When the Navy’s SEAL Team Six killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in May 2011, it was never going to be the end of the story. In many ways, it was just the beginning.
Mr. bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, contained computers, books, letters, technical manuals, maps, and other documents. That intelligence treasure paints a fuller picture of the man behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks: what he read, what he worried about (drone attacks, for one thing), his directions to subordinates, how he communicated with Al Qaeda colleagues, his obsession with security, his relationships with four wives and 20 children, including wedding plans for one of his sons.
The Director of National Intelligence (DNI) has just released what it calls “a sizeable tranche” of documents recovered during the raid. Together, DNI calls the 100-plus items declassified and made public Wednesday “Bin Ladin’s Bookshelf.” (The agency uses the spelling “Usama bin Ladin.”)
Included are 103 newly-declassified items as well as 75 United States government documents, 39 English language books ranging from Bob Woodward’s “Obama’s Wars” to such conspiratorial works as “Bloodlines of the Illuminati,” 40 reports from military and foreign policy think tanks (including the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point), 30 software and technical manuals, and 33 media articles, many of them from Foreign Policy magazine.
For security reasons, bin Laden did not connect to the Internet. This meant that many documents and communications had to be converted to PDF files, which were copied to thumb drives and delivered by courier.
While his interests ranged widely, bin Laden’s attention to – indeed, his obsession with – the United States of America never varied.
He was encouraged by the Arab Spring, writing, "These are gigantic events that will eventually engulf most of the Muslim world, will free the Muslim land from American hegemony, and is troubling America whose secretary of State declared that they are worried about the armed Muslims controlling the Muslim region.”
Bin Laden's view was that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) ought to reach an agreement with Yemeni authorities, who might then leave the group alone "in exchange for focusing on America."
"The purpose is to focus on striking inside America and its interest abroad, especially oil producing countries, to agitate public opinion and to force US to withdraw from Afghanistan and Iraq," according to the translated summary of a letter by a bin Laden associate identified as "Atiyyah."
Bin Laden writes that the 9/11 hijackers "are not exceptional freaks of history, but are the vanguards of a nation that rose up for Jihad, and there are millions of their brothers eager to seek the same path."
What appears to be an Al Qaeda job application form seeks detailed personal information – hobbies, language fluency, criminal record, military training, profession, family members – then asks: “Do you wish to execute a suicide operation?... Who should we contact in case you became a martyr?”
One document found in bin Laden’s compound titled “Terror Franchise THE UNSTOPPABLE ASSASSIN” and filled with references to America and Israel – which may have been more wishful thinking that operational planning – talks about using cyanide and ricin to attack Western targets.
The Navy SEALs' raid on bin Laden’s compound ended his life a few months before the 10th anniversary of the attacks of 9/11, a date he planned to take advantage of.
"We are awaiting the tenth anniversary of the blessed attacks on New York and Washington which will be in nine months," bin Laden wrote to his colleagues. "You are well aware of its importance and the importance of taking advantage of the anniversary in the media to embody the victories of Muslims and communicate what we want to communicate to people."
He was working on a video to be broadcast on that date.
The just-released documents do not appear to substantiate investigative journalist Seymour Hersh’s claim that the Obama administration was lying in its account of the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan.
Reuters reports that a document dated July 2010 addressed to "Abu Abdullah," which is one of bin Laden's noms de guerre, from an operative named Mahmud indicated links between Al Qaeda and Pakistan's intelligence services, which Pakistan has repeatedly denied.
It said that after Al Qaeda leaked information that it was planning "large-scale destructive operations in Pakistan," but had then "halted the operations in an attempt to calm the situation and absorb the pressure from the Americans," Pakistani intelligence "began sending people to us."
In a statement Wednesday, DNI spokesman Jeffrey Anchukaitis said, “The Intelligence Community will be reviewing hundreds more documents in the near future for possible declassification and release.”
“An interagency taskforce under the auspices of the White House and with the agreement of the DNI is reviewing all documents which supported disseminated intelligence cables, as well as other relevant material found around the compound,” he said. “All documents whose publication will not hurt ongoing operations against al-Qa‘ida or their affiliates will be released.”