WASHINGTON: United States intelligence officials on Wednesday released documents they said were recovered during the 2011 raid on a compound in Pakistan where US forces killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
The declassified documents 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 in a letter.
The letter was among thousands of files found by US Navy SEALs on May 2, 2011 when they descended on Bin Laden’s hideout in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad and shot him dead.
The revealed documents also include a loving letter by Bin Laden to his wife and a job application for his terrorist network.
US 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 comes shortly after US 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.
Bent on attacking the ‘West’ again
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.
French economics and conspiracy theory
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.
Jeffrey Anchukaitis, spokesman for the US director of national intelligence’s office, said Bin Laden “appears to have been interested in attacking the economy of France in the hope that an economic collapse there would trigger one in the US or the rest of the Western world.”
US intelligence analysts were not surprised Bin Laden was interested in attacking the economies of west, but Anchukaitis said “it was surprising that he asked for so many books on France. “The spokesman told AFP that “just because he had these books doesn’t mean he was committed to that course of action.”
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 US 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.
IS and Bin Laden
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 organisation in Iraq 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 organise mass attacks with drones overhead and US 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 IS 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.