Zubaydah’s Diaries: Insights into al Qaeda pre-9/11

In the years after 9/11, one of the central al Qaeda figures discussed in the open media has been Abu Zubaydah; a man often times referred to as al Qaeda’s #3.  Zubaydah’s fame in the media came first from his spectacular capture in Pakistan and then from his water boarding.  Last week, al Jazeera released an unclassified but leaked diary of Zubaydah’s which detailed bits and pieces of his thoughts in the years prior to and immediately after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Before diving to deep, I remind everyone to take Zubaydah’s diary notes with a grain of salt.  First, by many accounts, Zubaydah apparently is a bit crazy.  In the diary, he writes entries to an alias known as “Hani 2” which may be his other personality although we don’t know for sure.  Second, Zubaydah seems to be as surprised by the 9/11/2001 attacks as anyone else.  Third, huge time gaps exist in the diary leaving much context to be desired.  We don’t know why he stops or starts writing, what is being left out, what is deliberately being falsified, etc.

The original diary is available somewhere on the Internet and  a good summary article can be found here at al Jazeera America’s website.

From the al Jazeera article here are some interesting things that were discussed.

  • Zubaydah maybe didn’t know he was in al Qaeda until the media informed him? Huh? – According to the diary, Zubaydah may have tried to cover his tracks right before his capture, suggesting he wasn’t part of al Qaeda.  Or maybe he was surprised to find out he was the heir to Bin Laden? Never considering himself part of al Qaeda, but instead the leader of his own team. This is doubtful (BS I think) based on the Ressam investigation. Check out this quote from the article:

Perhaps mindful of the growing danger that his diaries could be seized, he writes in a Feb. 4, 2002, entry, “For five years [the media] has been attempting to connect me to anything, and the matter is growing bigger, until they lately said that I am the heir of Bin Laden for the leadership of the Al-Qaeda Organization. I hope they know that I am not even a member of Al-Qaeda, so how can I become their leader?”… In a later entry he complains, “The Pakistani newspapers are saying that I’m in Peshawar, trying to reorganize Al-Qa’ida Organization, for war against the Americans, and that I am the heir of Bin Ladin, and Time [magazine] is saying that I know the Organization and those collaborating with the Organization more than Bin Ladin himself … I wish they know that I am not with Al-Qa’ida, to begin with, and that I am with them in ideology and body.”…Regardless of whether he had sworn an oath of loyalty to bin Laden — which would make him a member of Al-Qaeda — Abu Zubaydah was clearly a trusted and very senior operative in the broader movement that had Al-Qaeda at the center. He was, as he said, “with them in ideology and body.”

  • Zubaydah’s camp in Peshawar got shutdown by the Taliban in 1999 as part of what appears may have been a Bin Laden consolidation of power.  Al Jazeera notes:

In 1999, Abu Zubaydah was residing at a guesthouse in Peshawar associated with the Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan, his mujahedeen alma mater, to which he had returned in an administrative capacity….But the following year, the Taliban ordered the camp shut down because its emir had refused to hand it over to bin Laden. Not all the like-minded foreign fighters in Afghanistan before 9/11 were directly answerable to bin Laden, even some of those who shared his broad goals…..His appeals to bin Laden to reopen Khaldan fell on deaf ears. Bin Laden and the Taliban declined to reopen the camp.

  • In many ways, I get the sense from the article that Zubaydah thought of Bin Laden as a bit of a rival, and seemingly dependent at times on Bin Laden for receiving funding.

“It’s different when you’re the one calling the shots than being a wheel that’s moving mechanically with other wheels as part of a specific machine,” he complains in another diary entry written on the same day. At times, he seemed to regard bin Laden more as a competitor than a mentor. Abu Zubaydah writes that more jihad volunteers chose to train at Khaldan than at the full-fledged Al-Qaeda military camps bin Laden operated.”

Zubaydah continues and demonstrates, as Gregory Johnsen noted in his book on AQAP, that what separated Bin Laden from others was his money.  Bin Laden, like any other business, grew al Qaeda in scale because he had the resources to propel them forward.

“The resources are shrinking … We must have a secure financial source, so it will not come to an end (the camp),” he writes on July 14, 1996. About a year later, he writes that bin Laden has stepped in and offered assistance. “Bin Laden re-submitted his offer of unity to us and the brothers inside requested me to deliberate the issue,” he writes in Volume 4 on Aug. 13, 1997.

