TIMBUKTU, Mali — In their hurry to flee last month, Al Qaeda fighters left behind a crucial document: Tucked under a pile of papers and trash was a confidential letter, spelling out the terror network’s strategy for conquering northern Mali and reflecting internal discord over how to rule.
The document is an unprecedented window into the terrorist 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.
The document, found by The Associated Press in a building occupied by the 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 Qaeda’s branch in Africa. The clear-headed, point-by-point assessment resembles a memo from a chief executive to his top managers and lays out for his jihadists in Mali what they have done wrong 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 Sharia 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 letter shows a sharp division within Al Qaeda over how quickly and how strictly to apply Islamic law in Mali.
‘‘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.’’