May 11, 2011: The huge amount of electronic data retrieved from Osama bin Laden's Pakistan hideout has yielded many surprises. One of them, that has been leaked, was that bin Laden was more involved in the planning and direction of al Qaeda operations, and Islamic terrorism in general, than had been thought. During the last decade, it was assumed that bin Laden's second-in-command, Egyptian Ayman al Zawahri, was increasingly running things. Not so. This is not surprising. It's been discovered in the last few years that al Zawahri is rather gruff and hard to get along with. Compared to bin Laden, al Zawahri is heavy handed and not as good at playing the media. Bin Laden appeared to have a more realistic view of where al Qaeda was (in a bad place) during the last decade, and where it was headed (a worse place.) Bin Laden was apparently the one pushing for less terrorism in Iraq five years ago. The massive slaughter of Moslems (even if they were Shia) by al Qaeda in Iraq eventually turned the Islamic world against al Qaeda. Bin Laden was more aware of this than most other senior al Qaeda leaders.
Eventually, the al Qaeda boss in Iraq was removed (via an American smart bomb), and it's long been suspected that the targeting information for that hit was leaked to the Americans on bin Laden's orders. Since the defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq, there has been a shift in tactics, away from killing lots of civilians, and more towards focusing on security forces, especially non-Moslems. This has been unpopular with the al Qaeda foot soldiers, because Western troops are very hard to kill, and too easy to get killed by. Moreover, one of al Qaeda's beliefs is that any Moslem killed during a bombing, who didn't want to be, was simply an "involuntary martyr." While nice in theory, the families of these involuntary martyrs hated al Qaeda for the honor, and bin Laden picked up on this more than al Zawahri.
Bin Laden also provided a lot more encouragement for carrying out terror attacks in the West. That has been difficult because of the massive counter-terror efforts in the West, and the growing unpopularity of Islamic terrorism among Moslems in the West. Bin Laden's documents are probably yielding indications of where al Qaeda was headed, at least according to the founder. Actually, the data analysis tools available to Western intel agencies are capable of detecting patterns of thought and intent in those documents that bin Laden was probably not consciously aware of. Eventually, there will be some interesting books coming out of all that.