The special forces raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011 yielded a massive trove of documents never intended for publication, but in 2017 the CIA declassified them in their entirety. Nelly Lahoud, a scholar at New America, has written the first history of al-Qaeda based on a systematic reading of these documents, which lay bare the secrets of the group and serve to correct some existing narratives. How strong an organization was al-Qaeda in the decade after 9/11, and what were its objectives? How should we understand the relationship between al-Qaeda and Iran, and between al-Qaeda and the Taliban? How predictable was the rise of the Islamic State? What was life like in the Abbottabad compound? Dr. Lahoud answers these questions and more in this episode.
To view the full transcript of this episode, read below:
Cole Bunzel: Welcome, today is June 13th, 2022. And you are listening to the Caravan Podcast, a venture of the Herbert and Jane Dwight Working Group on the Middle East and the Islamic world at the Hoover Institution, the Working Group publishes research and commentary on the Middle East with questions for US policy. And you can find our work at www.hoover.org/caravan. I'm Cole Bunzel, a Hoover fellow and member of the working group and today I'm very pleased to be speaking with Nelly Lahoud, a scholar and researcher who has written extensively on Islamic political thought, jihadism and Al-Qaeda among other topics. Nelly is a political scientist by background. She's taught at Goucher College and the US Military Academy at West Point, including the combating terrorism center for which she's contributed numerous publications. And currently she is a senior fellow at New America's International Security Program but most important for the discussion today, Nelly is the author of a new book, which is titled The Bin Laden Papers: How the Abbottabad Raid Revealed the Truth about Al-Qaeda, Its Leader and His Family. And we'll be discussing the new book today. I've reviewed the book quite favorably in Foreign Policy and you can read that if you like. I think it's a very important contribution to the literature on Al-Qaeda and bin Laden, particularly for the years between nine 11 and the raid that killed bin Laden in May, 2011. And it also has a lot to say it has a lot of implications for how we ought to understand Al-Qaeda today, the way it's structured and the kind of threat that it poses. In any event, that's enough from me. Without further ado, Nelly, thank you very much for coming on the podcast and congratulations on the book.
Nelly Lahoud: Thank you for having me Cole and thank you also for taking the time to review the book for Foreign Policy. It was very thoughtful and I'm very grateful. Thank you.
Cole Bunzel: It's my pleasure. I think it brings a lot of clarity to what is clearly a very politicized subject. And my own sense is that your work is very far from the kind of politicized narratives that one reads about Al-Qaeda. And so let's get right to it. The book, once again, is titled The Bin Laden Papers: How the Abbottabad Raid Revealed the Truth about Al-Qaeda, Its Leader and His Family, and the papers in the title are, of course, the documents that were recovered in the raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan that killed bin Laden and a couple others in May, 2011. And these documents are key to the story that you tell so perhaps we could begin by just telling us something about these sources and how you became interested in them in the first place.
Nelly Lahoud: Sure. So my history with the bin Laden papers goes back to 2012 when the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the ODNI declassified the first batch of documents through the Combating Terrorism Center, the CTC at West Point where I was working at the time. I led the study that accompanied the release of these documents. And though we only had 17 files at the time, no more than 170 pages, it was still revealing the information that the letters revealed and the same office, the ODNI subsequently declassified several batches of files directly on its own website. We know it by the bin Laden bookshelf, but most importantly, in November of 2017, the CIA declassified everything that's going to be declassified from the raid. And we're talking here about a massive volume of documents, thousands of files. Now, whereas the ODNI had categorized all these documents in terms of which were the internal communications, what was secondary sources, what they were reading, meaning information available in the open source, the CIA declassified everything. You have thousands of files of text, audio, and video files. Now I clicked most likely on thousands of files and I determined that it was the text files that would be most important and where I would find Al Qaeda's internal communications. So with the help of two research assistants, we went through all the tax files, nearly 97,000 files. And as I had suspected, Al-Qaeda's internal communications were amongst these files. Now, to be clear, most of them turned out to be publicly available information such as newspaper articles, secondary sources, but about 6,000 Arabic pages were internal communications. These were Al-Qaeda's closely guarded secrets, and I don't need to stress this, but you know, I've been working on Al-Qaeda for years. Al-Qaeda dominated world politics for over a decade. So to be able to have access to the group's internal communications was something unique. And it was an opportunity to write a book about it, hence The Bin Laden Papers.
Cole Bunzel: Bin Laden papers, or we could say the Abbottabad papers.
Nelly Lahoud: Correct, sure.
Cole Bunzel: Right. So one of the things that jumped out to me and I did not know this was how exactly some of these text files were communicated from bin Laden, from the Abbottabad compound to his subordinates in Waziristan and Iran and other places. And you say that they, at least in most cases, they seem to have been sent using, what do we say, the SIM cards on cell phones. How did you figure that out?
Nelly Lahoud: Well, to be clear, this information is not really discussed in the letters for security reasons. They maintained security measures that they wouldn't discuss such matters. Fortunately, for us, at some point in 2010, bin Laden writes a letter to his top associate in North Waziristan, suggesting that perhaps to speed up his public statements, he should perhaps send them directly to the media arm that is sympathetic to Al-Qaeda As-Sahab and so out of 6,000 Arabic pages, we only have this information on one because his top associate was very concerned about this. He wrote back to bin Laden and said, "I've thought long and hard about this and absolutely not. You should not do that because that would compromise our security measures here." And then he proceeded to tell bin Laden how the information is being transmitted.
Cole Bunzel: I see.
