A letter released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) on 20 May 2015, the “Letter to Abu Abdallah al-Hajj”, was written by an al-Qaeda leader on 17 December 2007. The letter, reproduced below with some editions in transliteration and some important sections highlighted bold, is interesting for several reasons.
First, it shows al-Qaeda keen to defend the Islamic State’s (IS) predecessor in Iraq from criticism, despite the IS movement having ostensibly disengaged from al-Qaeda in October 2006. At this time al-Qaeda was working to untangle the truth of Abu Sulayman al-Utaybi, who defected from IS and took his complaints to al-Qaeda “central” in Pakistan. In this letter, the author shows al-Qaeda’s leadership as rather sceptical of Abu Sulayman’s claims, even wondering if he is perhaps an agent for a foreign intelligence service.
Second, the letter shows al-Qaeda signing-off on the promotion of Jamal al-Misrati to spokesman. Al-Misrati, a veteran Libyan jihadist within al-Qaeda known variously as “Atiyya”, “Atiyyatullah”, “Atiyyatullah al-Libi”, and “Atiyya Abdurrahman”, became one of the most prominent al-Qaeda operatives. Among the first tasks for al-Misrati, the leader says, is to counter the propaganda from Salman al-Awda, a Saudi cleric who now claims to be a moderate, having led the opposition Sahwa movement that had such a significant impact in the development of jihadism. The letter-writer also says al-Misrati needs to refute the “nonsense criticism” from the relatives of Abdullah Azzam, the spiritual godfather of the Afghan jihad.
Third, it demonstrates how keen al-Qaeda was to conceal its working relationship with Iran. The writer says al-Misrati should shoot down the suggestion of an al-Qaeda link to Iran. This is at a moment when most of al-Qaeda’s religious and military leadership is being sheltered in Iran.
It is unclear who “Abu Abdallah al-Hajj Uthman”, the person the letter is addressed to, is. And nor is it exactly clear who wrote the letter, though the range of options is narrow: Usama bin Ladin or Muhammad Saladin Zaydan (Sayf al-Adel), al-Qaeda’s military emir, who was then—and remains—in Iran, where has a close relationship with the infamous General Qassem Sulaymani.
Brian Fishman, who began tracking the Islamic State movement in 2005 and was the director of research at the United States Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Centre, wrote shortly after the letter was released that “the best indications suggest [the letter] was written by either Usama bin Ladin himself or Sayf al-Adl”. When Fishman wrote his book, The Master Plan: ISIS, Al Qaeda, and the Jihadi Strategy for Final Victory (reviewed here), he appeared to settle the question, saying that the author of the letter is “believed by U.S. intelligence officials to be Sayf al-Adl”.
Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, in their new book The Exile: The Flight of Osama bin Laden (reviewed here) write (p. 287) that Bin Ladin dictated this a letter to his son, Khalid, who was killed at age-22 alongside his father in the Abbottabad raid in May 2011.
From the way the letter is written and some of the contents—especially around finances—I tend to think the author is Bin Ladin.
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To the Generous Brother Abu Abdallah al-Hajj Uthman (may God bless you).
Peace be upon you, with God’s mercy and blessings.
I hope you, the brothers, families and children are doing well, and you are closer and closer to God.
1) Your message that you sent to us with Shaykh Abu Muhammad [Ayman al-Zawahiri] and brother Abd-al-Latif has arrived. However, we could not open it and we think there was an error from your side at the time of sending it. Thus, we need for you to please to resend a copy of it, but first make sure it will open.