  •  Amongst al Qaeda’s chaos, was Zubaydah trying to build his own all star team?  See this concluding quote from Zubaydah:

To that end, Abu Zubaydah was building in Pakistan an ark of sorts, assembling the most skilled explosives experts and others in the movement capable of teaching the vital skills necessary to regenerate the movement.

“I took them with me, from the flood, one or two individuals from each military science, just like Noah … two pairs from each … An instructor or two from each military subject, they are the nucleus of my future work, and I am starting from zero … I am preparing a safe location for us, so that we can start.”

zubaydah pics

FPRI Post: Do al Qaeda affiliates have a plan?

Today, I got the opportunity to post a discussion piece on whether al Qaeda affiliates actually follow a plan in light of the many opportunities and competing interests at play.  Recently, there has been renewed discussion about “the Next Bin Laden”.  I’m not a big fan of these kinds of posts. But I did think it was worth discussing whether these al Qaeda affiliates actually have any sort of plan and if so, do they follow any of the lauded al Qaeda strategy documents put out by their theorists?

Here’s an introduction to the post and you can read the rest at FPRI:

The rise of many jihadi affiliates around the Africa and the Middle East has renewed the American mediaquest to anoint “The Next Bin Laden”. Lacking any real information or expertise on emerging leaders some analyses has settled on older known quantities; namely Abu Musab al-Suri. (I wonder if someone just changed the date on this article from 2005 to 2013, Lawrence Wright does a better breakdown of Suri at this link from September 11, 2006.) While I’ve always been a critic of Suri, the article does raise an interesting question: do the mish-mash of “al Qaeda-in-name” affiliates actually have a plan for their actions?  Most importantly, what is the plan for Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (aka ISIS/AQ in Iraq) as they move forward in Syria?

If al Qaeda affiliates were to actually build a plan from their own lessons learned, I would assume they might reference three jihadi planners of note and several other lesser-known jihadi veterans old and new.  For the “Big Three” and their relevant works I would pick:

  1. Abu Musab al-Suri and his lengthy 1600 page The Call to Global Islamic Resistance released in 2005
  2. Bin Laden’s final strategic thoughts from Abbottabad
  3. Abu Bakr Naji’s 2004 upload The Management of Savagery

I’ll discuss some of my general notions about these three influences and my opinion on whether any of these three actually make much of an impression on current jihadi conflicts.

Last call for votes: 2 years Post-Bin Laden survey

I’ve had the “2 Years Post Bin Laden Survey” up since the start of May and thanks to all those who have already cast their votes.  We’ve already collected hundreds of responses and the results should be a fascinating contrast on how our collective perspectives have changed with regards to terrorism, al Qaeda and Bin Laden’s legacy.  At the end of July, I’ll begin compiling the results of this year’s submissions.  In preparation, I wanted to throw up a quick post calling for any last votes for the survey.  Any and all are invited to participate, no experience or requirements to participate.

If you’d like to open the survey in a separate window, click on this link.  Or you can answer the survey here in this window below.

Thanks for participating and the results will come out soon.

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Looking Back At Perceptions Of Terrorism and Bin Laden

Two weeks ago, I launched the two year follow up to the Post Bin Laden survey to capture the collective assessment of al Qaeda and terrorism two years after the death of al Qaeda’s founder.  Thanks to all that have already voted and the polls are still open for anyone that would like to cast their vote. The more votes the better and your contributions will strengthen the analysis of they survey.  If interested, visit this link to vote and please forward to anyone that you think might be interested in voting.

Meanwhile, those new to the “Post Bin  Laden” surveys were curious what the results of past iterations looks like.  So, I decided to post a compilation of links to the results from the 1st Post-Bin Laden poll, the AQ Strategy 2011-2012 survey, the 2nd Post-Bin Laden poll, and the One Year After Bin Laden survey.

Here are the links to each of the results of these four surveys and I’ll be comparing the results of these previous iterations with the upcoming results of the “2 Years After Bin Laden” survey going on now.  Thanks for voting and here are the results from 2011-2012.

Results from the Bin Laden survey initiated on January 2, 2011:

Does Bin Laden Matter? (Jan. 2011)

Does Bin Laden Matter? Poll Results Part #1

Bin Laden Poll Analysis, Part 1b

Does Bin Laden Matter? Poll Results Part #2

Future AQ Attacks? More or Less

Results from two years ago, surveys launched immediately prior (al Qaeda Strategy 2011-2012 –  April 2011) and immediately after UBL’s death (May 2, 2011):

▪   AQ Strategy & Post UBL Poll Overview (Background Summary on Voters)

▪   Voters say Zawahiri 1 to 2 years from capture

▪   Chief Consequence of UBL’s Death

▪   AQ Leadership After Bin Laden

▪   Financial Impact on AQ Post Bin Laden

▪   AQ Donor Support Before & After UBL

▪   UBL’s Death & The Afghanistan Mission

▪   AQ Affiliates After Bin Laden

▪   AQ Affiliate Targeting Focus

▪   Crowd Considered AQ Central Top Affiliate After UBL’s Death

▪   Will AQ foreign fighters return home to fight?