Nelly Lahoud: And so we learn from these letters, as you said, that the information that the letters were saved in the bin Laden household, and then there will be placed on, the Arabic word is [foreign language 00:07:30]. So I'm assuming it's a SIM card that gets placed in an envelope and this envelope upon reaching its destination only one person in North Waziristan gets to remove these SIM cards and then send all other letters onward to their other destinations if it's not for him. Now, the transfer of the letters from Abbottabad to North Waziristan was part of a very complex operation. And we know that, again from the letters, that the communications occurred through a close circle, to quote from the letters, consisting of two intermediaries and one courier in between. There was one intermediary on the part of North Waziristan, and another intermediary on the side of bin Laden and a courier in between. Now, what is revealing about this is that bin Laden never met any of the intermediaries. He didn't know the identity of the courier, let alone meet him, and more impressive is that the courier himself didn't actually know what he was carrying, let alone their intended destination. So what happened is that in Abbottabad, there were two security guards living in the compound adjacent to the bin Laden household. These two security guards, they were two brothers Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti and his brother, they were both Pakistanis living with their respective families next door. And most likely one, or both brothers played a minor role in taking the outgoing communications. They would've met with an intermediary possibly in Peshawar, where they exchanged the letters, the outgoing and incoming letters. And so it's a very, very complicated process and thanks to this letter that I mentioned earlier, we get to know about this, how this clandestine trio operated.
Cole Bunzel: That's quite a way to live for, I think he was there from 2004 to 2011, something like that, 2005?
Nelly Lahoud: The letters do not actually mention. I mean, you're not going to know from the letters when he actually moved or where he was living. Strictly these measures wouldn't be raised in the compound, but according to the CIA, he moved to the compound in 2005. I can't, from my perspective, this is not something that I have any information on. What I would say is that he managed to reconnect with his wife, Siham, their two daughters and their son in late 2004. And because he had a child with his youngest wife so he must have reconnected with her some, sometimes in 2002, but in terms of their movement to Abbottabad, I wouldn't be able to say, judging by the letters, when they moved there.
Cole Bunzel: Yeah, just one thing to emphasize, I think, to get the picture in people's head, bin Laden and his family who are there with him, they don't have access to internet, they don't have access to phone, their entire access to the outside world comes through this courier network and these text files and perhaps whatever else is coming into the compound in terms of news, clippings and videos via the couriers and that's-
Nelly Lahoud: Yeah, absolutely.
Cole Bunzel: That's really quite a way to live for the leader of Al-Qaeda. There's one other thing before we move on to Al-Qaeda and what the documents reveal that I just want to ask because I know somebody mentioned in perhaps, I think, one of the reviews, the possibility that some of these letters could have been distorted somehow, or that perhaps Al-Qaeda was trying to mislead future researchers or something like that. What do you make of this idea?
Nelly Lahoud: Well, actually it's a good point. It's a good question to ask, but it's actually astonishing that we do have these letters. The reason I say this is because about a month before the raid bin Laden's top associate wrote bin Laden a 12 page letter. And at the end of that letter, he included a remark, a PS, "I've destroyed all the SIM cards on which we've been saving our correspondence. This is gentle reminder that you do the same as we periodically do." So clearly the protocol was to destroy these letters or to destroy these SIM cards and not to have them bound so it's remarkable that we have them. Now, in terms of whether they're distorting, they were not distorting the information, but in some instances we find that sensitive materials, particularly whether it's names of people, the number of fighters and so on, they would not be included in the same letter. Instead, you would find an attachment, a separate attachment of the names of people and sometimes the attachments are not recovered and we would have missing information. So they did not really distort, I mean, because they don't have any other means. It's not as if they could distort a letter and then pick up the phone to clarify, as you said, as you rightly pointed out, they had no telephones and no emails, no internet. So occasionally they would write, they would be a little bit cryptic on the basis that the person receiving the letters would be able to understand what is being discussed. But I wouldn't say that they were distorting any of their communications.
Cole Bunzel: It seems like if anything they failed to delete a lot of the information that they probably should have.
Nelly Lahoud: Well, it's interesting you say that because it's not very clear to me whether bin Laden actually deleted them and thought that they were actually deleted because I did not benefit from any conversations with the CIA. And I am certain that the CIA was able to recover deleted materials, some of which did not belong to the bin Ladens. So did bin Laden actually delete them and the CIA manage to recover from deleted information? It's a question mark so I hope to know the answer to this question at some point, but perhaps I may not know it.
Cole Bunzel: All right. So let's move on to some of the findings of the book and how the Abbottabad records or documents, how they've shaped your views on Al-Qaeda, because you've been writing about Al Qaeda for a number of years. These aren't the first documents or exposés that you've had access to. But so how did these documents shape your own views of Al-Qaeda or change some of the views you previously had or perhaps even reinforce views that you already had?
Nelly Lahoud: Well, the letters are brimming with revelations and in the process of reading and analyzing the letters, I've had to revisit some of my own assumptions and many of the assumptions of others. Now, to be clear my work on Al-Qaeda had mostly focused on ideological text prior to that, occasionally on some occasions, I've also written on the basis of captured battlefield documents. Some things I got right before, some things I didn't and I had to revisit some of my own assumptions in the process, but to be clear here and allow me to say a little bit more about the letters.
Cole Bunzel: Sure.
Nelly Lahoud: It's one thing, reading the letters, it's another to actually process the letters and make sense of what was happening. It took me a long time to be able to appreciate and to process the materials. And it was probably midway through my book, research on the book that I was able to say, I am confident that I know that I'm starting to process the materials. And I was able only to do that once I established the chronology because the letters, you don't know what's going on. It's not as if they lay out for us, the history of Al-Qaeda and the chronology.
