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-Qaida fighters bombed the United Nations building and a new government building in Algiers, killing 41 people. The same year, the U.S. 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-Qaida 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."
According to his own online biography, Droukdel was born 44 years ago into a religious family in the Algerian locality of Zayan. He says he enrolled into the technology department of a local university before turning to jihad, and his first job was making explosives for Algerian mujahedeen. In 2006, the group to which he belonged, known as the GSPC, became an arm of al-Qaida, after negotiations with Ayman al-Zawahri, bin Laden's lieutenant.
As Droukdel rose through the ranks, he came into direct contact with bin Laden, Guidere said.
In the document found in Timbuktu, he cites a letter he received from bin Laden about the al-Hudaybiyah deal, a treaty signed circa 628 by the Prophet Muhammad and the Quraish tribe of Mecca, an agreement with non-Muslims that paved the way for Muslims to return to Mecca.
"The smart Muslim leader would do these kinds of concessions in order to achieve the word of God eventually and to support the religion," he says.
Perhaps the biggest concession Droukdel urges is for his fighters to slow down in implementing Shariah.
When the Islamic extremists took over northern Mali 10 months ago, they restored order in a time of chaos, much as the Taliban did in Afghanistan, and even created a hotline number for people to report crimes. But whatever goodwill they had built up evaporated when they started to destroy the city's historic monuments, whip women for not covering up and amputate the limbs of suspected thieves.
"One of the wrong policies that we think you carried out is the extreme speed with which you applied Shariah, not taking into consideration the gradual evolution that should be applied in an environment that is ignorant of religion," Droukdel writes. "Our previous experience proved that applying Shariah this way, without taking the environment into consideration, will lead to people rejecting the religion, and engender hatred toward the mujahedeen, and will consequently lead to the failure of our experiment."
Droukdel goes on to cite two specific applications of Shariah that he found problematic. He criticizes the destruction of Timbuktu's World Heritage-listed shrines, because, as he says, "on the internal front we are not strong." He also tells the fighters he disapproves of their religious punishment for adulterers — stoning to death — and their lashing of people, "and the fact that you prevented women from going out, and prevented children from playing, and searched the houses of the population."