WASHINGTON (AFP) — Hunkered down in his Pakistani compound, Osama Bin Laden pleaded with his followers to stay focused on attacking the United States instead of being dragged into Muslim infighting.
Documents 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,” Bin Laden wrote in one of the newly revealed documents.
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 garrison town of Abbottabad and shot him dead.
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 in advance of their release.
Jeff Anchukaitis, spokesman for the US Director of National Intelligence’s office, said the release of “a sizeable tranche of documents recovered during the raid” was in keeping 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 materials for possible release, he said
The documents are Central Intelligence Agency translations of the originals in English, and AFP had no way to independently verify the materials or the accuracy of the translation.
The release came 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 long planned and had not been intended as a response to Hersh’s report.
From the 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 a spectacular fashion.
Mindful of drone strikes taking out senior leaders, Bin Laden frequently refers to security headaches and advises against communicating by email.
He scolded his followers for gathering in large groups and frets about a microscopic bug being inserted in his wife’s clothes.
He laid out plans to groom a new cadre of leaders willing to risk the dangers of joining al-Qaeda, and his associates discussed arrangements for smuggling Bin Laden’s favorite son and likely heir, Hamza, to Pakistan. The 22-year-old would-be-jihadist wrote to his reclusive father to say he was itching to join the fight. Hamza trained with explosives and embraced the terror network that killed 3,000 Americans in the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Speculation still swirls about where Hamza, dubbed the “crown prince of terror” by a British MP, was on the night his father died, and no proof has emerged that he was at the compound. But the documents depict a son describing himself as “forged in steel,” ready to join his father on a journey to “victory or martyrdom,” and a concerted effort by Al-Qaeda to smuggle the young man to his father’s hideout.
Hamza had not seen his fugitive father in eight years, and described the “pain of separation” he felt at age 13 and his hopes of a reunion as a young man of 22.
“You bid us farewell and we left, and it was as if we pulled out our livers and left them there,” he wrote.
After Hamza’s release from house arrest, top Al-Qaeda lieutenant Atiyah Abd al-Rahman wrote to bin Laden on April 5, 2011, one month before his death, detailing three possible ways to shepherd Hamza to his father.
The “least dangerous option” was sending him through Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, which borders Iran, to the teeming port city of Karachi, Abd al-Rahman said, writing under the pseudonym Mahmud.
Meanwhile, Abd al-Rahman arranged for Hamza “to attend a course on explosives,” he wrote.
As the plan emerged, Hamza’s brother Khalid wrote to say Hamza should use a fake ID and driver’s license to safely navigate Baluchistan.
Abd al-Rahman wrote Bin Laden promising to train Hamza in firing various weapons, adding that the young man was “very sweet and good.”
Citing domestic US public opposition to the Vietnam War, Bin Laden argued that the only way to alter US foreign policy was to “start striking America to force it to abandon these rulers and leave the Muslims alone.”
But the documents also highlight deep divisions among the militants over how to wage their terror campaign.
Bin Laden warned 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 wrote.
The correspondence reflects Bin Laden’s “worry that disunity within the global jihadist movement could spell its demise,” said a senior US intelligence analyst.
Bin Laden was stunned by the Arab uprisings that erupted across the region from 2010 and urges his deputies to seize the moment of “revolution” and rally Muslim youth.
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, received a scathing rebuke in a letter from some Iraqi supporters, who demanded they denounce the bloodletting in Iraq.
The Jihad and Reform Front warned 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.”
“If you still can, then this is your last chance to remedy the Jihad breakdown that is about to take place in Iraq, that is mostly caused by your followers,” said the letter dated May 22, 2007.
Bin Laden wrote of the need for large-scale terror operations, even though some of his deputies found it difficult to organize massive attacks as they tried to avert 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, intelligence 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 failed to win 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 excommunicated from al-Qaeda, now controls vast swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria and its online propaganda has been blamed for inspiring attacks from Paris to the Dallas suburbs.