2) In regard to your previous suggestion to assign Shaykh Mahmud to do the suggested duties, this is good. However, his assignment should include the highest responsibility of messages that are coming from Shaykh Abu Muhammad for a year. Also add one more task to Shaykh Mahmud’s [Atiyya’s] duties. He needs to be one of the spokesmen for the organization. He also needs to be in charge of the preaching, provoking jihad and supporting the mujahideen in hotspots such as Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and the Islamic Maghreb. Also, he should support the Islamic State of Iraq and defend it from any disproval and rumours. He also needs to respond to the front of betrayals, frustrations and inconsistencies led by Salman al-Awda and anyone who is similar to him. His answers should be tranquil not instigating, educated and objective according to the shari’a principles. His responses should address only the people that he selects, because many government spokesmen are unstable and he needs to ignore them. It is better if he comments on what Saudi Arabia’s channels have been circulating, incorrect news that stated al-Qaeda has links to Iran. He also needs to take the first opportunity and talk about both magnificent Shaykhs Abu Ubayda al-Banshiri [Ali Amin al-Rashidi] and Abu Hafs al-Masri [Muhammad Atef] (may God have mercy on them), and their rules in jihad and their rank among the mujahideen. He should respond to any unfair nonsense criticism against them, this disapproval that has been repeating over and over by Abdallah Anas [the son-in-law of Abdullah Azzam] and his son-in-law.
3) In regard to your advice to assign Sa’dun to do some accounting duties, this is good.
4) In regard to assign Shaykh Abu Layth based on Shaykh Abu Muhammad’s recommendation, this is good too.
5) In regard to Yasir’s bail, you did not sponsor him, which is fine.
6) In regard to the messages that are directed to the Emirs of al-Qaeda in countries and regions, these messages need to be signed by me or Shaykh Abu Muhammad. I informed you, and God is my witness.
7) In regard to the delegate [Abu Sulayman al-Utaybi] that visited you and delivered to you a message, they claimed that message was from our friend, then you received something of suspicious accuracy. I am saying to you, it is very important to find out the truth of that delegate and deal with them based on your finding. I am not going to hide it from you, the majority of the delegates are following same path of that man who surrendered our brother Sharif (may God send him free). You need to mention this when you start dealing with them, because it is vital, and these people have no shame in allowing the apostate state intelligence to lead them. The point is, these people are satisfied performing this religion based on what the idol allows them to do. They abandoned this religion; this religion as a whole belongs to God Almighty. Because of them, there is a real threat against the establishment of the Islamic Emirate, and their desire to withdraw from it, and you need to be careful of them. Therefore, every demand will delay and weaken the appointed jihad. You have to reject it and excuse yourself from it, and they must keep in mind that they have no right to give any promises for the state that involve war against Muslims on their behalf. Otherwise, it will be a success run by the intelligence, and do not disclose your secrets to them. When you sit with them, I need you to mention to them that God sets Sahib Sharif free. America will target us everywhere in this life and our position is to defend ourselves and religion. We are with anyone who is interested in jihad or making peace according to shari’a principles.
— In regard to the message suggesting that the fight between Sunni and Shia should stop, we should explain the matter to our friend, because it is based on deception and sophisms. They are the ones who ignited this war and insist to keep it going. It is in their hands; they could make it calm, but their goal is to control the Islamic world, from Iraq to the Arabian Peninsula.
8) I need you please to take the amount of 10,000 dollars out from my account and put it in the mujahideen’s balance.
9) I have recently received the amount of 12,000 euro designated for the mujahideen. Please take this amount from my account that is in your side and put in the mujahideen’s balance. I need you to inform me of this in your next message, so this amount will be accounted for by the designated people. Also, I need you please to take out amount of fifteen thousand Kaldars [rupees] from my account for the mujahideen to purchase three sheep, unless you need the money for something more important.
10) 35,000 euro has arrived from your side, with the message that we could not open, may God reward you with good deed, and please send the rest.
11) I attached a message to brother Bakr, it is important, and I need you please to work together with brother Abd al-Latif to deliver the message to him.
In the end, may God be with you and peace be upon you, with God’s mercy and blessings.
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 “Abd al-Latif” possibly refers to Abd al-Latif al-Kawari, a Qatari-based al-Qaeda financier and security official who had, according to U.S. Treasury sanctions, worked with Mustafa Khan (Hassan Ghul), al-Qaeda’s second envoy to the Islamic State.
 Abu Layth probably refers to Ali al-Rufayi (Abu Layth al-Libi), one of al-Qaeda’s senior military commanders in Afghanistan, who was struck down on 26 January 2008 by a drone strike. An exhaustive profile of Abu al-Layth was written by Kevin Jackson for the Counterterrorism Centre at West Point.