Cole Bunzel: And they're not all dated as I've seen.
Nelly Lahoud: That's right. They're not all dated. And sometimes when you get these letters that are not dated, you have to search for clues in the content of the letter and tries to approximate at what point these letters were written. And it's only really once you process the chronology of these letters that you could start to be in a position where you understand what is happening. Just to give you an example, one of the 2004 letters by Osama bin Laden, I found, he was writing about the terrorist attacks in Mombasa in November, 2002. So, for a while I was so surprised why did it take him so long to be writing about such an attack? Why wait until 2004? But then the longer I immerse myself in the letters and reading the letters, I discovered that all the 2004 letters for instance, were briefing bin Laden about events that occurred much earlier. They were briefing him in some letters about the "during the past three years", "during your disappearance" and so on. So that really clearly established for me that though bin Laden had been releasing public statements between 2002 and 2004, he had not been in contact with his associates and we don't know why it was in 2004 that he resumed contact. So it made me feel more comfortable about the things that I was confident about. And I felt also in a position to say, "Well, other things I don't know about, and I'm just going to..." But I became more comfortable about the things that I didn't know about either.
Cole Bunzel: So, as you said, in 2004, that's when bin Laden kind of reestablishes contact with his associates, we don't really know where he is at the time, but you have this chapter or chapters devoted to explaining how he tries to kind of reestablish control and also reestablish the direction of Al Qaeda as the preeminent terrorist organization that's focused on attacking the West. But you come to the conclusion that Al-Qaeda's strength was not what a lot of analysts and the media kind of made it out to be, that it was, as you say, and I think you're quoting from one of bin Laden's subordinates, it was an "afflicted", quote unquote, organization. One of these associates, a certain Tawfiq writes to bin Laden in 2004, and I'm quoting from your book, quote "Our afflictions and troubles following the fall of the Islamic Emirate," that's the Taliban, "were heart rending. The weakness failure, and aimlessness that befell us were harrowing." And there are a few times in the book where I note that you're kind of mocking the quote "mighty Al-Qaeda", the quote "leviathan", the quote "behemoth shadows that it cast in the corridors of power in Washington". So you kind of end up with this view or of Al-Qaeda as a diminutive organization and not really this terrifying threat that a lot of us had in our minds. So can you talk a little bit about that and the strength of Al-Qaeda that you've come to the conclusion of.
Nelly Lahoud: Sure. So to my surprise when bin Laden reconnects as you rightly pointed out, Al-Qaeda was shattered by 2004. To be clear, the only attack that Al-Qaeda was able to carry out after 9/11 was the Mombasa attack in November, 2002. And the reason why Al-Qaeda operatives were able to pull it off is just because the operatives who had been designated to go and plan those attacks had left Afghanistan before 9/11 so they were in east Africa before Al-Qaeda was shattered
Cole Bunzel: Just to refresh our minds, the Mombasa, Kenya attack and just describe it a little.
Nelly Lahoud: That's right. Two simultaneous attacks, one attacked the Paradise Hotel and the other one, it attempted to hit one of the Israeli jet liners and it's it didn't, it wasn't successful. So these were two simultaneous attacks. The reason I found out, I was able to connect the dots is I had done a study about Fadil Harun, the lead operative of the 1998 East Africa bombings and he was also tasked with one of these attacks. And it's really in his autobiography where I learned about the code names that they were used and bin Laden was using the same pen names of these operatives. So I was able to put the two and two together, and I knew why we could really say that the November, 2002 attacks had been orchestrated by Al-Qaeda. So we find that Al-Qaeda following Operation Enduring Freedom was shattered, that bin Laden had to disappear out of necessity, and I'm quoting these letters at the moment. And it's not just in 2004 subsequent letters all the way up to 2011, we find bin Laden concerned about the fact that Al-Qaeda was not being operational. We find that his associates are having to tell him that we simply cannot move. We don't have the resources. They were low on funds. Beyond the Operation Enduring Freedom, there was also the drones that were highly effective in North Waziristan and by 2010, we find bin Laden writing to his associates indicating explicitly that Al Qaeda needed to change its strategy otherwise it would come to an end. It would die as an organization. So clearly throughout these years, even though we don't have all the letters, but we have significant number of letters. It's a massive volume of letters that we have that would allow us to chronicle the key events of Al-Qaeda. So nowhere in the letters did I find that Al-Qaeda was able to carry out attacks. Everything that I could hear from the letters, that we learned from the letters are about Al-Qaeda's weaknesses and its inability to be operational. The drones were so effective that we're not just talking about Al-Qaeda being unable to carry out attacks, but we're also discovering that they couldn't even do the mundane task of say, one letter, the brother, shouldn't be driving his car to the garage, to the mechanic. So even driving the car to the garage was a big risk for Al-Qaeda in North Waziristan. So, clearly Al-Qaeda was shattered and that's something that becomes very vivid throughout the letters.
Cole Bunzel: So perhaps to play devil's advocate a bit, it seems that while Al-Qaeda comes across as shattered, it's also being shattered by Western, that is mainly US counter-terrorism pressure via drones. And I mean, do you think that the picture would've looked different if the US hadn't invested all these resources in attacking Al-Qaeda?
Nelly Lahoud: You know, I think I know my limitations here and I think perhaps military practitioners would be in a better position to speak about this. Now, clearly it was a relentless campaign against Al-Qaeda. Were all the resources necessary? Somebody else would be able to address this question more thoughtfully than me. Having said that, in the course of writing the book, at one point, I did have a conversation with General Votel who was CENTCOM commander and I did mention to him, I said, "Would it surprise you to learn that the last attack that Al-Qaeda carried out was the 2002 Mombasa bombing and he said, "Yes, that would surprise me."
