Osama bin Laden showed disdain for al Qaeda affiliates, fretted about his organization’s image and was deeply worried about its security, according to documents seized from his hideout in Pakistan and released publicly on Thursday.
The Combating Terrorism Center, a privately funded research center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, posted on its website 17 declassified documents seized during the raid on bin Laden’s house in Abbottabad in which he was killed by U.S. commandos a year ago.
Bin Laden “was not, as many thought, the puppet master pulling the strings that set in motion jihadi groups around the world,” an analysis by the center said. Bin Laden “was burdened by what he saw as their incompetence.”
The al Qaeda leader, who was behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, worried about operational security, advising against meeting on roads and then traveling in cars.
Bin Laden expressed concern about Muslims being killed in al Qaeda operations and wanted women and children kept away from danger.
In an undated letter in the summer or early autumn of 2010, bin Laden asked that two teams – one in Pakistan and the other in the Bagram area of Afghanistan – be tasked with spotting and targeting the aircraft of President Barack Obama or General David Petraeus, who was commander in the region at that time.
But they were not to target US Vice President Joe Biden because if Obama were gone, Biden would be “totally unprepared for that post, which will lead the U.S. into a crisis.” But killing Petraeus “would alter the war’s path.”
The 17 documents are electronic letters or draft letters totaling 175 pages in the original Arabic, dating from September 2006 to April 2011. They do not all specify who wrote or received them.
Several of the documents contain signoffs that U.S. experts assessed to have been used by bin Laden himself, including variations of the names “Zamarai” and “Abu ‘Abdallah.” Bin Laden wrote about sending messages via thumb drives or telephone memory cards – the same Arabic word is used for both.
“Bin Laden was bothered by the incompetence of al Qaeda’s affiliates, such as their failure to win public support, their ill-advised media campaigns, and their poorly planned operations that led to the unnecessary deaths of thousands of Muslims,” said Lieutenant Colonel Liam Collins, director of the Combating Terrorism Center and one of the report’s authors.
“Perhaps the most compelling revelation from the documents is that bin Laden was frustrated with regional jihadi groups,” he told Reuters. “He appeared to struggle to exercise control over the actions of the affiliates, as well as their public statements.”
Bin Laden appeared to have a low opinion of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born English-speaking militant preacher accused of instigating several violent al Qaeda attacks from Yemen who was killed in a U.S. drone strike last year.
WEEK BEFORE DEATH
In a letter dated April 26, 2011, a week before his death, bin Laden wrote about the “Arab Spring” revolutions that ousted leaders in the Middle East. He mentioned the need for “inciting the people who have not revolted yet, and encouraging them to get against the rulers and the methods.”
Afghanistan was also on his mind: he wrote that “Jihad (Islamic holy war) in Afghanistan is a duty.” He also expressed concern about “operations that the brothers in Yemen are intending to conduct using poison,” that there should be study of potential political and media reaction against the “mujahidin and their image in the eyes of the public.”
The week before he was killed in a secret operation by U.S. Navy SEALs, bin Laden offered instructions on how to handle French hostages held by “brothers in the Islamic Maghreb.” If the hostages had to be killed, it should be done after events in Libya, but he suggested it would be better to exchange a female hostage, and at a minimum keep the most important male hostage until French elections.
He wrote that a British officer captured by “our brothers in Somalia” should be traded for “our prisoners.”
Bin Laden also worried that children of militants who lived in cities were “one of the most important security issues” and advocated keeping control of them by not taking them out of their homes except for medical care. Parents were also urged to teach their children the local language so they would blend in.
In an earlier letter dated Oct. 20, 2010, bin Laden was worrying about militants’ cars being targeted, apparently for surveillance or attack.
“A warning to the brothers: they should not meet on the road and move in their cars because many of them got targeted while they were meeting on the road. They also should not enter the market in their cars,” he wrote.
He worried about the safety of one of his sons: “Regarding my son Hamzah and his mother, I wish you take all the security precautions that were mentioned before in order to disrupt surveillance on him. He should move only when the clouds are heavy.”
A main conclusion of the West Point analysis is that bin Laden regarded many of al Qaeda’s affiliated groups, including the ones feared by the West, with dismay bordering on contempt.
U.S. and European intelligence officials have said Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which operates from Yemen, has emerged as the most dangerous affiliate.
But seized correspondence shows that bin Laden worried about AQAP and urged its leadership to focus on attacking the United States rather than the Yemeni government or security forces.
The confiscated material also shows that the actions of another affiliate, Al Qaeda in Iraq, were of great concern to bin Laden, especially its ruthless attacks on Shi’ite civilians following the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Bin Laden also apparently wanted to keep al Qaeda’s Somalia-based affiliate, Al Shabaab, at arm’s length, because he was concerned about its poor organization, management and brutality, the study said.
Bin Laden’s relationship with the TTP, one of the main Pakistan-based Taliban groups, was so strained that the group almost came into “direct and public confrontation” with al Qaeda’s central leadership over its indiscriminate attacks on Muslim civilians, the study said.