Earlier this week, the U.S. government indicated that while Al-Qaeda was "essentially gone," its regional "affiliates" remained a threat. The transference of the source of "international terrorism" from Al-Qaeda to its affiliates, or associated forces in the language of the NDAA, allows for the justification for the "war on terror," al-Qaeda's 9/11 attacks, to remain in use long after the terrorist organization itself has become dysfunctional.
Today's release of bin Laden documents offers some light on these Al-Qaeda affiliates. From the West Point Combating Terrorism Center's "Letters from Abbottabad" report:
Rather than a source of strength, Bin Ladin was burdened by what he viewed as the incompetence of the "affiliates," including their lack of political acumen to win public support, their media campaigns and their poorly planned operations which resulted in the unnecessary deaths of thousands of Muslims.
- Islamic State of Iraq/Al-Qa`ida in Iraq (ISI/AQI): The documents conclusively demonstrate that the failures of ISI/AQI weighed heavily on Bin Ladin, as he urged other groups not to repeat their mistakes. Adam Gadahn advised that alQa`ida should publicly dissociate itself from ISI/AQI.
- Al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP): While routinely described as "the most dangerous" al-Qa`ida affiliate, as of 2010-2011 Bin Ladin seemed to have spent more time worrying about this group than appreciating its contributions. In a strongly worded letter, the leader of AQAP, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, was directly warned against pursuing any expansionist plan, such as declaring an Islamic state in Yemen, and was urged to refocus his efforts on attacking the United States, not the Yemeni government or security forces.
- Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP): The TTP seems to have come incredibly close to provoking a direct and public confrontation with al-Qa`ida's leadership. Its indiscriminate attacks against Muslims caused `Atiyyatullah and Abu Yahya alLibi to write to TTP leader Hakimullah Mahsud to express their displeasure with the group's "ideology, methods and behavior." They also threatened to take public measures "unless we see from you serious and immediate practical and clear steps towards reforming [your ways] and dissociating yourself from these vile mistakes [that violate Islamic Law]."
- Al-Shabab: Bin Ladin appeared to have seen little practical value in formally recognizing the group's pledge of loyalty (bay`a). His motivations for withholding this recognition were largely pragmatic and reflected his concern over their poor governance and inflexible administration of hudud (deterrent penalties for certain crimes). He also wanted them to focus on "construction and development" and feared that a formal merger with al-Qa`ida would prevent investment and foreign aid in Somalia.
- Al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Taliban and Jaysh al-Islam: While there is mention of these groups in the documents released to the CTC, these discussions are not substantive enough to inform an understanding of the relationship between al-Qa`ida's senior leaders and these groups.
Of course the lack of any kind of substantive structure between Al-Qaeda and its affiliates or any "associated forces" is irrelevant because the government is demonstrating, through its foreign policy and law enforcement, that it intends to prosecute Islamic terrorism much more broadly than that. It can now send drones to kill mere suspects, and is pinning entire cases on Muslim speech alone, after all.