A newly-released trove of documents recovered from Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad reveals the al-Qaeda leader’s thoughts on everything from the terror group’s future to climate change and the Arab Spring.
In one document, he emphasizes that the group’s war against America was “only halfway finished.”
The documents have been a source of contention ever since they were recovered during the raid on the compound on May 1, 2011. They have been subject to an intensive inter-agency review process, and only a few have been released publicly, largely because they were requested as part of various terrorism-related court cases.
Prominent terrorism scholars, including the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Thomas Josceyln, believe the Obama administration has delayed the release of certain documents out of concern that they would refute the administration’s narrative – that core Al Qaeda has been marginalized and near defeat.
“The White House cherry-picked documents that were released to the public, and the documents they did cherry-pick for release don’t support the analysis that bin Laden was delusional or out of the game,” Joscelyn told Business Insider.
It may take time for many of the documents to see the light of day. Former acting CIA director Michael Morell told Business Insider: “Some of the other documents contain things that would put intelligence sources and methods at risk so they’re not going to be declassified for a long, long time.”
Here are a few of the more notable of bin Laden’s letters and statements revealed today:
“Halfway finished.” In “statement to the American people” most likely written in 2009, bin Laden notes US struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan, and suggests that the already lengthy war is only nearing its mid-point: “First of all, I would like to say that your war with us is the longest war in your history and the most expensive for you financially. As for us, we see it as being only halfway finished.”
Bin Laden would likely consider the war’s starting point to be his 1996 fatwa declaring war on the US, or possibly the US’s stationing of troops in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War — meaning that he expected the jihadist struggle to last a minimum of another 13 years.
Al Qaeda is an extremist organization, but it also exhibits a degree of patience and strategic thinking that stands in stark contrast with ISIS’s fevered apocalypticism and state-building. The “halfway finished” statement emphasizes al Qaeda’s long view of its confrontation with the west.
Exploiting the Pakistani floods. Pakistan was hit with catastrophic flooding in both 2010 and 2011. In a letter on “the implications of climate change,” bin Laden or an associate urged Al Qaeda to use the situation to its advantage.
“For the calamity is considerable and beyond description, whilst requiring massive means,” the author wrote. “To observe this you need to send delegations to look into this tragedy in reality.” He even suggested setting up what would seem to be an al Qaeda-affiliated aid agency: “Owing to the high frequency of such disasters caused by climate changes, the effort must not become merely one of providing temporary assistance, rather, to set up a distinct relief organization.”
This is another window into bin Laden’s thinking. Bin Laden wanted to emphasize outreach and appeal to local needs and conditions as a means of gaining ground-level support. It’s a strategy that’s worked for al Qaeda in Syria, where al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra has allied with and effectively co-opted many non-jihadist armed groups — unlike ISIS, which has either alienated or fought against nearly ever other militant faction in Syria.
Revolution doesn’t work. On the 12th day of the 2011 Egypt uprising (Feb. 5th, 2011) bin Laden or one of his associates wrote a letter predicting that the Egyptian regime could only be overthrown through violent means.
The author goes through the recent history of Arab rebellions, noting that Egyptian, Algerian, and Yemeni protest movements spanning from the 1950s to the present day had all resulted in reactionary, secular regimes hostile to jihadists and their sympathizers.
The solution: violent jihadist revolution, something that the author believed was still possible in Egypt. “Freedom will be achieved only at a high cost. The door will become red from the knocking of bloodstained hands [to achieve] freedom,” the author writes. “I understand completely that exposing the children of the Ummah to battle/death is extremely difficult; however, there is no other means to rescue them.”
Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak resigned on February 11, just days after this letter was written and without the need for a violent uprising, jihadist or otherwise. Sure enough, Egypt is now governed by a conservative secular military dictatorship after a year-long flirtation with democracy.
Alarmingly, from one perspective, events in the country seem to have vindicated an interpretation of recent Arab political history put forward by one of bin Laden’s associates — or even bin Laden himself.
Bin Laden wasn’t a fan of Bush’s State of the Union speeches. Bin Laden or an associate wrote an excoriating rebuttal to an undated State of the Union speech apparently delivered during Bush’s second term, referring to the former president throughout the letter as “the liar-Crusader Bush,” and wondering if “all of his audience reach[ed] an extent that they accept this belittlement and mocking of their intelligence.”
Bin Laden or an associate specifically pushes back against Bush’s claim that 2/3rds of Al Qaeda’s top leadership had been killed or captured. “In regards to the one-half, two-third or three-quarters … whatever delusions or false rumors you may have, I say that you and your criminal security agencies know better than anyone that al-Qa’ida — with God’s graciousness and generosity — are increasing, growing and expanding, despite what you and your Zionist allies say.”
Once again, the author has a point. Al Qaeda continued to expand and grow even after the decimation of its core leadership, following a patient yet energetic franchising strategy and transferring much of its remaining core operations to Yemen. Former acting CIA director Michael Morell told Business Insider that he believes the Syria-based Khorasan group, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and core Al Qaeda in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border regions to be the 3 terrorist groups most capable of attacking the US.
Bush was hardly the last president to overstate US gains against Al Qaeda. In 2012, Obama claimed that “Al Qaeda has been decimated,” only to order airstrikes against the Khorasan Group in Syria in the fall of 2014.
The documents released on May 20th reveal the aspects of Al Qaeda’s worldview and strategic thinking that have made declarations of victory seem increasingly unfortunate and premature.