Osama bin Laden papers cast his successor as a pompous know-it-all

US military officials released the seized documents this week in a clear attempt to sow discord among Al Qaeda leaders. Ayman al-Zawahiri is the current Al Qaeda honcho.

IntelCenter/AP/File
This 2011 image from an online post by al-Qaida's media arm, as-Sahab, shows al-Qaeda'a new leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. The Egyptian cleric took over the organization after Osama bin Laden's killing last year by US Navy SEALs.

Everyone’s an editor, even Al Qaeda terrorists. That’s clear in the trove of documents seized last year from Osama bin Laden’s secret compound in Pakistan and released this week by the US Military Academy at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center.

The papers shed light on the personalities of key Al Qaeda operatives, including current Al Qaeda honcho Ayman al-Zawahiri, whom US intelligence officials have long accused of being arrogant and prickly.

Selective portions of the documents were released by the US military in a clear attempt to sow discord among Al Qaeda leaders still operating around the world.

One concerned Al Qaeda member – who defense officials say may have been Mr. bin Laden – makes margin notes in a missive written by Mr. Zawahiri, gently pointing out that perhaps he should try sounding a bit more humble.

“I’m afraid this sentence might be inappropriate and might be perceived by many people as braggadocio and an attempt to monopolize the accomplishment,” the editor notes in Zawahiri’s meditation on the impact of the Arab Spring.

The editor suggests that Zawahiri make more use of inclusive words like “participation” and “contribution” – and advises Zawahiri against sounding too preachy.

To this end, the editor points out, maybe it would be a good idea to praise the role of the common people in the Arab Spring, which Al Qaeda ultimately supported because it offered the terrorist group an opportunity to take advantage of a power vacuum. “We should say that this change was caused by the unity of the efforts of the children of this nation,” the editor proposes.

These discoveries have delighted US military officials, who released commentaries on the trove. “Through the [Zawahiri Arab Spring] document, one can observe Al Qaeda’s editing process (reflected in the editor’s comments highlighted in green and in a bold font). While it is not clear if bin Laden himself did the editing, whoever did so has solid grammatical foundations and prefers a more self-effacing writing style than did al-Zawahiri.”

The military officials writing the commentary take digs, too, as they point out that Zawahiri chose not to take the editor’s advice. “The edits were not included in al-Zawahiri’s final speech which was released in a video on 4 March 2011 on jihadi forums.” The commentary emphasizes that of “the 12 proposed corrections only one appears in al-Zawahiri’s speech.”

By insinuating that Zawahiri’s editor may have been bin Laden himself, the Pentagon furthers a psychological-operations aim of portraying Zawahiri as obstinate and removed from the people he is supposed to be leading.

The insinuation also serves another purpose: to drive a wedge between bin Laden, still widely revered in terrorist circles, and the new Al Qaeda head.

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