Cole Bunzel: Interesting.
Nelly Lahoud: And he did go on to say that perhaps we overestimated our foes. But really this is something that others are better placed to address fully.
Cole Bunzel: I think one of the problems in the analytical community that was devoted to studying jihadism or terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11 was that there tended to be a conflation of the terrorist attacks and of the general, the larger jihadi movement and Al-Qaeda as a centralized organization. So you end up with the Madrid bombings and the London bombings being kind of attributed to Al-Qaeda, even though the links were at best, marginal. And so it's very revealing that we have it confirmed here that Al-Qaeda as a centralized organization led by bin Laden was not involved in those attacks. And I think that's something that you bring up quite well. I want to get to another issue which is the affiliates of Al-Qaeda. Of course, at the time of 9/11, 2001 Al-Qaeda did not have affiliate organizations, it was simply Al-Qaeda. So there was no reason to distinguish between the so-called Al-Qaeda central and its branches. But beginning in 2003, we have these proliferation of branches, regional branches of Al-Qaeda and in Yemen, and then in Iraq, and then in North Africa and in other places. So, somewhat paradoxically, even though Al-Qaeda is, as you say, shattered as an organization, the brand is not shattered and groups, they want to be part of that brand. So why do you think that is? So there was a mismatch in perceptions, it seems. Is that right?
Nelly Lahoud: Well, I think it was Al-Qaeda to be a secret that it was shattered and thanks to the documents we now have, we can really tell that it was a group that was shattered. Now it's very difficult to speak with a great deal of confidence about the affiliates, simply because we have their letters, but as you can appreciate, they are putting on a show to Al-Qaeda. So though I feel much more confident speaking of Al-Qaeda's inner dynamics, what the group was doing, most importantly, what it was not doing, it's very difficult to say the same thing about these other jihadi groups. Clearly, they all had their agendas. And because Al-Qaeda as a brand was being... This is the group that attacked the United States, the US soil. So clearly this was something that is that they were very impressed with, they gained a lot of media attention by being affiliated with Al-Qaeda. And so from their perspective, an affiliation with Al Qaeda would serve them well, with more media attention, they would gain more recruitment, more jihadis reaching them, perhaps even more funding and so on. We can see from their letters, each of the groups had their agenda. Now Al Qaeda had its own agenda. And it was an naive agenda if you like. Practically speaking, it was a lifeline for Al-Qaeda, having these groups acting in Al-Qaeda's name. It was a lifeline for Al-Qaeda at a time when it could not do anything itself, when it could not mount any international operations. But at the same time, Al-Qaeda's objective has always been to deliver a decisive blow against the United States so that the United States would withdraw its military forces from Muslim majority states. Now, bin Laden was convinced that if the US were to withdraw its forces from Muslim majority states, the jihadis would be able to fight these autocratic regimes on a level playing field. He thought that this 9/11 would deliver that and it didn't. But when some of these affiliates began to approach Al-Qaeda and wanting to be part of that brand, he thought, firstly, he thought well of Muslims, of his Muslim jihadi brothers and he thought that ultimately with mergers, with Al-Qaeda becoming more frequent, that the general Muslim public is going to rejoice by these mergers and they're going to want to join the jihadis and want to support the jihadi project. He miscalculated because those affiliates ended up having different agendas from those that bin Laden had and they began to engage in local fighting against their own regimes. Now, some of these mergers were successful or had some positive impact on Al-Qaeda. Others were a liability so much so that by 2010, we find bin Laden writing to his associates speaking about the fact that the indiscriminate attacks of those groups have become a liability to Al-Qaeda, that the Muslim public was repulsed by these attacks. And he began to even be inspired by what we thought was a reality, which was Al-Qaeda Central. Now Al-Qaeda Central was an expression, he said, that is being that is being used in the media. He thought what a great idea, let's do that. And he wanted his top associate to draft a memorandom of understanding, asking each one of these affiliates to agree not to act without Al-Qaeda's permission, not to release any public statements without Al-Qaeda's permission. What he really effectively wanted is to monopolize global jihad in the hands of Al-Qaeda and that all the other affiliates... He would train them and they would play a supportive role in helping Al-Qaeda operatives to be able to carry out attacks sometimes even using funds. So clearly the investment in the affiliates was a double-edged sword from Al-Qaeda's perspective.
Cole Bunzel: It seems that somewhat delusional for him to think that he was going to micromanage the affairs of all the affiliates in Yemen and Iraq and elsewhere through the courier network on SIM cards.
Nelly Lahoud: But in fairness to bin Laden, he didn't want to micromanage. Because he thought well of his brothers, he thought that they would really rise up to the challenge, that somehow they would all be on the same page. Now, and he also understood that They were going to be leading from a distance, but he didn't appreciate what these groups are going to do and the fact that they would really depart from the mission that he had set out for himself.
Cole Bunzel: All right. Always to be fair to bin Laden.
Nelly Lahoud: Oh, well. Well, this way we could name him even better later.
Cole Bunzel: No, I mean, some of the details that you bring out of his communications with the different affiliates, they speak to an incredibly high level of dysfunction and misalignment of ideological and strategic objectives. It's really astounding. One thing you mention, or that you show is that with the group in Iraq, which by 2006 had been renamed from Al-Qaeda in Iraq to the Islamic State of Iraq, there was simply no communication after I think, 2007 or 2008. So we could have easily foreseen that this was not an Al-Qaeda affiliate and that the group in Iraq was more than prepared to go in its own direction as it, of course, did with the launching of ISIS. And there's a lovely story about, I think, that the North Africa branch of Al-Qaeda having kidnapped, was it a French official, and you could tell the story better.
