Declassified documents reveal Al Qaeda chief did not support the ‘lone wolf’ attacks that have become de rigueur for extremist group.
Hunkered down in his Abbottabad compound, Osama bin Laden pleaded with his followers to stay focused on attacking the United States instead of being dragged into Muslim infighting. Documents that were declassified on Wednesday shed new light on the mindset of Al Qaeda’s founder, his debates over tactics, his anxiety over Western spying and his fixation with the group’s media image.
“The focus should be on killing and fighting the American people and their representatives,” the late Al Qaeda figurehead wrote. The letter was among thousands of files found by U.S. Navy SEALs on May 2, 2011 when they descended on bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad and shot him dead.
U.S. intelligence agencies have now declassified more than 100 of these documents taken from bin Laden’s archive, after lawmakers ordered the move and critics accused the CIA of withholding material. AFP was given exclusive access to the documents ahead of their release, and they have since been posted online by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Jeff Anchukaitis, spokesman for the office, said the release of “a sizeable tranche of documents” was in line with President Barack Obama’s call for “increased transparency.” It was also in accordance with a law obliging the spy agencies to review all the bin Laden material for possible release, he said.
The documents released are English translations of the originals, and AFP had no way to independently verify the materials or the accuracy of the translation.
The release came shortly after U.S. journalist Seymour Hersh alleged that Washington’s official account of the hunt for bin Laden and the raid that led to his death was a lie. But CIA spokesman Ryan Trapani said the declassification had been planned for at least a year and had not been intended as a response to Hersh’s report.
From strategic and theological discussions to the mundane details of domestic funding and security measures, the documents show the man behind 9/11 preoccupied with once again attacking the West in spectacular fashion. Mindful of drone strikes taking out senior jihadist figures, bin Laden frequently refers to security headaches and advises against communicating by email. He scolds his followers for gathering in large groups and frets about a microscopic bug being inserted in his wife’s clothes. He lays out plans to groom a new cadre of leaders, and his associates discuss arrangements for smuggling bin Laden’s favorite son and likely heir, Hamza, to Pakistan.
The spy agencies also released a list of English language books and articles found in bin Laden’s compound. The “bookshelf” of PDF files showed the Al Qaeda leader was particularly interested in France’s economy and conspiracy theories—including those questioning accounts of the 9/11 attacks.
Intelligence officials said the texts suggested bin Laden was possibly planning to strike at the French economy in hopes of triggering a wider collapse in the West. Before he was killed, bin Laden wrote of plans for an elaborate propaganda blitz to mark the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. And among the material posted by U.S. spy agencies was an unreleased video in which bin Laden appears to stumble delivering a speech.
But the documents also highlight deep divisions among the militants over how to wage their terror campaign. Bin Laden warns that conflict with regimes in the Middle East would distract the extremists from hitting hard at what as far as he is concerned is the real enemy—America. “We should stop operations against the army and the police in all regions, especially Yemen,” he writes.
Al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq, which would later morph into the Islamic State group, and which now increasingly overshadows Al Qaeda, also comes up in the documents.
Bin Laden and his then deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, receive a scathing rebuke in a letter from some Iraqi supporters, who demand they denounce the bloodletting in Iraq. In a letter dated May 22, 2007, the Jihad and Reform Front warns Bin Laden that God will hold him to account “for blessing the work done by the Al Qaeda in Iraq organization without disavowing the scandals that are committed in your name.”
Bin Laden writes of the need for large-scale terror operations, even though some of his deputies are finding it difficult to organize mass attacks with drones overhead and U.S. eavesdropping. One document recently declassified in a terrorism trial in New York but not released on Wednesday quotes Abu Musab al-Suri, an Al Qaeda veteran, who advocates going after smaller targets of opportunity as a more realistic approach, officials said. “Bin Laden at the time of his death remained focused on large-scale operations while other Al Qaeda leaders believed smaller operations, or inciting lone terrorist attacks, could succeed at bleeding the West economically,” the intelligence analyst said.
Bin Laden lost the argument. After his death, Al Qaeda’s leadership called for lone wolf attacks, and Suri’s idea of “individual jihad” has won out.
The I.S. group, which was officially rejected by Al Qaeda, now controls vast swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria and its online propaganda has been blamed for inspiring attacks from Paris to the Dallas suburbs.