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Inside Bin Laden Papers: Targeting Americans, Missing Family


In a screen grab from a video released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) on May 20, 2015, Osama Bin Laden rehearses a speech as he appears in a video document linked to "Bin Laden's Bookshelf," a package of declassified materia

In a screen grab from a video released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) on May 20, 2015, Osama Bin Laden rehearses a speech as he appears in a video document linked to "Bin Laden's Bookshelf," a package of declassified materia

“Do you wish to execute a suicide mission?" "What objectives would you like to accomplish on your jihad path?" "Who should we contact in case you become a martyr?" "Do any of your family or friends work with the government? If so, would he/she be willing to cooperate or help us?”

These are just some of the questions on what is basically an al-Qaida job application, one of thousands of documents recovered from Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan by U.S. Navy SEALs in 2011 and made public on Wednesday.

Bin Laden was killed in the raid.

A translated copy of an application to join Osama bin Laden's terrorist network is photographed in Washington, May 20, 2015.

A translated copy of an application to join Osama bin Laden's terrorist network is photographed in Washington, May 20, 2015.

Seeking revolution

The documents released Wednesday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence range from personal letters to bin Laden's son Hamza, to a screed calling for the killing of Americans and the downfall of the West.

“The mission of the global mujahideen of today is to kill a few tens, or hundreds, or thousands of the infidel citizens of America and its western ally countries in their homelands and wherever they are sited on any spot on the planet,” stated one of the papers.

One of the letters from bin Laden to his associate Sheikh Mahmud Atiyah welcomed the “revolutions” and “protest marches” across the Arab world.

“These are gigantic events that will eventually engulf most of the Muslim world, will free the Muslim land from American hegemony,” the al-Qaida leader wrote.

The “next stage will be the reinstating of the rule of the Caliphate,” he said.

One U.S. intelligence official, speaking to VOA on condition of anonymity, said the documents reveal al-Qaida's intentions at the time.

“Bin Laden at the time of his death remained focused on large-scale operations, while other al-Qaida leaders believed smaller operations or inciting lone terrorist attacks could succeed at bleeding the West economically," the official said.

Family business

Interspersed with messages of world domination and strategic discussions with al-Qaida affiliates are letters from bin Laden’s operatives telling the extremist leader that they are unsure if they can smuggle his son Hamza to him. Hamza had been under house arrest in Iran and was released a month before bin Laden's death. He was 20 years old at the time of his father's death.

“I am embarrassed to talk to you about this,” opens one letter. “You are his father and you are our Amir and we will obey. I have the feeling that you are not aware of the security situation here. I tried to find a way to send him to you on the main road, but I was not able to find one due to the intensified security procedures and searches.”

There also were personal notes, although it is unclear who wrote them. Living with bin Laden at the time was one of his wives, Amal; one of his sons; other women and children; and a man described as a courier.

In one of those notes that appears to be from bin Laden to his “dearest and precious” mother, he asks about her well-being and if she has had any dreams or visions. Another letter is to a daughter, Umm Mu’adh:

“How are you and what is your news? By God, I miss you so much. Yes, I miss my pious daughter,” he wrote. “I yearn for the beautiful days I spent with you.”

Still hands-on

Former CIA Director James Woolsey felt the level of detail in bin Laden’s letters showed how intimately involved he remained in al Qaida and its affiliates around the world.

“He may have been only hands-on on paper, but [he was] still giving very detailed instructions about what ought to be done,” Woolsey said.

In a Skype interview with VOA Wednesday, Woolsey questioned the wisdom of the U.S. government’s decision to make the documents public, saying today’s terrorist groups will learn to be cagier.

“I think they would far rather take immediate action to ensure that we can’t do this again. They may find some way to have computers self-destruct if they are operated by someone who doesn’t use the right kind of code,” Woolsey said

“These are smart people and they are used to war, and they are used to deception, and security, and they may be able to find some way to make it harder for us to exploit these types of materials if we come across them or are able to obtain them in the future.”

Intelligence mining

Patrick Skinner of the Soufan Intelligence Group said, however, the material released by U.S. Intelligence shows that bin Laden toward the end of his life was largely an isolated individual desperate for some kind of relevancy.

“It just shows you how aspirational everything was,” said Soufan. “He was still an inspirational figure, his image, but he himself, it appears that he was really disconnected.”

Spokesman Jeffrey Anchukaitis of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said the documents have been studied in detail.

“Analysts sifted through the recovered digital and hard copy materials in search of clues that would reveal ongoing al-Qaida plots, identities and locations of al-Qaida personnel, and other pertinent information of immediate intelligence importance,” he said.

Anchukaitis did not say if any terrorist attacks had been thwarted as a result.

The documents include bin Laden’s advice on how to conduct operations in Yemen, and take advantage of the upheaval in Egypt, Tunisia, regardless of the numbers of Muslims killed in achieving the ultimate goal of a caliphate.

The terrorist leader’s online library included West Point papers from its Combating Terrorism Center, a number of articles on France, a map of Iran nuclear sites, religious documents and material from other violent extremists. Inside the compound also was a guide to the video game “Delta Force Extreme 2.”

Social movement

The documents, said Seth Jones of the Rand Corporation, offer a glimpse of the inner workings of al-Qaida and the man who led the organization.

“What they provide in this sense, is transparency in how the organization operated,” Jones told VOA. “What you really gauge, frankly, is that this is a social movement, that’s not going to go away any time in the foreseeable future.”

“Now, it is important to recognize that this is only a very small tranche of thousands and thousands of documents from the trove captured at bin Laden’s complex. It’s important to keep that in context in looking at these ones that are released,” Jones added.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in a statement that the release followed an interagency review. Hundreds of additional documents are under scrutiny for possible future declassification and release, the ODNI said in a statement.

VOA's Jeff Seldin and Jeffrey Young contributed to this story.

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    Sharon Behn

    Sharon Behn is a foreign correspondent working out of Voice of America’s headquarters in Washington D.C  Her current beat focuses on political, security and humanitarian developments in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Follow Sharon on Twitter and on Facebook.

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