Nelly Lahoud: No, it was when they kidnapped several French people and bin Laden ended up wanting... Initially, he wanted the woman to be released immediately and in his own thinking he really needed to treat those hostages very well so that they would end up doing a PR campaign against their governments upon release, he expected that the woman would do that. But then, there was a lot going on in terms of negotiations between this North African group and the French government at the time. Now, according to the letters, the French government had actually agreed to some of the demands of that group. And then all of a sudden bin Laden decides to release a public statement on his own without consulting with them, calling on the French government to withdraw from Afghanistan otherwise, we are going to shed the blood of those hostages. Now, the leaders of the North African group learned about this from the news. The French, according to their letters, they had agreed and were almost done, they thought. And to be clear, the North African group was the most successful merger with Al-Qaeda simply because its leaders were pragmatic. They felt bin Laden felt that they were in sync in terms of their political aspirations and so on. And so even with this group where we find bin Laden and the leaders of this group to be on the same page, they simply could not be able to communicate in a timely fashion to coordinate things better.
Cole Bunzel: And of course, that kind of foreshadows some of the problems that you would see in Syria beginning in 2015, 2016 with Jabhat al-Nusra, which was the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda and that would eventually leave Al-Qaeda in part, out of frustration with the failure of the ability to communicate with the top echelons of Al-Qaeda in a timely fashion.
Nelly Lahoud: Well, the Abbottabad raid was a good career move for bin Laden, you can say that, because he didn't have to suffer having to deal with that situation.
Cole Bunzel: Yeah, that's just to show that some of the themes here that we're talking about, particularly when it comes to the affiliates, they still resonate.
Nelly Lahoud: Absolutely.
Cole Bunzel: I still find when I read Al-Qaeda materials from the Al-Qaeda Central, that they just don't really seem to align properly with what's going on in the different affiliates. You still find this emphasis on exclusively focusing on the United States as the great enemy, the enemy that we should be devoting all, and they say this, all of our resources to attacking. And yet the affiliates, which are supposedly subordinate to Al-Qaeda's general directives and commands, they're not devoting, any more than 1% at most of their resources to that. So this stuff just... it strikes me as fascinating and it never ends.
Nelly Lahoud: Which is why, I mean, it was very important that we recognize when we are looking at these various jihadi groups that they are... though, they may all sing the praises or they're all operating under the umbrella of jihad. We are dealing with separate entities with different agendas and it was crucial to appreciate the differences as much as the similarities between these groups.
Cole Bunzel: Yeah, and I think that has implications for how to fight them too. I mean, especially if one organization their agenda is entirely local, maybe we should be going up to the ones with the foreign objective more, something like that. Let's get to another topic. You certainly don't avoid any of the big polarizing topics when it comes to jihadism so I want to ask you about Iran, which is something that you do devote a lot of attention to in this book. There are, of course, those who have claimed, or they have accused Iran of being collaborators with Al-Qaeda. It's well known. And there is something of course, to this argument that Al-Qaeda has had a longstanding presence, even if it's a presence that it doesn't want to have in Iran since shortly after 9/11. So for some people, this is understood as a kind of alliance of sorts between the Iranians and Al-Qaeda. That's not the conclusion to which you come, however, from reading a lot of these documents, just to quote briefly from the book, you write, quote, "The group's hostility toward Iran from the documents is palpable throughout the bin Laden papers. Other letters refer to Iran as quote, "the postponed enemy". Whereas, the United States is quote, "the current enemy"." And there are all sorts of letters that you highlight where the Al-Qaeda members who are in Iran are referring to themselves as a bargaining chip being held by the Iranians. So could you just explain a little bit what's going on here? How should we understand the relationship between Al-Qaeda and Iran?
Nelly Lahoud: So let me just say a general statement, for those of us who have been studying Al-Qaeda, for many years, we know that Al-Qaeda is not just a non-state actor. It's an anti-state actor. Al-Qaeda rejects the legitimacy of the nation state in and of itself, including Muslim majority states. So, the idea, and here this is really important, because Al-Qaeda is not a proxy of a state, let's establish that. With respect to the presence of Al-Qaeda in Iran, as you pointed out, the letters make it abundantly clear that the Al-Qaeda's leaders and their families were actually detained in Iran. I mean, are we going to say that the fact that we have Al-Qaeda leaders in Guantanamo, that this is somehow establishes an Alliance between the United States and Al-Qaeda? Surely not. Now, why did Al-Qaeda leaders go to Iran? And this is something that it was very important for me to understand, because though for a long time, I was able to see in the letters that the hostility toward Iran was palpable, I didn't really work out why they would go there in the first place. And it's after immersing myself in the letters for a very long time, it became really clear to me what happened earlier on in Al-Qaeda, because Iran was not Al-Qaeda's destination choice. What they did initially, they went to Pakistan. And let me go back a little bit in time, around December 6th, the Taliban rang regime collapsed, and it became very clear to Mullah Omar that the air campaign was targeting Arabs and their families. From the letters, it was an indiscriminate campaign against civilians as well as fighters. And so Mullah Omar gives an order asking all the Arabs to evacuate from Afghanistan completely. Their first-
Cole Bunzel: The leader of the Taliban?
