In their hurry to flee last month, al-Qaida fighters left behind a crucial document: Tucked under a pile of papers and trash is a confidential letter, spelling out the terror network's strategy for conquering northern Mali and reflecting internal discord over how to rule the region.
The document is an unprecedented window into the terrorist operation, indicating that al-Qaida predicted the military intervention that would dislodge it in January and recognized its own vulnerability.
The letter also shows a sharp division within al-Qaida'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-Qaida 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 more than nine-page 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-Qaida's branch in Africa. The clear-headed, point-by-point assessment resembles a memo from a CEO to his top managers and lays out for his jihadists in Mali what they have done wrong in months past, and what they need to do to correct their behaviour in the future.
Droukdel, the emir of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, perhaps surprisingly argues that his fighters moved too fast and too brutally in applying the Islamic law known as Shariah to northern Mali. Comparing the relationship of al-Qaida to Mali as that of an adult to an infant, he urges them to be more gentle, like a parent:
"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."
He scolds his fighters for being too forceful and warns that if they don't ease off, their entire project could be thrown into jeopardy: "Every mistake in this important stage of the life of the baby will be a heavy burden on his shoulders. The larger the mistake, the heavier the burden on his back, and we could end up suffocating him suddenly and causing his death."
The letter is divided into six chapters, three of which the AP recovered, along with loose pages, on the floor of the Ministry of Finance's Regional Audit Department. Residents say the building, one of several the Islamic extremists took over in this ancient city of sundried, mud-brick homes, was particularly well-guarded with two checkpoints, and a zigzag of barriers at the entrance.