TIMBUKTU, Mali -- In their hurry to flee last month, al-Qaida 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 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 strictly to apply Islamic law, with its senior commander expressing dismay over the whipping of women and destruction of Timbuktu's ancient monuments.
It leaves no doubt, moreover, 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 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 Osama bin Laden appointed to run al-Qaida's branch in Africa. The clear-headed, point-by-point assessment resembles a memo from a CEO to top managers and lays out for his Mali jihadists what they have done wrong in months past, and what they need to do to correct their behavior.
Mr. Droukdel, the emir of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, perhaps surprisingly argues that his fighters moved too fast and brutally in applying Islamic law, or Shariah, to northern Mali.
He scolds his fighters for being too forceful and warns that if they don't ease off, their entire effort might be in jeopardy.
The letter is divided into six chapters, three of which the Associated Press recovered, along with loose pages, on the floor of the Ministry of Finance's Regional Audit Department. Residents said the building, one of several the Islamists took over in this ancient city, was particularly well-guarded with two checkpoints and entrance barriers.