Nelly Lahoud: The leader of the Taliban. Correct. So the Al-Qaeda's leadership, their first choice, some of them headed to Pakistan. And here we find from the letters that the Pakistani authorities launched the campaign of arrest, and they arrested according to the letters, some 600 brothers, many of them died and so on. So they had no other choice, but to cross illegally into Iraq. So amongst those who crossed illegally were Al-Qaeda's top leaders, including bin Laden's second wife Khairiah, their son Hamza and six of his children by his first wife, Najwa. They were all headed to Iran. Now, they managed to make it to Iran because, and I'm using what is used in the letters, Baluch brothers, these were Sunni militants operating against the Iranian regime, were able to assist Al-Qaeda by forging IDs, renting places and so on. And for almost a year, Al-Qaeda was able to evade the authorities. They hardly used the internet, they didn't use telephones and so on. And then the Iranian authorities, they weren't able to police their poor borderers. They sensed what was going on and they ended up tracking the Baluch brothers. And this is how they managed to track down Al-Qaeda. And when they did, they detained them. And we know really a blow by blow description of what happened, thanks to one of bin Laden's sons, Saad who escaped from detention in Iran in 2008 and managed to make it to North Waziristan and upon reaching North Waziristan, he writes his father this 15 page letter telling him about the miserable conditions that they were enduring in detention including the fact that they were not given proper medical attention. Children were not being allowed to receive any education. Now, it was not an ordinary prison. Initially they put the men in prison and the men went on hunger strike. The women were sort of under house arrest and in order for the Iranians to keep them quiet, they ended up giving them some upgrades, if you like, and these were the detention centers that allowed some of Al Qaeda members to marry and to have children. We know from the letters that the conditions were so miserable and that's why bin Laden's son had to escape. Some of the women were suffering from psychological problems, skin problems. We know from bin Laden's letters, the hostility that he had not just after 2001, but his hostility against Iran goes back to at least 1987 when he was... he writes in one of the letters that at that time he was presenting lectures in Saudi Arabia, warning against the Iranian regime and so on. So, there is nothing in the letters that hints in any way, shape or form, that there was any collaboration between Al-Qaeda and Iran.
Cole Bunzel: That's fascinating. And you write at one point about a prisoner that Al-Qaeda took, I can't remember exactly when, this was I think a pack of... You tell me.
Nelly Lahoud: That was actually in late 2008, and thanks to the North African group who actually mastered the craft or the art of taking hostages, Al-Qaeda learnt a thing or two from this group and they managed to capture and have an Iranian diplomat. And this actually was one of the reasons why Iran released them. Now to be clear, I did not benefit from any help from the Iranian regime to help me decipher what happened. But judging by the letters, the Iranian diplomat was important. Secondly, the prisoners, the detainees in Iran, at least rioted against the prison authorities twice. There was a lot of blood involved in this sentence, but the crucial point, the reason why things became public and Iran had to acknowledge finally, Al-Qaeda is because bin Laden's daughter, Iman ended up escaping detention herself.
Cole Bunzel: That's to a Saudi consulate, right?
Nelly Lahoud: Absolutely. Once she got to the Saudi consulate, it became public that Iran was holding the detainees. Now, for a long time, Iran didn't acknowledge that they had Al-Qaeda detainees and for a very long time, because they felt bin Laden felt that Iran was holding the detainees as a bargaining chip. They were willing to stay quiet about this. This really caused Al-Qaeda's leaders, considerable distress because they were being accused in public that they are somehow on the side of Al-Qaeda. In one of the letters, we find one of Al-Qaeda's top leaders consulting with a cleric saying, how bad is this? And he says, "You shouldn't even dignify it with a response." I mean, if people said that you have Osama is in alliance with the Americans, should we respond? Of course. It's like saying that we have Alliance with America, this is the same thing with Iran, we shouldn't even respond to that. So clearly there is nowhere in the letters do we find a hint that there was any collaboration or any affinity between Iran and Al-Qaeda.
Cole Bunzel: Interesting. And so by 2010, I think it looks like most of the Al-Qaeda members and their family members who were detained in Iran are led out, is that right?
Nelly Lahoud: So most of them, it would've been August, 2010, but there were remained some other top leaders in Iran. And it's actually from your work, Cole that I, that I learned a little bit more about what happened to Saif al-Adel and others because of an article that you wrote to Foreign Affairs about some of these communications between, or the airing of grievances between Al-Qaeda and the Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham so you complete my story at the end.
Cole Bunzel: Yeah, well, that's why I mentioned this not to showcase my own work, but just to bring up that this story also, this issue continues to resonate because there are still certain Al-Qaeda leaders, senior operatives in Iran. But from what I've read from internal Al-Qaeda discussions that were subsequently aired online is that these people don't want to be there, that they're pretty upset that they are there. And when they had the opportunity in 2015, after another prisoner exchange, when I think the Yemeni of Al-Qaeda had captured an Iranian diplomat after the prisoner exchange then was brokered, a number of Al-Qaeda operatives were allowed to leave and they left for Syria where most of them were subsequently killed in US drones. So, I guess in a sense that the Iranians were doing them a favor by keeping them in prison so that they couldn't be killed.
Nelly Lahoud: Well, you could say the same thing about Guantanamo as well. I mean, otherwise they would've gone in North Waziristan, they would've gone through the drones. But to be clear, I mean, some of these issues, when people talk about Iran and Al-Qaeda, they show you this video of bin Laden's son Hamza getting married. Well, yes, they were all living in detention. They were able to get married, but it's not as if Qasem Soleimani was attending the wedding, or there is no basis whatsoever to thinking that somehow there was any affinity, as I said earlier between the two.
Cole Bunzel: I think another point I would make is that, given how much we know that Iran specializes in proxy warfare, how effective it is at arming and deploying proxies, you would expect that if it was using Al-Qaeda as a proxy, it would be a little bit more effective than having its last attack being the Mombasa, 2002 attack.
