New bin Laden documents released
By Greg Miller and Peter Finn
Newly released documents recovered from the compound where Osama bin Laden was killed show that al-Qaeda’s leaders were frustrated in their efforts to manage an emerging group of distant affiliates that showed little discipline or willingness to take direction.
The letters include chilling admonitions to remain focused on killing Americans, cast doubt on suspicions that the governments of Pakistan and Iran collaborated with the terrorist group, and reveal bin Laden’s suspicions about a U.S.-born cleric who was rising through the ranks of al-Qaeda’s group in Yemen.
The documents declassified by the Obama administration represent only a small fraction of the trove of material recovered in the bin Laden raid, a sample that could sow discord within the terrorist network. But the files also provide an intriguing, up-close glimpse into the aging al-Qaeda founder’s thoughts as his life neared its end.
“Our strength is limited,” bin Laden wrote in a 2010 letter that compares the United States to a tree with branches that project across the world. “So our best way to cut the tree is to concentrate on sawing the trunk.”
The details are embedded in a collection of 17 files that were made available online by the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, an organization that had exclusive access to the materials for several months and issued a report summarizing its findings.
The release, which came one year and one day after bin Laden was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs, represents a sample selected by the Obama administration at a time when the president is seeking to make its counterterrorism achievements a central part of his reelection campaign.
Obama and senior administration officials have used the anniversary of the raid to call attention to the president’s role in approving the operation, and question whether his rival, Republican candidate Mitt Romney, would have done the same.
At a time when U.S. intelligence officials regard al-Qaeda’s regional affiliates as a more pressing threat than the core group based in Pakistan, the documents show deep divisions among al-Qaeda leaders over how to handle the disparate groups.
In the 2010 letter to one of his top deputies, bin Laden expressed alarm over the “increased mistakes” committed by the “brothers” in countries including Iraq and Yemen, and he pushed to bring the groups in line.
Bin Laden and others were frustrated with the groups’ attacks on Muslims, clumsy media operations and reluctance to focus their energies on attacking the United States and its Western allies.
Bin Laden appeared to harbor doubts about Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born propagandist for al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen. When the leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP as the affiliate is known, proposed that Awlaki take over the leadership role, bin Laden said no.
Awlaki should “remain in his position,” bin Laden said, and instructed AQAP chief Nasir al-Wuhayshi to provide a fuller resume for Awlaki, and wait until he had been tested in battle. “We here become reassured of the people when they go to the line and get examined there,” bin Laden said. Awlaki was killed in a CIA drone strike in Yemen last year.
Bin Laden appeared to appreciate the capabilities of AQAP, which has been linked to plots including the mailing of parcels packed with explosives to addresses in Chicago and the foiled 2009 effort to blow up a Detroit-bound plane.
“We need to extend and develop our operations in America,” bin Laden wrote, “and not keep it limited to blowing up airplanes.”
Besides bin Laden, others in al-Qaeda’s inner circle expressed exasperation with the clumsy operations and propaganda efforts of regional affiliates. The U.S.-born media adviser Adam Gadahn urged bin Laden and others to dissociate al-Qaeda from franchises that refused to toe the line.
The documents provide at least partial answers to lingering questions about al-Qaeda’s relationship to the governments of Pakistan and Iran.
The West Point report notes that “there are no explicit references to any institutional Pakistani support for al-Qaeda and its operatives,” despite suspicions to the contrary that rose immediately after bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan, a city not far from the country’s capital and the site of its leading military academy.
The Combating Terrorism Center acknowledged, however, that it had no access to the thousands of bin Laden records yet to be declassified. A White House spokesman said Thursday no additional releases were planned.
The letters portray a suspicious, antagonistic relationship between al-Qaeda and Iran, which detained a significant number of jihadis and their relatives in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, including members of bin-Laden’s family.
In a 2009 letter to bin Laden, his close associate Jamal Ibrahim al-Misrati, a Libyan also known as Atiyya, said that al-Qaeda threatened Iran in order to force the release of detainees, and kidnapped the commercial counselor in the Iranian Consulate in Peshawar, Pakistan, to press its demands.
The Iranians appear to have subsequently released some of bin Laden’s family to secure the release of their diplomat, and bin Laden, in a 48-page letter, lays down some elaborate security measures to prevent the Iranians, or anyone else, from using the release to find his location.
Family members should switch cars in the tunnel between Kuhat and Peshawar, and again at a market in Peshawar, he said. “They also should be warned on the importance of getting rid of everything they received from Iran, like baggage or anything, even as small as a needle as there are eavesdropping chips that are developed to be so small.”
The analysts at West Point concluded that al-Qaeda’s ties to Iran were the “unpleasant byproduct of necessity, fueled by mutual distrust and antagonism.’’ And while references to Pakistan’s military are limited, “bin Laden’s emphasis on security precautions suggests that fear and suspicion dominated his calculations,” the analysts wrote.
The complete collection of material recovered from Abbottabad has been described by U.S. officials as an intelligence mother lode — the largest cache of terrorism files ever obtained.
The cache included about 100 flash drives and DVDs as well as five computer hard drives, piles of paper and a handwritten journal kept by the al-Qaeda chief.
The broad outlines of the contents have been known for nearly a year. The cache was initially examined by a special task force set up by the CIA to scour the records for terrorist plots.
The data helped drive a flurry of operations in the aftermath of the bin Laden raid. Within a span of several months, al-Qaeda figures were apprehended in several countries, and several of bin Laden’s closest associates in Pakistan were killed in CIA drone strikes.
But the trove also enabled analysts to assemble a fuller portrait of bin Laden, showing him to be a figure physically isolated from the outside world but surprisingly engaged in the management of the terrorist network.
Bin Laden communicated to his al-Qaeda lieutenants by saving texts to flash drives that were smuggled out of the compound by couriers, who would then transmit the messages using e-mail accounts.
U.S. commandos also found a collection of videos of bin Laden, ranging from unreleased propaganda statements to footage of a more frail-looking al-Qaeda leader, wrapped in a blanket and watching news coverage of himself.
The Pentagon’s release of those videos last year, like the posting of the new files Thursday, seemed designed to discredit al-Qaeda and undermine bin Laden’s mystique.
Staff writer Julie Tate contributed to this report.