The 18th Document Or: News from Abottabad

March 20th, 2013 - OK, folks, this is an exclusive: Until today the US government has only published 17 of the probably thousands of documents it seized in Abottabad during the raid on Osama Bin Laden. But now an 18th document has surfaced – and surprisingy enough here in Germany. I have had a chance to study the document. In this Thursday's issue of DIE ZEIT I have a brief report about it, but there is also an extended online version I did for ZEIT ONLINE, already up on the website. If you can't read German, here are some key points.

  • The document is a letter by Junis al-Mauretani to Osama Bin Laden, dated March 2010. It is 17 pages in the original Arabic.
  • It was sent to German authorities by the US Department of Justice in April 2012 after the Germans had asked if the US did perhaps have any information about three young men standing trial in Düsseldorf at the moment for alleged membership in al-Qaida.
  • The reason the US shared this particular document with the Germans is that in it, al-Mauretani refers to a Moroccan recruit whose date of birth he gives - and which is the same as the date of birth of one of the defendants in said trial.
  • In essence, the letter is a sketch or rather a vision of a comprehensive plot against the West, including maritime, economical and other sensitive targets. There is a certain emphasis on critical infrastructure, as al-Mauretani singles out water dams, underwater gas pipelines, bridges between cities and tunnels connecting countries, as well as internet cables as potential targets.
  • He even suggests to explore underwater pipelines with civil submarines, and he maintains that the pipelines have safety valves every 10 km – a fact, he says, that would need to be taken into account.
  • He also says that airborne terrorism is still a possibility but suggests that AQ cadres after learning how to fly should try to get themselves employed (I assume: by airlines). Then they could, he says, for example put their co-pilot to sleep with a seditive and fly the plane into the intended target. As one possible target he suggests the Saudi oil installation at Abqaiq.
  • He also claims that there is a process in place by which followers would be asked to enter into sensitive jobs, e.g. in the transport business for oil and gas. By this, he suggests, it could become easier to attack targets like airports, love parades (sic!) and highly frequented tunnels.
  • Other operatives would be asked to study physics or chemistry so that they could be made use of at a later time. The term he uses a lot in this respect is „infiltration“.
  • There is also an interesting passage in which he claims that AQIM has enough funds to help finance his ideas and that the cadres there trust him personally.
  • He also asks OBL to prepare a speech in which he would threaten Europe. This should be done in sync with the operational planning. Around two weeks after the speech, in which he asks OBL to say that patience with the Europeans had run out, the first strike would happen, al-Mauretani says. And shortly after that, the US would be struck.

These are the key facts in the documents. If you are interested in my analysis, I will say the following:

  • First of all, the stlye (and some of the content) of the document does seem generally reconcilable with the 17 documents published thus far. For example, Mauretani addresses OBL as "Zamarai". 
  • The content also seems to fit rather nicely with information gleaned from other terror trials. It seems to support the notion that AQ was in and around 2010 trying rather hard to plot attacks against the West. For example, two German Jihadists after their apprehension stated that they had met al-Mauretani in Waziristan and that he had spoken about a plot against the West in which no-one would have to die and that it would concentrate on economic targets.
  • I have the impression that al-Mauretani was trying to achieve three objectives by his vision: being economically hurtful; being original; and being risk avert.
  • The document as such though is not what most in the West would consider a coherent memo. It is much rather the typcal AQ mixture of megalomania and micromanagement that is also reflected in other documents. This is why I call it a vision or attack sketch rather than a plan. There are fairly wild jumps between what I would consider viable ideas (like letting people train how to fly and have them employed by airlines) and the fantastic – like passages about the future military generals of the future Islamic State.
  • In essence, the document has definitely great historical value: It offers a rare glimpse into AQ thinking at that ca. 2010. I daresay though that is not operationally important in the now, even if some ideas may have trickled down and be alive elsewhere in the network. This is mainly for four reasons: Al-Mauretani was captured in September 2011; OBL is dead; many recruits from Western countries possibly involved with this very scheme have been arrested; and AQ 2013 is under much more pressure than AQ 2010. And this is not even taking into consideration other factors like the Arab spting and its repercussions.
Apart from the other 17 Abottabad documents, there is one other set of documents that I suggest should be read together with this new letter, and that's the three English documents German authorities believe to stem from AQ core and which were found on a memory device of another terror suspect. I wrote about those documents in March last year on this blog, too. If you then take into consideration what apprehend terror suspects have said in trials or at other occasions, the Euro Plot Scheme of AQ of 2009/2010 becomes almost palpable. I would argue that three aspects of it are now grounded evident due to what we have seen, heard and observed:

1.- Al-Mauretani seems to have been responsible for the reporting to OBL, perhaps the finances, most likely the "grand vision", too. He seems to have wanted to strike economic targets and infrastructure in the West, using Western recruits who he wanted to infiltrate into potentially interesting positions.

2.- AQ during that time actively recruited Westerners - even from among other Jihadist groups like the IMU. I think this means that they wanted this to be large and comprehensive effort - probably sending all of them back around the same time but not striking immediately but rather asking them to recruit even more people and then lie down until told to act. Al-Mauretani in several cases made sure there would be secure means of communications.

3.- The other set of documents seized here in Germany strongly suggest that there was also a Pakistani contingent working inside the larger AQ effort, probably clustered around Rashid Rauf. It could, I believe, also have included Ilyas Kashmiri.

The whole thing, of course, failed in a lot of ways, as you all are aware. But then again: Our visibility is not very good at the moment. So I will only say it is unlikely the Euro Plot is still on the table in its original form.

Lastly, a little aside:

Johannes Pausch, an attorney for one of the defendants, in fact the one possibly mentioned in the document, told me that he was „doubtful“ of the authenticity of the document. He said he couldn't believe that AQ would be careless enough to e.g. put a real date of birth into writing just like that. Today, three FBI agents will be called as witnesses in the Düsseldorf court and they will be asked to describe how the document was seized, transported and logged and who had access to it. This is supposed to help answer questions like: Was the document put into the right context? And did somebody have a theoretical chance to manipulate it?

What I would say in this regard is that in fact there does remain an issue of authenticity. But this issue relates to all of the Abottabad documents. We now know 17 (– well, 18 –) of what are very likely thousands of documents seized on that day in May 2011. Obviously, there is no material acquired by independent sources to compare it against. We have never really seen documents of this kind before. It is therefor near impossible to prove beyond doubt that any of these documents are authentic. We can believe it and work with them. Maybe we even should. And I am certainly not a conspiracy theorist. But for the sake of academic purity I will nonethelesse maintain that there is no proof of authenticity in the true sense of the word.

But be that as it may, I have to say I had a few very interesting days with this one document. And of yourse I am very interested in your thoughts. So, bring it on, please!

(PS. Please bear in mind that this is my private blog. You can't attribute any of it to DIE ZEIT, the paper I work at. At least not without asking.)

Cheers, Yassin  

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