Center for Strategic Communication

By Steven R. Corman & Jarret Brachman

bin Laden compoundThe release last week of documents captured from Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbotabad has generated a flurry of interest in the press and blogosphere.  Yet a question has arisen as to whether the release was wise, since the documents are intelligence assets that could give the enemy valuable information regarding what we know about them.  We argue that the release makes sense from a strategic communication perspective, given what al-Qaeda has become.­

The controversy was raised by James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation in an op ed in Friday’s New York Post. Asking “why would the government publish these documents in the first place,” Carafano concluded that it was an act of election-year “preening” by the White House, and said:

The first rule of intelligence is this: Don’t tell the enemy anything if you don’t have to. It would be like FDR releasing the messages captured by ULTRA, the US-British signals-intelligence program that broke the Nazis’ most secret codes.

The analogy to ULTRA is excessive (al-Qaeda leadership already knew we captured their documents whereas the Nazis did not know we had broken their codes), but Carafano’s basic objection is worth taking seriously.  Our position is that whatever intelligence disadvantages accrued from the release are more than offset by strategic communication advantages.

First, everyone agrees that the conflict formerly known as the Global War on Terrorism long ago degraded al-Qaeda’s ability to organize large scale attacks.  As outlined in President Obama’s National Strategy for Counterterrorism, American-led efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan have destroyed much of al-Qaida’s leadership and “weak­ened the organization substantially.”

For some time now, the concern has been less about al-Qaeda’s operational abilities and more about their force as a social movement. Its brand name has been flexible enough in recent years, much to bin Laden’s discontentment, to accommodate everyone from regional affiliate organizations to organically appearing terrorist cells to anomalous lone wolves.  In many ways, the social movement that al-Qaeda hoped to inspire on 9/11 has transcended the group that created it.

Robert Benford and David Snow have shown that social movements face three key framing tasks. Diagnostic framing means identifying what a movement should consider as the problem it is facing.  Prognostic framing deals with establishing a course of action, and motivational framing establishes reasons members should participate in the recommended actions.

Al-Qaeda has been masterful at diagnostic framing.  The problem, as presented to their audience, is that the West is engaged in a cosmic battle against Islam—a continuation of the Crusades.  Stories of recent wars, al-Nakba (the loss of Palestine to Israel), and treacherous alliances with governments of the Middle East all support this narrative.  Their diagnosis is that a force of champions must step forward to defeat this menace and restore the Ummah to safety and prosperity, and that violent offensive Jihad is the only plausible path to success.  For example, Ayman al-Zawahiri asserted in a 2008 video that “there is no hope of removing the foul regimes in the Muslim countries by anything but force. There is no opportunity for change through peaceful activity.” The motivational frame is to portray al-Qaeda as this champion, an organization that all good Muslims should support, if not join.

Attacking a movement’s framing ideally means undermining its diagnosis, because without it the prognosis and motivation are irrelevant. However, this is impractical in the case of al-Qaeda because public opinion in Muslim continues to support their diagnostic framing.  The alternative, then, is to attack the prognosis and motivation. The same public opinion data show better prospects here, with half to three-quarters of Muslims expressing concern about Islamist extremism.

Release of the Abbotabad documents is good strategic communication precisely because it further undermines the idea that al-Qaeda is a champion of Muslims and that they deserve support. The documents are already challenging, if not entirely rewriting, the bin Laden story. Al-Qaeda’s senior leadership can no longer be viewed as master architects running the show from behind a curtain. Rather, the documents reveal impotent leadership in an al-Qaeda that is internally divided, marginalized and exasperated.

The image is equally bad for their regional affiliates in places like Iraq and Yemen.  Far from the dutiful soldiers they portray themselves to be, the documents show just how far off the reservation they have wandered, pursuing parochial agendas against bin Laden’s wishes and the interests of al-Qaeda’s brand.  They are revealed as loose cannons that can accomplish little except killing the Muslims they are supposed to be saving.

Release of the documents is also justified because turnabout is smart play.  Al-Qaida has long supported the philosophy of rhetorical ninjitsu. Any time they can turn our own words against us, they do.  In the foreword to a book he penned about America’s internal bureaucratic dysfunction al-Qaeda senior leader Abu Jihad al-Masri even used the phrase, “From the words of your own mouth I condemn you” to describe this strategy.

Now the tables are turned.  Thousands of al-Qaeda’s followers in the extremist support forums have already read about these documents, which highlight bin Laden’s strategic irrelevance and managerial impotence. Their reactions are of defensiveness and confusion.  It is hard to dismiss the evidence when it is penned by bin Laden’s own hand.

In short, the Abbotabad documents should have been released because they provide a golden opportunity to injure al-Qaeda the social movement.  The anachronistic argument that they should not have been released ignores the reality that today our adversaries thrive more on perceptions of strength and leadership than real world applications of it.

Update May 11, 2012

Tony Lemieux has posted a blog on this topic.