TIMBUKTU, MALI – In their hurry to flee Timbuktu last month, al-Qaida fighters left behind a crucial document: Tucked under a pile of papers and trash was a confidential letter spelling out the terrorist network’s strategy to conquer northern Mali and reflecting internal discord over how to rule the region.
The document offers 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 African chapter, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), 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 further 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 that it needs.
The more than nine-page document, found in a building occupied by AQIM 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.
Droukdel, the emir of AQIM, perhaps surprisingly argues that his fighters moved too fast and too brutally in applying Shariah law to northern Mali. Comparing the relationship of al-Qaida to Mali as that of an adult to an infant, he urges his fighters to be more gentle, like a parent.