Renaming Al Qaeda to Tanthim al-Jihadi litahrir al-aksa wa-tawhid al-Umma?

According to newly released documents, Osama bin Laden mulled renaming Al Qaeda amid worries that the terrorist group had become a tarnished brand.

Naseer Ahmed/Reuters
Supporters of Pakistani religious party Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam hold an image of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden during an anti-American rally in Quetta on May 2. About 300 Pakistani Islamists took part in the rally on Wednesday.

Inside his secret compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, Osama bin Laden mulled renaming Al Qaeda amid worries that the terrorist group had become a tarnished brand. 

That's one of the details tucked in thousands of pages of documents that were seized in last year's Navy SEAL raid. West Point’s Center for Combating Terrorism (CTC) released a study of 17 declassified documents today, offering a window into Mr. bin Laden’s views.

The report notes that one of “the most compelling” stories to come out of the declassified documents is bin Laden’s struggle to rein in Al Qaeda affiliates, and keep his intended message and branding on track.

“I plan to release a statement [announcing] that we are starting a new phase to correct [the mistakes] we made; in so doing, we shall reclaim, God willing, the trust of a large segment of those who lost their trust in the Jihadis,” bin Laden wrote in 2010.

The CTC report notes that though bin Laden publicly condemned the West, focusing on the repression and injustices exacted on Muslims by countries like the US, his private correspondence reveals that he was particularly pained by domestic jihadi attacks on Muslims.

His frustration may have even led bin Laden to consider rebranding his Al Qaeda movement as a whole. One letter by an unknown author suggests a list of potential names (see English translated document # 0000009). Some of the proposed options are aimed at making followers of Islam feel more included in the organization.

But pithy they are not:

* Tanthim al-Jihadi li-tawhid al-Umma wa-inkathiha, which means Jihad Organization for Unification and Rescue of the Nation,

* Tanthim al-Jihadi litahrir al-aksa wa-tawhid al-Umma, or Jihad Organization to Liberate Al-Aqsa and Unify the Nation,

* Hizb tawhid al-Umma al-Islamiya, Islamic Nation Unification Party.

Damage control was an apparent concern for the organization that has little oversight on an operational level with affiliates and those simply inspired by Al Qaeda's work. In response to a letter from Al Shabab leadership in Somalia expressing interest in identifying themselves as an Al Qaeda affiliate, bin Laden wrote, "If asked, it would be better to say there is a relationship with al-Qaida, which is simply a brotherly Islamic connection, and nothing more," according to the United Press International.

"Rather than a source of strength, [bin Laden] was burdened by what he viewed the incompetence of the 'affiliates,' including their lack of political acumen to win public support ... and their poorly planned operations which resulted in the unnecessary deaths of thousands of Muslims," reads the CTC report. Bin Laden was apparently disappointed by affiliate group ISI/AQI's arbitrary attacks on Shi’ite civilians, and warned other affiliates not to commit the same mistakes.

Bin Laden feared the frequency of civilian deaths that often occurred as “collateral damage” in regional attacks were causing the Muslim populace to lose sympathy with the movement – particularly when these deaths were “exploited by the enemy,” bin Laden wrote, presumably referring to Western media and governments. He also indicated a desire to create an Al Qaeda Central, a term pulled, ironically, from Western media, to maintain greater oversight of affiliate groups.

Documents also reveal that in light of the Arab Spring – something bin Laden viewed positively – he wanted to focus more attention on media and outreach. In part, he hoped to rouse those who hadn’t yet rebelled against their rulers to do so, but he also acknowledged the important role media plays, as “a [principle] element of the battle.” He expressed an interest in creating an Al Qaeda media outlet that could inform more mainstream Muslims about jihad, and perhaps spark their interest in the movement.

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