▪   What will al Qaeda do?

▪   Keys to AQ’s Survival & Resurgence

▪   Western CT Main Efforts Against AQ

▪   Academics are confident – before & after Bin Laden’s death

▪   International Perspectives Increase Confidence

▪   Listen To Your Friends, Read Academic Publications, Build Your Confidence

▪  The Strength of al Qaeda’s Name: Stronger or Weaker?

Results from the “1 Year After Bin Laden” Poll initiated on May 2, 2012:


What is the state of al Qaeda & terrorism two years after Bin Laden? Vote Now!

Two years ago, Osama Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan marking one of the most significant milestones in the history of terrorism and counterterrorism. Two and a half years ago, I began conducting surveys to assess what the impact might be if Osama Bin Laden ever met his demise.  These surveys have since become an annual assessment I generate to gauge public perceptions of the threat of al Qaeda and terrorism in general.  While Bin Laden may be gone, terrorism continues and the past year has demonstrated how terrorist attacks might manifest themselves in a variety of ways from Benghazi to the Boston Marathon bombing.

Today, I’m launching the fifth iteration of the al Qaeda Strategy/Post Bin Laden Survey.  Thanks to those that have participated in versions #1 – Does Bin Laden Matter – Jan.2, 2011, #2 – AQ Strategy 2011-2012 – April 27. 2011, #3 – Terrorism Post-Bin Laden – May 2, 2011, #4 One Year After Bin Laden– May 2, 2012. You can find the results at this link which hosts the results of past surveys.

This poll is shorter and a bit different than past surveys.  Realizing there have been changes in terrorism, I opened the questions up a bit to include new emerging trends.  However, I did repeat some questions verbatim so we can see how our collective thinking has changed over time.

Thanks in advance for contributing to the survey. And anyone is welcome to participate – the more votes the better the results. I’ll begin posting the results and comparisons with past data sets in a few weeks.  Here is the link to the survey if you would like to open it in a separate window: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/2yearsafterBinLaden

And if you would like to just take the survey here, I’ve embedded it in this post.  Thanks for taking the survey!

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Are today’s al Qaeda affiliates following Bin Laden’s vision?

Yesterday, I was given the opportunity to provide a guest blog post at the Foreign Policy Research Institute where I am a Senior Fellow.  I wrote the post based on a quick look back at the Abbottabad documents released by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point in May 2012.  In a few quotes from al Qaeda’s senior leadership, I wanted to reflect on what Bin Laden hoped for al Qaeda prior to his death and then compare this strategic thinking with what is currently occurring around the Middle East and North Africa.

Here is the introduction to the post and see this link if interested in reading the entire discussion.

The May 2011 raid killing Osama Bin Laden in his Abbottabad compound not only eliminated the world’s most notorious terrorist but also provided a unique glimpse into the strategic musings of al Qaeda’s leadership.  The Abbottabad documents released in May 2012 reveal Bin Laden’s strategic recalibration as he witnessed the demise of his organization in Afghanistan and Pakistan while missing out on an Arab Spring that toppled many of the so-called “apostate dictators” he despised. All of the documents disclosed to the public reveal different aspects of al Qaeda’s operations.  However, two documents in particular shed light on Bin Laden’s last thoughts on the future direction.

Is al Qaeda ‘stronger’ or ‘weaker’ after Bin Laden? Poll Results #11

The relative strength of al Qaeda remains a point of constant debate – a debate that grows more complicated each year as the definition of al Qaeda becomes ever more amorphous.  Earlier this week, I kicked off 2013 with a quick survey question asking readers whether they believe al Qaeda is ‘stronger’ or ‘weaker’ as compared to the time of Bin Laden’s death.  I’ll post the results of the 24 hours of responses here below.  But first, I wanted to show the results of this same question when asked on the first anniversary of Bin Laden’s death.

Starting on May 2, 2012 through July 2012, 197 people answered the following question.

