US & Canada

A surprising look at Bin Laden and al-Qaeda

Still of a video released by the Department of Defense

The Abbotabad documents offer us a rare, often fascinating glimpse of al-Qaeda and its leadership.

But sometimes, as we peer in, we see the movement's leadership, and Osama Bin Laden in particular, peering out. They are watching us watching them.

Bin Laden in particular was keenly, perhaps obsessively, aware of his own reputation.

"He who does not make known his own history," he wrote, sometime after October 2010, runs the risk that "some in the media and among historians will construct a history for him, using whatever information they have, regardless of whether their information is accurate or not".

The authors of "Letters from Abbottabad" conclude that Bin Laden "did not generally come across as egotistical" but that "he worried about his legacy".

And this was a man who, like any modern military leader, understood the importance of "media operations".

In a letter thought to have been written by Bin Laden, he says "the media occupies the greater portion of the battle today" going on to note, scathingly, that "the satellite channels today are worse than the satiric poets of the pre-Islamic era".

Bin Laden's spokesman, California-born Adam Gadahn, graded some of the US networks, describing ABC News as "one of the best channels as far as we are concerned," but complaining that Rupert Murdoch's Fox News "falls into the abyss, as you know".

Sometimes the reflections contained in the 17 letters seem to stand at variance with al-Qaeda's nihilistic reputation. Bin Laden found the gratuitous killing of fellow Muslims by al-Qaeda affiliates deeply troubling, and understood that they demanded a response.

"In the event that mistakes involuntarily occur and non-combatants die as a result, apologies and explanations should follow," Bin Laden wrote in 2010, sounding for all the world like a Nato commander (except that he adds "even if those fallen are sinners".).

And it is perhaps surprising to find the most feared man in the world admitting that "we are in need of sincere internal advice and a constructive critical evaluation of all our politics".

Ultimately, al-Qaeda lieutenants express frustration that the movement isn't getting enough credit for bringing America down.

"All the political talk in America is about the economy, forgetting or ignoring the war and its role in weakening the economy," Adam Gadahn complains at one point.

More on this story