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Last of Declassified al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden Materials Released by US Intelligence Community

bin Laden wrote in a letter, citing “the torture of the brothers in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib

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Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has posted a tweet after the release of a 19-page Al Qaeda report in Arabic, which claimed Iran supported the extremist group before the 9/11 attacks. VOA
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Right up until the end, al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden remained focused on striking the United States, its Western allies and governments seen as U.S. proxies, and he was leery of distractions that could weaken the terror group’s resolve.

“America was never as hated and detested by all the people in the world as it is now,” bin Laden wrote in a letter, citing “the torture of the brothers in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.”

“Everyone should forget about his disagreements and focus his efforts on eliminating the bigger adversary,” he said in a separate, undated letter to a Shaikh Mahmud.

50 documents released

The letters, among almost 50 declassified documents released Thursday by the U.S. intelligence community, shed few new insights into bin Laden’s thinking as he hid in his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Rather, the last of three installments of material captured during the 2011 raid that killed the terror mastermind helps complete a picture of al-Qaida at a critical juncture, as it tried to spread its influence during the early days of the so-called Arab Spring.

“The declassified documents reveal bin Laden’s strategy for upending global politics through protracted violent conflict,” according to one of the analysts who worked on the documents.

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Hoping for U.S. involvement

According to the documents, bin Laden saw the Arab Spring as a “transitional phase” and wrote of the need to “portray our vision on the revolutions in the Arab world.”

But the focus was still on pushing Arab regimes with good ties to the West toward a tipping point, hoping the U.S. would intervene and create an opening for the jihadist movement.

“What you’re seeing then is the early parts of its strategy that then got this unexpected lift,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “They’re looking at how to disperse fighters and cause chaos and suddenly the whole region is plunged into chaos.”

“Jihadists could actually get a sizeable foothold without the U.S. stepping in,” he said, allowing al-Qaida to change its trajectory following bin Laden’s death into an even more dangerous threat.

“It can operate much more openly now,” said Gartenstein-Ross. “It has much more of a presence across multiple theaters.”

Sons warned in letters

While bin Laden may not have been able to envision the threat his terror group eventually would pose, other documents show he was keenly aware of his security environment.

Throughout, he remained deeply suspicious of Iran, referring to what he called “tyrant prisons,” while noting how Tehran was hosting members of his family.

In a letter to his sons Uthman and Muhammad, bin Laden warned of the lengths to which Iran might go to track their movements.

“Remember any questionable action or observation in any hospital in Iran,” he wrote. “If they inject you with a shot, this shot might be loaded with a tiny chip.”

It was not the first time the al-Qaida leader had worried about efforts to track family members after visits to Iran.

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Worried about tracking devices

In a letter released last year as part of the second tranche of declassified materials, bin Laden worried that tracking devices may have been implanted in a filling his wife got while visiting a dentist in Iran, although he blamed the U.S.

“The size of the chip is about the length of a grain of wheat and the width of a fine piece of vermicelli,” he wrote.

Yet at other times, as revealed in this last set of documents, the al-Qaida leader’s paranoia appears to give way to optimism, pointing to U.S. failures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In a letter to his sister Um Abd-al-Rahman, bin Laden even expresses hope that he will be able to see her soon.

“The media released the speech of President Obama that he would withdraw the American forces from Afghanistan after six months,” he wrote. “Matters will be relieved and our movement will be easier.”

Still other documents reveal deliberations on matters both mundane and, perhaps, surprising.

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Image, branding a concern

In one letter to Abu Muhammad Salah, bin Laden addresses what he calls “the top secret matter” of al-Qaida militants “in their unfortunate celibacy” due to a lack of available wives.

“We have no objection to clarifying to the brothers that they may, in such conditions, masturbate,” he wrote.

Still other discussions touched on the use of hostages, the forging relationships with selected media outlets and persistent concerns about al-Qaida’s image and branding.

“It continues to show how connected bin Laden was to the overall al-Qaida network even though his Internet access was limited,” said Gartenstein-Ross. “He knew that he could direct strategy and would be listened to.”(VOA)

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Pakistan Fears Economic Turmoil, Re-thinks ‘Silk Road’ Project With China

In 2017, Pakistan turned down Chinese funding for a $14 billion mega-dam project in the Himalayas because of cost concerns.

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Pakistan
A man passes through a railing while others board a train as they make their way home at the Cantonment railway station in Karachi, Pakistan. VOA

After lengthy delays, an $8.2 billion revamp of a colonial-era rail line snaking from the Arabian Sea to the foothills of the Hindu Kush has become a test of Pakistan ’s ability to rethink signature Chinese “Silk Road” projects because of debt concerns.

The rail megaproject linking the coastal metropolis of Karachi to the northwestern city of Peshawar is China’s biggest Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project in Pakistan, but Islamabad has balked at the cost and financing terms.

Resistance has stiffened under the new government of populist Prime Minister Imran Khan, who has voiced alarm about rising debt levels and says the country must wean itself off foreign loans.

“We are seeing how to develop a model so the government of Pakistan wouldn’t have all the risk,” Khusro Bakhtyar, minister in Pakistan’s planning ministry, told reporters recently.

Pakistan
Visitors read instruction material about land that was reclaimed from the Indian Ocean for the Colombo Port City project, on the Galle Face sea promenade in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Jan. 2, 2018. The Port City project was initiated as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. VOA

Unease elsewhere

The cooling of enthusiasm for China’s investments mirrors the unease of incoming governments in Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Maldives, where new administrations have come to power wary of Chinese deals struck by their predecessors.

Pakistan’s new government had wanted to review all BRI contracts. Officials say there are concerns the deals were badly negotiated, too expensive or overly favored China.