One year after the death of Bin Laden, do you believe al Qaeda as a terrorist organization is ‘stronger’ or ‘weaker’? (Use an definition of ‘stronger’ or ‘weaker’ that you prefer)

Of the 197 votes cast, just over 75% of respondents thought al Qaeda was ‘weaker’ a year after the death of its founder.  Interesting!  The first chart here shows the percentage of each professional group choosing ‘stronger’ (blue) or ‘weaker’ (red).  Here are some results that I found interesting.

  •  Government Contractors were most likely to select al Qaeda is ‘stronger’.  Why?  I’m not sure.
  • ‘Academia’, ‘Private Sector’ and ‘Students’ were all solidly of the belief that al Qaeda is ‘weaker’.  What are they teaching in academia and how much are students influenced by their professors?  May be just a coincidence, but I do wonder.

AQ stronger weaker

The following table has the results broken out by different demographic attributes.  There were two results that were curious.

  • Those living in the DC-Baltimore corridor were more likely to say al Qaeda is ‘weaker’.
  • Those that have lived outside the U.S. and E.U. for two years or more were slightly more likely to select al Qaeda as being ‘stronger’.  While the difference isn’t large, I do find it curious that those most traveled were more alarmed about a ‘stronger’ al Qaeda.  I expected those with more travel under their belt to be less likely to believe al Qaeda is ‘stronger’.

Screen Shot 2012-12-19 at 12.24.33 PM

Just this week, I reissued the same question that was asked on May 2, 2012. As of January 1, 2013, is al Qaeda ‘stronger’ or ‘weaker’?  Here are the results of the respondents that voted to date (and feel free to cast your vote now if interested, I’ll post an updated set of results in the coming days.)

While not a large sample, in the seven months since the first anniversary of Bin Laden’s death, there have been some significant changes in opinion with more believing that al Qaeda is ‘stronger’ than only a few months before.


Some were kind of enough to elaborate on their assessment during this week’s al Qaeda ‘stronger’ or ‘weaker’.  Here are some of the open responses.

— As the question notes, this answer depends somewhat on one’s definition of “stronger.” While I’m not sure that al-Qaeda is (necessarily) in a particularly strong position in terms of attacking the United States, that doesn’t really seem to be what most of AQ’s branches are focusing on right now. I’d say that the domestic strength and influence of the loose affiliation of regional AQ branches throughout MENA (AQIM, AQAP, Jabhat al-Nusra, ISI/AQI, etc.) is sufficient evidence that al-Qaeda is “stronger” in the sense that they are playing a larger role within MENA itself than they were at the time of bin Laden’s death.

— I think it is getting weaker, as an organisation in Af Pak region and stronger in the mid east, like Syria, Yemen, Libya and Egypt.. But these may be temporary fluctuations unless its ideology is defeated.

— I find this black and white question bullshit and not nuanced. There is no such thing as ‘al-Qaeda’. It depends, which branch or region you are talking about.

— Franchises are stronger or at least holding; AQC weaker but holding

— AQAP is still viable but I think AQ core is a thing of the past. Ideological figureheads maybe, but that’s it. That may be what some AQ core envisioned all along though, to be the vanguard of a movement – not the movement itself. E. g. Abu musab al Suri’s ideas.

At the start of 2013, is al Qaeda ‘Stronger’ or ‘Weaker’?

Over the last several years, I’ve posted many survey questions at this blog.  Most of these questions have focused on terrorism and specifically al Qaeda.  In recent weeks, I’ve posted the results to several questions (here, here, here) from the “1 Year Post Bin Laden” survey which in many cases suggest that some still believe al Qaeda to be a threat and a growing one at that.

The next round of results from the “1 Year Post Bin Laden” survey will focus on voter perceptions of al Qaeda’s strength on the first anniversary of Bin Laden’s death.  Before I posted these results, I thought I’d ask readers’ opinions on al Qaeda’s strength at the start of 2013, more than a year and half after Bin Laden’s death. So what do you think of al Qaeda in 2013?  Cast your vote here, and in the next post, we’ll compare the results of the vote here with the results from last May (2012).

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What is the primary affiliate of al Qaeda a year after Bin Laden’s death? Poll Results #10

From May 2, 2012 through July 2012, I asked a related question with respect to the relative strength of al Qaeda (AQ) affiliates.  After asking each respondent whether al Qaeda affiliates were ‘stronger’ or ‘weaker’ (see the results here), I asked respondents:

Which affiliate is the primary node of al Qaeda globally?

