Documents found in the house where Osama bin Laden was killed a year ago show a close working relationship between top al-Qaeda leaders and Mullah Omar, the overall commander of the Taliban, including frequent discussions of joint operations against NATO forces in Afghanistan, the Afghan government and targets in Pakistan.
The communications show a three-way conversation between bin Laden, then-deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri and Omar, who is believed to have been in Pakistan since fleeing Afghanistan after the collapse of his regime in 2001.
They indicate a “very considerable degree of ideological convergence,” a Washington-based source familiar with the documents told the Guardian.
The news will undermine hopes of a negotiated peace in Afghanistan, where the key debate among analysts and policymakers is whether the Taliban — seen by many as following an Afghan nationalist agenda — might once again offer a safe haven to al-Qaeda or like-minded militants, or whether they can be persuaded to renounce terrorism.
One possibility, experts say, is that although Omar built a strong relationship with bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, other senior Taliban commanders see close alliance or cooperation with al-Qaeda as deeply problematic.
Western intelligence officials estimate there are fewer than 100 al-Qaeda-linked fighters in Afghanistan and last year the UN split its sanctions list to separate the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Both British Prime Minister David Cameron and US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have said some kind of political settlement involving the Taliban is key to the stability of Afghanistan once most Western troops have withdrawn by 2014.
Some communications in the documents date back several years, but others are said to be from a few weeks before the raid on May 2 last year in which bin Laden died.
“Questions and issues come up. They don’t see eye to eye on everything, but it’s clear they understand they have an interest in cooperating [on attacks against NATO, Afghan government and Pakistani targets],” the source said.
“Of those engaged in the conversation, two [al-Zawahiri and Omar] are still alive today and there is no reason to believe that either has substantially changed his views in the last year,” he added.
Al-Zawahiri became leader of al-Qaeda following bin Laden’s death.
The range of the al-Qaeda senior leadership’s interlocutors revealed by the documents has also surprised investigators, the source said.
Bin Laden appears to have been in communication with the Nigerian-based militant group Boko Haram as well as many other militant outfits. As with the Taliban, the question of whether Boko Haram, which has engaged in suicide attacks and bombings in the past year, is in touch with al-Qaeda or one of its affiliates has been hotly debated by analysts.
However, documents in the cache show that leaders of the Nigerian group had been in contact with top levels of al-Qaeda in the past 18 months — confirming claims made to the Guardian in January by a senior Boko Haram figure.
Other papers in the haul are now likely to be declassified. They include memos apparently dictated by bin Laden urging followers to avoid indiscriminate attacks that kill Muslims and pondering a re-branding of al-Qaeda under a new name. The documents include memos stating broad strategic aims, but little “hands-on” planning, according to sources.