TIMBUKTU, Mali — In their hurry to flee last month, al-Qaida fighters left behind a crucial document: Tucked under a pile of papers and trash is a confidential letter, spelling out the terror network’s strategy for conquering northern Mali and reflecting internal discord over how to rule the region.
The document is an unprecedented window into the terrorist operation, indicating that al-Qaida predicted the military intervention that would dislodge it in January and recognized its own vulnerability.
The letter also shows a sharp division within al-Qaida’s Africa chapter over how quickly and how strictly to apply Islamic law, with its senior commander expressing dismay over the whipping of women and the destruction of Timbuktu’s ancient monuments. It moreover leaves no doubt that despite a temporary withdrawal into the desert, al-Qaida plans to operate in the region over the long haul, and is willing to make short-term concessions on ideology to gain the allies it acknowledges it needs.
The more than nine-page document, found by The Associated Press in a building occupied by the Islamic extremists for almost a year, is signed by Abu Musab Abdul Wadud, the nom de guerre of Abdelmalek Droukdel, the senior commander appointed by Osama bin Laden to run al-Qaida’s branch in Africa. The clear-headed, point-by-point assessment resembles a memo from a CEO to his top managers and lays out for his jihadists in Mali what they have done wrong in months past, and what they need to do to correct their behavior in the future.
The tone and timing of the letter suggest that al-Qaida is learning from its mistakes in places like Somalia and Algeria, where attempts to unilaterally impose its version of Islam backfired. They also reflect the influence of the Arab Spring, which showed the power of people to break regimes, and turned on its head al-Qaida’s long-held view that only violence could bring about wholesale change, Guidere said.
The letter suggests a change in the thinking, if not the rhetoric, of Droukdel, who is asking his men to behave with a restraint that he himself is not known for. Droukdel is believed to have overseen numerous suicide bombings, including one in 2007 where al-Qaida fighters bombed the United Nations building and a new government building in Algiers, killing 41 people. The same year, the U.S. designated him a global terrorist and banned Americans from doing business with him.
In a video disseminated on jihadist forums a few months ago, Droukdel dared the French to intervene in Mali and said his men will turn the region into a “graveyard” for foreign fighters, according to a transcript provided by Washington-based SITE Intelligence.