In total, 165 respondents selected a primary node of al Qaeda.  Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was the clear favorite on the anniversary of Bin Laden’s death.  This seems unsurprising as AQAP was discussed profusely in the U.S. media during the May/June 2012 timeframe.

Here’s a chart showing the selections of voters this past summer.

primary node

Again, consistent with my break down of previous questions, I have shown the votes based on different demographic categories.  Here are some that caught my eye.

  •  ‘Government Non-Military’ voters were less likely to select AQAP and appear to believe AQ Central in Afghanistan and Pakistan remains the central node of al Qaeda.
  • Those selecting ‘Television’ as their primary source (note – a small group of voters), were more likely than any other demographic to select an ‘Emerging AQ in North Africa’ as the primary node.
  • Travel played an interesting dynamic in this vote.  Those who have traveled outside the U.S./EU more than 2 years were evenly split between AQAP and AQ Central being the primary node of AQ.  However, those that have traveled less than 2 years outside the U.S./EU selected AQAP at the same rate as the majority but were more diffuse in their selections beyond AQAP including the selection of al Shabaab at a rate of almost 10%.

Here are the results of all voters broken down by demographic group.

Screen Shot 2012-12-19 at 8.28.19 AM


For al Qaeda: More ‘Unity’ or ‘Conflict’ One Year After Bin Laden? – Results #8

On May 2, 2012, the “1 Year After Bin Laden” survey asked the following question:

Since Usama Bin Laden’s death, has there been more …?

  • Conflict and competition between al Qaeda leaders and affiliates over strategic direction, or
  • Unity between al Qaeda leaders and affiliates seeking to exploit recent uprisings

I found this question particularly interesting in light of the recent debate over the Benghazi attacks.  Some have asserted the attacks were the work of “al Qaeda”.  Other reports suggest the death of U.S. Ambassador Stevens as the work of an “al Qaeda affiliate”.  Yet others say the Consulate attack came from an emerging local militant group “Ansar al Sharia“.

If one were to believe the attack were the work of a centrally directed al Qaeda, then I would assume there would be more unity between al Qaeda leaders than conflict.  Likewise, a sense of unity in terms of central direction may mesh with an AQIM link to the Benghazi Consulate attack.  However, the notion of unity appears undermined by the recent revelations that Ansar al Din maybe breaking with AQIM, while the MNLA also takes its own course in the Sahel.  Meanwhile, General Ham, the U.S. AFRICOM commander, has noted that AQIM has become a central node for coordination with Boko Haram in Nigeria. It appears there are linkages between AQAP and al Shabaab in the Horn of Africa.  But for AQAP in Yemen, seen by many as being the strongest AQ affiliate, are they really coordinating their operations with AQIM, AQ in Iraq or jihadi groups amongst the Syrian uprising?  Probably not. And what about Zawahiri? It appears the crowd doesn’t believe he is in charge of al Qaeda globally the way Bin Laden was.  So which is it, more “Unity” or  “Conflict” amongst AQ members after the death of Bin Laden?

In total, 197 respondents cast their opinions on this question and the vast majority believe al Qaeda’s members are more in conflict (77%) than in unity (23%) after the death of their founder.  The below graph shows the breakout of raw votes by professional group.  Most all professional groups voted in roughly the same proportions as the total.  However, military voters were more likely than other large sample size groups to believe AQ was showing ‘unity’ after Bin Laden’s death.  Meanwhile, ‘Private Sector’ voters were the least likely to believe AQ is cohesive – across most all questions ‘Private Sector’ voters appear to believe AQ is in a state of disarray.

The below table shows a breakdown of the votes based on different characteristics.  I highlighted in green those results reflecting a larger than average selection of ‘Conflict’ while highlighting in yellow those demographic breakdowns that chose ‘Unity’ at a higher rate than other groups.  Overall,

  • ‘Private Sector’ and ‘Government – Non Military’ selected ‘Conflict’ at higher rates.
  • All information sources appear to reflect a proportion similar to the overall average.  There was no apparent lean by ‘Social Media’ voters for this question.
  • Those ‘Residing Outside the U.S.’ were the group most likely to select AQ has had more ‘unity’.  While still only at a rate of 33%, it is interesting that those outside the U.S. may believe AQ is more organized.

Lastly, if you are confused by the term “al Qaeda” or what “al Qaeda linkages mean”, you are not alone.  The media and your Congressmen don’t know either.  For a good laugh and to enjoy the confusion, watch this clip between Anderson Cooper and Congressman Rohrabacher. Absolutely baffling! Another one of my favorite terms – “Radical Islamic Threat” – is in here.