But to Islamabad’s frustration, Beijing is only willing to review projects that have not yet begun, three senior government officials have told Reuters.

China’s Foreign Ministry said, in a statement in response to questions faxed by Reuters, that both sides were committed to pressing forward with BRI projects, “to ensure those projects that are already built operate as normal, and those which are being built proceed smoothly.”

Pakistani officials say they remain committed to Chinese investment but want to push harder on price and affordability, while re-orientating the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), for which Beijing has pledged about $60 billion in infrastructure funds, to focus on projects that deliver social development in line with Khan’s election platform.

Pakistan
China’s ambassador to Pakistan, Yao Jing, Islamabad. VOA

‘Mutual consultation’

China’s Ambassador to Pakistan, Yao Jing, told Reuters that Beijing was open to changes proposed by the new government and “we will definitely follow their agenda” to work out a roadmap for BRI projects based on “mutual consultation.”

“It constitutes a process of discussion with each other about this kind of model, about this kind of roadmap for the future,” Yao said.

Beijing would only proceed with projects that Pakistan wanted, he added.

“This is Pakistan’s economy, this is their society,” Yao said.

IMF bailout likely

Islamabad’s efforts to recalibrate CPEC are made trickier by its dependence on Chinese loans to prop up its vulnerable economy.

Growing fissures in relations with the United States, Pakistan’s historic ally, have also weakened the country’s negotiating hand, as has a current account crisis likely to lead to a bailout by the International Monetary Fund, which may demand spending cuts.

“We have reservations, but no other country is investing in Pakistan. What can we do?” one Pakistani minister told Reuters.

Pakistan
Laborers dig the ground before replacing concrete sleepers along railway tracks in Karachi, Pakistan. VOA

Crumbling railways

The ML-1 rail line is the spine of country’s dilapidated rail network, which has in recent years been edging toward collapse as passenger numbers plunge, train lines close and the vital freight business nosedives.

Khan’s government has vowed to make the 1,872 km (1,163 mile) line a priority CPEC project, saying it will help the poor travel across the vast South Asian nation.

But Islamabad is exploring funding options for CPEC projects that depart from the traditional BRI lending model, whereby host nations take on Chinese debt to finance construction of infrastructure, and has invited Saudi Arabia and other countries to invest.

One option for ML-1, according to Pakistani officials, is the build-operate-transfer (BOT) model, which would see investors or companies finance and build the project and recoup their investment from cash flows generated mainly by the rail freight business, before returning it to Pakistan in a few decades time.

Yao, the Chinese envoy, said Beijing was open to BOT and would “encourage” its companies to invest.

Pakistan
A man waits to cross a portion of track once shared with the Karachi Circular Railway line in Karachi, Pakistan. VOA

Large rail projects, problems

Rail mega-projects under China’s BRI umbrella have run into problems elsewhere in Asia. A line linking Thailand and Laos has been beset by delays over financing, while Malaysia’s new Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad outright canceled the Chinese-funded $20 billion East Coast Rail Link (ECRL).

Beijing is happy to offer loans, but reticent to invest in the Pakistan venture as such projects are seldom profitable, according to Andrew Small, author of a book on China-Pakistan relations.

“The problem is that the Chinese don’t think they can make money on this project and are not keen on BOT,” Small said.

Off-books debt

During President Xi Jinping’s visit to Pakistan in 2015, the ML-1 line was placed among a list of “early harvest” CPEC projects that would be prioritized, along with power plants urgently needed to end crippling electricity shortages.

But while many other projects from that list have now been completed, the rail scheme has been stuck.

Pakistan
. The difference between the two validate the investments made on the road, and give a hopeful image for the future.

Pakistani officials say they became wary of how early BRI contracts were awarded to Chinese firms, and are pushing for a public tender for ML-1.

Partly to help with price discovery, Pakistan asked the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to finance a chunk of the rail project through tendering. The ADB began discussions on a $1.5-$2 billion loan, but China insisted the project was “too strategic,” and Islamabad kicked out the ADB under pressure from Beijing in early 2017, according to Pakistani and ADB officials.

“If it’s such a strategic project then it should be a viable project for them to finance on very concessional terms or invest in?” said one senior Pakistani official familiar with the project, referring to the BOT model.

China’s foreign ministry said Beijing was engaged in “friendly consultations” with Pakistan on the rail project.

Chinese companies participated in BRI projects in an open and transparent way, “pooling benefits and sharing risks,” it said.

Pakistan
In this file photo taken Oct. 10, 2015, a bus moves past by solar power and wind power farms in northwestern China’s Ningxia Hui region.

Chinese debt or no project

Analysts say Pakistan will struggle to attract non-Chinese investors into the project, which may force it to choose between piling on Chinese debt or walking away from the project.

In 2017, Pakistan turned down Chinese funding for a $14 billion mega-dam project in the Himalayas because of cost concerns and worries Beijing could end up owning a vital national asset if Pakistan could not repay loans, as occurred with a Sri Lankan port.

Khan’s government chafes at several Chinese intercity mass transport projects in Punjab, the voter heartland of the previous government, which now need hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies every year.

Also Read: Creating a New Silk Road: China’s Billion Dollar Investments to Expand Its Transportation Network

They also fume about the risk of accumulating off-books sovereign debt through power contracts, where annual profits of above 20 percent, in dollar terms, were guaranteed by the previous administration.

With the ML-1 line, there are also those who harbor doubts closer to home, including the previous government’s finance minister, Miftah Ismail, who said his ministry had always had concerns about its viability.

“When people say it’s a project of national importance, that usually means it makes no sense financially,” he said. (VOA)