Nelly Lahoud: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Cole Bunzel: So, but with that, let's move on to another issue which continues to have relevance and that is the Taliban. So what struck me about the Taliban, well, there are a number of different things and you write in one of the early chapters about your theory or your speculation that the original leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, perhaps had given the green light for 9/11 though we don't seem to have a smoking gun for this, I think you would acknowledge, but there are clues that would leave one to believe that Mullah Omar, given his affinity for bin Laden and his reluctance to turn him over to any kind of international authority, that he had been probably informed of 9/11. Do you want to elaborate on that?
Nelly Lahoud: Sure. My hunch is very strong on this and the reason I say this is bin Laden comes across, throughout the letters, as somebody who is highly consultative. So all the information that we've read about that somehow he makes unilateral decisions, doesn't consult, he wouldn't listen to anybody, that he's completely nonsense. Bin Laden was highly consultative. And we know from, from his own handwritten notes that he sat down and composed in September, 2002, that all the operations that Al-Qaeda was involved in were actually being discussed beforehand, before the attacks. Now Al-Qaeda didn't share the operational details with anybody, even sometimes bin Laden didn't know about the operational details of certain attacks simply because they wanted to maintain security measures. Now what we seem to have, and this is something I learned about not just from the bin Laden papers, but also from other jihadi literature that was written back in 1998, about the situation between jihadis, the Arab jihadis in Afghanistan and the Taliban. And I refer here to a book by the jihadi strategist Abu Musab al Suri and the reason why I consider this book to be reliable is because he was being very candid including criticizing both Arab jihadists, as well as the Afghan Taliban at the time. And we know from that book that after the 1998 East Africa bombings, there was a great deal of tension within the senior leadership of the Taliban. And many people within the senior leadership were beginning to be very concerned about Al Qaeda's presence, including its operations. And at some point they all met and for three days, the Afghan Taliban met with, with Mullah Omar and when he rushed to find out what they concluded, thinking that they needed to pack their bags, he found out that Mullah Omar had chastised the senior Afghan, the senior Taliban leaders and said to them, "We were able to be victorious against the Russians you think we need to fear the Americans?" And the other clue also is that we have letters from bin Laden consulting Mullah Omar before 9/11. In subsequent letters, we find that both bin Laden, as well as, al-Zawahiri and others maintained their loyalty to Mullah Omar and referred to him as our friend [foreign language 00:54:55], and distinguished him from other senior Taliban leaders, whom they described as insincere, whom they described as those who are willing to compromise God's religion, and specifically who are on the payroll of the ISI, the Pakistani Intelligence Services. So we can really see from the letters that Mullah Omar stood in a very different category from the rest of the Taliban. Now, there were other, again, quote unquote from the letters, "other sincere Taliban leaders", but clearly Mullah Omar was somebody that they continued to share loyalty. And at one point, in one of the letters, we find bin Laden saying that if he were to disappear, they're going to have to succeed him and make sure that you don't share your secrets with them. Now these letters for me were shocking as many would've thought that this was a completely different relationship, much, much closer. And I was shocked when I read these letters, we find that as early as 2004, Cole, the Al-Qaeda's leaders were briefing bin Laden that the bulk of the Taliban had been lured by American dollars. And as early as 2004, they recommended to bin Laden that we should pack up and leave and head to Iraq where, according to their letters, God opened the door of jihad for us when he knew of our inflictions over here. So they didn't really feel secure, not even in North Waziristan. So, yes, it's a very different picture that we have of the Afghan Taliban that emerges from the letters. In 2010, we find Ayman al-Zawahiri writing explicitly to bin Laden telling him that the Taliban are psychologically ready to enter into a deal with the United States that would render Al Qaeda impotent. And he thanked the Lord that Mullah Omar was still in charge but then the people whom they designated as insincere Taliban were the same people who ended up having those peace talks with the Americans and concluded the peace agreement in February, 2020.
Cole Bunzel: And one of those insincere quote, unquote "insincere Taliban" was, I think Mullah Akhtar Monsour who succeeded Mullah Omar as the head of the Taliban in 2013, though it wasn't revealed until 2015, we don't need to get into that, but it just goes to show that there was this, perhaps valid concern on the part of Al-Qaeda that the Taliban like all organizations and states around the world, suffers from divisions. And this division had a lot to say about Al-Qaeda. And you see today, and you've seen over the last five plus years that Al Qaeda has tried to present its relationship with the Taliban as entirely harmonious. But we also see from the side of the Taliban, pretty much radio silence when it comes to Al-Qaeda. And if anything, there's sometimes denial that there's been anyone in Al-Qaeda on Afghan soil since 9/11. But at the same time, I have to mention that when it came to the deal that was struck with the United States between the Taliban in February, 2020, that allowed for the subsequent US exit the following year, that the Taliban would not simply just say, "Look, we repudiate Al-Qaeda. We have nothing to do with Al-Qaeda. They're a terrible organization." They refused to give the Americans the one thing that they really wanted, I think, which was the repudiation of Al-Qaeda. What do you think of that?
Nelly Lahoud: Well, of course, they're not going to do that. I think these are expectations that you and I would like to would like to hear, but what they did in that they would undertake to do their best to prevent any attacks against the United States from US soil. Now, frankly, the onus is not so much on the Taliban in that agreement, is how did the United States agree to those terms? I mean, it was surprising for me to see the name of the Taliban. They they didn't negotiate as if they were the Taliban, they negotiated as if they were the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. In other words, we are the government of Afghanistan, meaning they excluded the Karzai, not the Karzai, the Ghani government. And though the United States said that we do not recognize them, but that same name was repeated about, I think, 16 different times in that four page document. It was surprising to me that the United States would agree to it. I was less surprised by the Taliban's terms, but more surprised that the United States allow... I mean, I think negotiating with the Taliban was the right course of action, but I couldn't see the wisdom of keeping the Afghan government out of the negotiations, allowing this to happen, and so I think there were, there were some question marks. There remain some question marks in my own mind about this.
