LONDON (Reuters) - Al Qaeda documents captured in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden will give Western intelligence a clearer idea of the threat he posed, and may help settle the latest bad-tempered spat between Washington and Islamabad.
There was derision in Pakistan Sunday at a suggestion by an unnamed U.S. official that bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound was an “active command and control center” for al Qaeda. One senior Pakistan security official dismissed that as nonsense.
Pakistan’s view of bin Laden as an out-of-touch figurehead seems to chime with videos seized at his hideout which show a forlorn figure surfing satellite television, seemingly to check if he still makes the news.
But a fuller picture may become known in coming months, for the May 2 assault that killed him also netted computer disks which are expected to provide a trove of intelligence on his role.
The investigation into this material has urgent importance because the process of tracing bin Laden’s links to his colleagues may give clues to their whereabouts and so help Western efforts to capture or kill them.
The probe may also uncover the existence of attack plots under way, and show the extent of bin Laden’s relationships with militant groups inside Pakistan that are presumed to have given sanctuary at some point to the global militant figurehead.
Definitive answers are not likely to come rapidly.
John J. LeBeau, a former CIA senior operations officer, said it was simply too early to say with certainty what bin Laden’s role was in his final years. Analysis was a painstaking process.
“The information needs to be filtered, vetted and cross-checked before you can say anything with any authority,” said LeBeau, now Professor of Security Studies at the George C. Marshall Center for Security Studies in Germany.
“Bin Laden didn’t intend to simply remain hidden away from the threat of capture. He sought to retain the ability to keep strategic oversight on activities,” he told Reuters.
“But how far he was able to influence actions on a day to day basis, that jury is out.”
A key unknown is how frequently, if at all, bin Laden was in contact with the head of the core leadership’s external operations, variously reported to be Adnan al-Shukrijumah, a Saudi-born Guyanese in his 30s, Saif al-Adel, an Egyptian al Qaeda veteran, or the Pakistani militant Ilyas Kashmiri.
Western intelligence about al Qaeda’s senior leadership has been thin and fragmentary for much of the period since the September 11, 2001 attacks, and this is especially true of cells working on operations, the most compartmentalized part of the group.
Partly as a result, security experts have tended to react cautiously to categorical-sounding statements about bin Laden in the wake of the raid. Changes to the American account of the attack have only served to deepen such reservations.
Pakistani investigators are cultivating their own new sources of information about bin Laden by questioning the people, including one of his wives, held in the raid.
Among security analysts there has been a widespread belief, based in part on intercepted communications from al Qaeda supporters, that bin Laden had chafed at the limitations of his enforced hiding and longed to mount another spectacular attack on the United States.
Most analysts have suspected that he adapted to this reality by encouraging the creation of allies around the world that operated tactically without him.
The captured intelligence is likely to give a fuller picture of core al Qaeda’s way of working with these allies, today found in the Gulf, North Africa, East Africa and the Middle East.
How exactly the network functions remains a puzzle.
Henry Wilkinson, a senior analyst at London-based Janusian risk advisory group, said the practice of swearing loyalty to Osama bin Laden appeared to obviate, to a degree, the need for a hierarchy that would hand orders down a chain of command.
If bin Laden issued a statement declaring a particular community or group to be a legitimate target, a far-flung affiliate was at liberty to attack that target — for example people of a particular nationality — if such people were to be found within its geographic area of operation.
At times lines of authority seem jumbled.
In its Foresight 2011 publication, London-based Exclusive Analysis notes occasions when an affiliate adopted a new target before core al Qaeda endorsed it.
An example is the statement by al Qaeda ideological authority Abu Yahia al-Libi in October 2009 in support of Uighur Muslims in China when he condemned China as an enemy of Islam following Uighur riots in July of that year.
The statement was published only after rank and file al Qaeda supporters around the world posed questions to forums suggesting al Qaeda should open hostilities against China.
Leah Farrall, a leading analyst of al Qaeda’s structure, wrote in Foreign Affairs earlier this year that personal ties were influential.
“Al Qaeda today is not a traditional hierarchical terrorist organization ... and it does not exercise full command and control over its branch and franchises,” she wrote.
“But nor is its role limited to broad ideological influence,” she said, adding that “levels of command authority are not always clear; personal ties between militants carry weight and, at times, transcend the command structure ...”
Editing by Mark Trevelyan