In Timbuktu, al-Qaeda left behind a manifesto spelling out strategy for conquering northern Mali

Al Qaida

While the pages recovered are not dated, a reference to a conflict in June establishes that the message was sent at most eight months ago.

The tone and timing of the letter suggest that al-Qaida is learning from its mistakes in places like Somalia and Algeria, where attempts to unilaterally impose its version of Islam backfired. They also reflect the influence of the Arab Spring, which showed the power of people to break regimes, and turned on its head al-Qaeda's long-held view that only violence could bring about wholesale change, Guidere said.

The letter suggests a change in the thinking, if not the rhetoric, of Droukdel, who is asking his men to behave with a restraint that he himself is not known for. Droukdel is believed to have overseen numerous suicide bombings, including one in 2007 where al-Qaeda fighters bombed the United Nations building and a new government building in Algiers, killing 41 people. The same year, the US designated him a global terrorist and banned Americans from doing business with him.

In a video disseminated on jihadist forums a few months ago, Droukdel dared the French to intervene in Mali and said his men will turn the region into a "graveyard'' for foreign fighters, according to a transcript provided by Washington-based SITE Intelligence.

The fanaticism he exhibits in his public statements is in stark contrast to the advice he gives his men on the ground. In his private letter, he acknowledges that al-Qaeda is vulnerable to a foreign intervention, and that international and regional pressure "exceeds our military and financial and structural capability for the time being.''

"It is very probable, perhaps certain, that a military intervention will occur ... which in the end will either force us to retreat to our rear bases or will provoke the people against us,'' writes Droukdel. "Taking into account this important factor, we must not go too far or take risks in our decisions or imagine that this project is a stable Islamic state.''

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