In their hurry to flee Timbuktu last month, al-Qaeda fighters left behind a crucial document: Tucked under a pile of papers and trash is a confidential letter, spelling out the group's strategy for conquering northern Mali and reflecting internal discord over how to rule the region.
The document is an unprecedented window into the operation, indicating that al-Qaeda predicted the military intervention that would dislodge it in January and recognized its own vulnerability.
The letter also shows a sharp division within al-Qaeda'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-Qaeda 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.
Letter lays out mistakes
The more than nine-page document, found by the AP in a building occupied by the Islamists 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-Qaeda'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.
Droukdel, the emir of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, perhaps surprisingly argues that his fighters moved too fast and too brutally in applying the Islamic law known as Shariah to northern Mali. Comparing the relationship of al-Qaeda to Mali as that of an adult to an infant, he urges them to be more gentle, like a parent:
"The current baby is in its first days, crawling on its knees, and has not yet stood on its two legs," he writes. "If we really want it to stand on its own two feet in this world full of enemies waiting to pounce, we must ease its burden, take it by the hand, help it and support it until its stands."
He scolds his fighters for being too forceful and warns that if they don't ease off, their entire project could be thrown into jeopardy: "Every mistake in this important stage of the life of the baby will be a heavy burden on his shoulders. The larger the mistake, the heavier the burden on his back, and we could end up suffocating him suddenly and causing his death."
The letter is divided into six chapters, three of which the AP recovered, along with loose pages, on the floor of the Ministry of Finance's Regional Audit Department. Residents say the building, one of several the Islamists took over in this ancient city of sundried, mud-brick homes, was particularly well-guarded with two checkpoints, and a zigzag of barriers at the entrance.
Droukdel's letter is one of only a few internal documents between commanders of al-Qaeda's African wing that have been found, and possibly the first to be made public, according to University of Toulouse Islamic scholar Mathieu Guidere. It is numbered 33/234, a system reserved for al-Qaeda's internal communications, said Guidere, who helps oversee a database of documents generated by extremists, including Droukdel.
"This is a document between the Islamists that has never been put before the public eye," said Guidere, who authenticated the letter after being sent a two-page sample. "It confirms something very important, which is the divisions about the strategic conception of the organization. There was a debate on how to establish an Islamic state in North Mali and how to apply Shariah."
Asking for restraint
While the pages recovered are not dated, a reference to a conflict in June establishes that the message was sent at most eight months ago.
The tone and timing of the letter suggest that al-Qaeda 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-Qaeda'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-Qaeda fighters bombed the United Nations 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.
The fanaticism he exhibits in his public statements is in stark contrast to the advice he gives his men on the ground. In his private letter, he acknowledges that al-Qaeda is vulnerable to a foreign intervention, and that international and regional pressure "exceeds our military and financial and structural capability for the time being."
"It is very probable, perhaps certain, that a military intervention will occur ... which in the end will either force us to retreat to our rear bases or will provoke the people against us," writes Droukdel. "Taking into account this important factor, we must not go too far or take risks in our decisions or imagine that this project is a stable Islamic state."