Bin Laden’s letters reveal a terrorist losing control
WASHINGTON — A trove of never-before-seen letters by Osama bin Laden portray the terrorist leader as an irritated boss chiding his underlings for mistakes yet sure that they could pull off elaborate attacks against the United States.
U.S. Navy SEALs took the correspondence after they killed bin Laden in a raid on his Pakistan compound in May 2011. On Thursday, the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, released 17 letters totaling 175 pages, with more documents to be made public later.
U.S. officials say that the documents recovered in the compound — about 6,000 worth — were written between September 2006 and April 2011 and were recovered from five computers, dozens of hard drives and more than 100 storage devices. The cache has been described as the single largest batch of senior terrorist material ever obtained.
CNN reviewed the released papers, which can be read in full here.
Taken as a whole, the letters suggest that al Qaeda senior leadership couldn’t decide on how to move forward. What tactics should they use? Do they need better strategy? A segment of the records reveals that bin Laden was revamping al Qaeda’s media strategy, particularly in the wake of the Arab Spring protests, a movement toward freer societies in the Middle East and North Africa. He wanted to launch a publicity campaign that would inspire those who had “not yet revolted.”
As a leader, bin Laden reveals himself to be hot-tempered and annoyed that the terrorist network he built had too many uncontrollable affiliates around the globe. At one point, he demands that four senior figures in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula write their own detailed self-reviews and send them to him.
Jealousy, hair dye and admitting mistakes
As a man, he seemed given to the same vanities and tasteless musings of any aging power player. He was coloring his graying hair with Just for Men dye, taking Viagra and making bad jokes about having multiple wives.
But, at the same time, he wrote that he was concerned for at least one of the women and was also deeply worried that his adult sons were being watched and should be careful when traveling. In other points in the letters, bin Laden appears jealous of a Yemeni cleric whom followers had grown to admire.
In summer 2010, bin Laden appears so desperate to re-energize al Qaeda that he calls for admitting that attacking inside Muslim countries has been a mistake for which members should apologize. In urging more U.S. and U.S.-related targets, he wrote, “Making these mistakes is a great issue … as a result the alienation of most of the nation from the Mujahidin.
“For the brothers in all the regions to apologize and be held responsible for what happened.”
CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen was the only journalist to get early access to some of the documents while researching his new book “Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden From 9/11 to Abbottabad.” Bergen was also allowed inside the compound and saw the walls spattered with bin Laden’s blood after a SEAL shot him.
Bergen described his reporting in an exclusive interview with CNN this week, suggesting that bin Laden was an “inveterate micromanager but was also someone almost delusional in his belief that his organization could still force a change in American foreign policies in the Muslim world.”
But that didn’t mean he lacked ambition.
Bin Laden wanted to see another major terrorist attack occur in the United States and wanted to kill President Barack Obama and Gen. David Petraeus when he was the commander of international forces in Afghanistan. Bin Laden ordered that units be established at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and in Pakistan to target planes carrying Petraeus or Obama.
Vice President Joseph Biden should not be attacked, he instructed.
“Good manners, integrity, courage”
“Biden is totally unprepared for that post.”
If Obama were killed and Biden took control of the White House, bin Laden wrote, it would “lead the US into a crisis.”
If Petraeus were killed, he reasoned, it would alter the course of the war.
Writing to one of his top lieutenants in 2010, he said he wanted “qualified brothers to be responsible for a large operation in the US.”
He wanted high-ranking al Qaeda brass to nominate al Qaeda members distinguished by “good manners, integrity, courage and secretiveness, who can operate in the US.”
Bin Laden still believed that attacks in the air worked well. He urged about 10 “brothers” — preferably from the Gulf states — to be sent to “study aviation” so they could carry out suicide attacks.
In an undated letter, unsigned but believed to have been written by bin Laden, the author likened the U.S. to a tree and its allies and cooperating Muslim countries as the branches. The writer explains that al Qaeda and its affiliates make up the saw that will slowly cut down the tree, after which its branches will die.
“Our abilities and resources, however, are limited, thus we cannot do the job quickly enough. The only option we are left with is to slowly cut that tree down by using a saw. Our intention is to saw the trunk of that tree, and never to stop until that tree falls down.”
Better coordination among al Qaeda ranks was an absolute must, the documents suggest.
“It would be good if you coordinate with our brothers of the Pakistan and Afghanistan Taliban in regards to the external work, so that there is complete cooperation between us, and tell them that we started planning work inside America many years ago,” bin Laden wrote in late May 2010 to an unknown recipient.
Al Qaeda had “gained experience in that field” and should know how the get the job done.
A new media message
On the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, bin Laden was concentrating on how to craft the perfect media message. He suggested that al Qaeda contact Al Jazeera.
“If al-Jazirah shows responsiveness, we should contact the correspondent of al-Jazirah Arabic and English and tell them that we are willing to cooperate with them in the area of covering the tenth anniversary by answering any questions that you think the public is interested in.”
He wanted to approach media in the U.S. and perhaps push for a documentary that al Qaeda would help with.
“We should also look for an American channel that can be close to being unbiased, such as CBS, or other channel that has political motives that make it interested in broadcasting the point of view of al-Mujahidin,” he wrote. “Then we can send to thee channel the material that we want the Americans to see.
