikaz (Focal Points)”.
The book is available on jihadist web forums and argues that a true jihadi movement will act as a “fulcrum against global Crusader-Zionism and the secularism [that stands] behind it” and help “retrieve the Muslim Umma’s (Nation’s) self-confidence in the confrontation”.
The author of Niqat al-Irtikaz, an Egyptian Salafist cleric, Abu Ahmed Abdul Rahman al-Masri says that at the heart of such movements are scholars waging jihad with “their pens and swords”.
The book presents Sayyid Qutb as an example. Qutb, who advocated the use of jihad (struggle) against jahili (ignorant) societies, both Western and so-called Islamic ones, was executed by the Egyptian authorities in 1966.
His writings – particularly the 1964 work Milestones – inspired the founders of many radical Islamist groups, including Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda.
It seems Bin Laden sent Godane Niqat al-Irtikaz to persuade him that he too could become an inspiration for jihadists worldwide if he put its ideas into practice in Somalia.