Cole Bunzel: But when it comes to the relationship today between the Taliban or as it is better known, and according to them, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and Al Qaeda, the documents lead you to believe that the relationship is, better, worse, the same than you had previously believed?
Nelly Lahoud: I've been reading some of the public statements that Ayman al-Zawahiri released and couldn't have been easy for him to have to watch, even though he predicted it, but he must be really highly concerned about this. I mean, firstly, when Al-Qaeda after the withdraw from the US, Al-Qaeda congratulated the Afghan Ummah, not the Taliban. And since then, he's been kind of appealing to the Taliban to realize what was going on in terms of you are... He's been criticizing the Taliban for wanting to be part of the United Nations. I mean these are gentle criticisms, but certainly reveal that he, and I'm sure others in Al-Qaeda would be even more concerned than ever about the Taliban. But he would've been the least surprised about this. As I said earlier, he predicted it back in 2010.
Cole Bunzel: Yeah. Right. One of the ironies is that you quote him in a letter to bin Laden, voicing his utter concern over this potential deal between the United States and the Taliban and then 10 years later, we see him in public praising the deal between the United States and the Taliban, which clearly was not favorable to Al-Qaeda.
Nelly Lahoud: I think he tried to camouflage in terms of not praising the deal, but he was rejoicing the fact that from his perspective, it was a victory against the United States that they actually withdrew from Afghanistan. It wasn't so much the deal. It was the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Cole Bunzel: He did release a statement upon the deal signing, congratulating, the Taliban for the victory.
Nelly Lahoud: For their victory. For their victory. It was the US withdrawal. That was the victory.
Cole Bunzel: Okay. One other topic before I let you go. You've been generous with your time. You spent a lot of the book, the last part of the book, talking about bin Laden's family and what life was like inside this compound. Maybe you could just tell us before I ask you anything else about who was in the compound the day he was killed. I mean, bin Laden had more... you sometimes refer to his wife, he had more than one wife, multiple children by multiple wives. So, who was there?
Nelly Lahoud: So at the time of the raid in the bin Laden household, there were 16 people, nine of them were children and of the seven remaining adults, three of his wives and two of his daughters and his son Khalid. Now one of the wives joined him in February, just February, 2011, just a couple of months before the raid. We're talking about Khairiah, who was detained, who had been detained and around whom we mentioned earlier. So again, one of the most surprising aspects of these letters is that I came to learn that most of the public statements that we've heard bin Laden and deliver over the years had been actually co-authored with his daughters and I'm sure his wife Siham did quite a lot of editing, but we have a remarkable picture, if you like, of life in the bin Laden household, what the children were doing, their routine, their daily schedule. We find at one point when Khairiah, when his wife was able to join him, she would be writing back to her son, Hamza, who was still in North Waziristan to tell him about his half siblings. And she mentions Miriam and Sumaiya, the daughters. She says their writings are broadcast on TV, meaning that whenever bin Laden, delivered these statements, it was Mariam and Sumaiya's writings. We have a unique document that was the only, from my understanding, the only hard copy that was recovered from the compound. And it was a 220 page notebook that transcribed family conversations during the last few months of bin Laden's life. It was a second such volume. The first one was not recovered, but we find from this notebook that bin Laden relied and counted on the input of his family. The star of that notebook is his daughter Sumaiya because we find generally bin Laden, explicitly soliciting their input like he said, "Start preparing the ideas that need to go into the public statements." And we find Sumaiya going back and forth with her father, challenging him on issues to do with jihad, if jihad's still relevant, Al-Qaeda is not in the news. This was the Arab spring where peaceful protesters were really leading the event in the Arab world. We find bin Laden being defensive at points, but particularly the response of bin Laden to the Arab spring went... I was able to find at least 16 different drafts. And the names of these files are by Sumaiya's input, Miriam's input. So clearly they were doing the heavy lifting. It's not to say that bin Laden was absent. Clearly he was very important, but it was one of the most surprising element for me to see their input and the kind of resilience that they had in that compound. Bin Laden, his wives and his children were his anchor otherwise, I'm sure if the life in the compound was acrimonious, we would've found him much earlier than that. I'm sure the wives would've told us about his whereabouts, but clearly it was a harmonious life in the compound, and they did their best to make life for the children normal in a very highly abnormal setting. And I say this, the children were not allowed to play outside on their own without adult supervision because they didn't want to draw attention that the Arabs were living in the compound. So it was a very unusual and distressing, I mean, situation. Bin Laden's son, Khalid contributed to recording his father's public statements. He wasn't very good at it that's why we found bin Laden's, most of his public statements were audio recorded rather than video recorded for a long time, if you remember. But also, we have this very strong note from Khalid where we see how distressed he was by the living conditions in the compound.
Cole Bunzel: So good to know that Al Qaeda was a family business, fortunately, not a very well run or successful family business, but if you want to read more about it, you'll have to look at the book. So with that, we'll bring this to a close Nelly Lahoud, thank you very much for coming on the Caravan Podcast. Once again, I highly recommend the book, you should check it out. It's called The Bin Laden Papers available at fine bookstores everywhere. Please subscribe to the podcast. We'll be back soon with another episode.
Nelly Lahoud: Thank you, Cole. It was a true pleasure.
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