“Tell them that we suggest that they make a documentary on this anniversary and we will provide them with printed, audio and video materials.”
He wrote that he was concerned that a “lack of coordination” was becoming a problem for the terrorist group. He warned against making “errors” like the ones that “happened easily” with 30-year-old Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad, who attempted to detonate a car bomb in New York’s Times Square on May 1, 2010. The bomb didn’t go off, and Shahzad was arrested two days later, trying to leave the U.S. on a flight to Pakistan.
A fresh start, a new name
Bin Laden was so concerned about affiliate groups — in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia — that by 2010, he was even suggesting repackaging al Qaeda’s brand.
Al Qaeda in Arabic means “The Base.” It was first used in reference to muhajedeen who battled the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Some of the newly released documents show that al Qaeda members were considering a more general “Jihad Group,” kind of a one-size-fits-all Mayhem Inc. outfit.
“I plan to release a statement that we are starting a new phase to correct (the mistakes) we made; in doing so we shall reclaim, God willing, the trust of a large segment of those who lost trust in the jihadis,” he wrote in a lengthy letter between July and October 2010 that was sent to one of his top lieutenants, Attiyatullah.
He says that “the brothers in all the regions” should “apologize and be held responsible for what happened.”
Bin Laden was a tough boss. In one letter written between July and October 2010, he demanded that four senior figures within the affiliate al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula based in Yemen (his home country) write self-reviews of why their groups had mistakes. One of those figures is radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaqi, by then an Internet “rock star” among jihadists.
Too many franchises
If bin Laden were a CEO, he was dealing with far too many middle managers. He wrote that he was concerned about the al Qaeda franchise in Iraq killing too many civilians and consequently attracting too much heat from coalition forces.
It was a waste of energy to target governments, as al Qaeda in Iraq was doing, he said.
Bin Laden struggled to get his followers to focus instead on U.S. interests in non-Muslim states such as South Korea, “where we have no bases or partisans or Jihadist groups that could be threatened by danger.” He also suggested targeting Americans in South Africa because it is outside the Islamic Maghreb.
“On (August) 7, 2010, he wrote to the leader of the brutal al-Shabaab militia in Somalia to warn that declaring itself part of al Qaeda would only attract enemies and make it harder to raise money from rich Arabs,” Bergen noted.
But seven months later, al-Shabaab did just that, announcing a merger with the organization now headed by Ayman al-Zawahiri.
A U.S. intelligence bulletin after the announcement suggests that the relationship could undermine efforts by al-Shabaab supporters in the United States.
The letters also contain advice to the leader of Al-Shabaab not to identify his group as being part of the larger terrorist network so it wouldn’t put off potential financial donors.
Bin Laden’s Arab Spring problem
In addition to his faltering grip on al Qaeda’s franchises, bin Laden’s ideology was in jeopardy when the Arab Spring started in the Middle East and North Africa in 2011. Bin Laden called the movement toward more free and open societies in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere a “formidable event” in the modern history of Muslims.
He wrote in April 2011 that he intended to use the media to deal with that.
Bin Laden wanted al Qaeda to launch a campaign in the Arab world, he wrote, to incite “people who have not yet revolted and exhort them to rebel against the rulers.”
But he also wanted to invest in educating Muslims that they shouldn’t settle for “half-solutions,” according to the Combating Terrorism Center’s analysis.
“Given that the enemies have knowledge of and experience with the Arabs and their history, they have learned that Arabs have dangerous qualities that make them suitable to quickly carry out the call to Jihad,” he wrote.
The “enemies” have launched a “destructive media bombardment against Arab culture and their characteristics.”
As proof, he offered that the BBC translates its stories in Arabic. He argued that China has more people than the Arab world, so why wouldn’t the BBC give top priority to translating stories in Chinese?
“It was possible for the voice of the British Empire to reach 40% of the world’s population through just its broadcast, but their primary concern was with destroying the Arabs via the media,” he wrote.
Attack of the drones
While he busied himself with crafting a clever media message, bin Laden was also concerned the U.S. drone strikes were hurting al Qaeda in Pakistan.
In October 20, 2010, he wrote, “I am leaning toward getting most of the brothers out of the area.”
He continued, “We should leave the cars because they are targeting cars now, but if we leave them, they will start focusing on houses and that would increase the casualties of women and children.”
He warned his men that they should “not meet on the road and move in their cars” and noted that “Americans have great accumulative experience in photographer in the area due to the fact that they have been doing it in the area for many years.”
It’s best to stick to rougher, more mountainous terrain that has rivers and trees, because those areas are harder to surveil, he wrote.
He reminded his followers to move “when the clouds are heavy.” Concerned about the group’s finances, he also urged them to discard bags that carry money in case the bags were carrying chips that might disclose the user’s whereabouts.
He gave one more piece of advice: Don’t speak on the phone or through the Internet.
It’s best, he said, to communicate by letters.
Credit: Ashley Fantz, CNN. CNN’s Pam Benson, Peter Bergen, Tim Lister, Jamie Crawford, Suzanne Kelly, Nic Robertson, Mike Mount and Paul Cruickshank contributed to this report.