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US Releases Documents Recovered During Bin Laden 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.

The U.S. government released Wednesday dozens of documents it said were recovered during the 2011 raid on the compound in Pakistan where U.S. forces killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in a statement that the release of the documents followed a "rigorous'' review by U.S. government agencies and "aligns with the president's call for increased transparency consistent with national security prerogatives.''

It said the 2014 Intelligence Authorization Act required the office to conduct a review of the documents for release.

“It is in the interest of the American public for citizens, academics, journalists and historians to have the opportunity to read and understand bin Laden's documents,” U.S. House of Representatives intelligence committee Chairman Devin Nunes said in a statement.

Remaining reports

Nunes said Wednesday's release of 103 new papers and videos is “a step in the right direction.” He added: “I look forward to the conclusion of the ongoing efforts to declassify the hundreds of remaining Abbottabad reports to meet congressional requirements.”

Among the released materials were declassified documents, including translations of purported correspondence between bin Laden, his aides and members of his family; a list of English-language books recovered from the compound, and material published by other militant groups.

The documents allow a personal look at bin Laden as well as shed light on the inner workings of the terror network and discussions about its future.

In letters to his children, bin Laden appeared to be a doting father; yet in letters to al-Qaida leaders, he demands attention to detail, even down to questions asked on the recruitment application for the jihadist organization.

While holed up in his Pakistani compound, bin Laden remained focused on attacking the United States, yet the documents also highlighted divisions among the militants over how to wage their terror campaign.

"The focus should be on killing and fighting the American people and their representatives," he wrote in one of the documents.

'Lone terrorist attacks'

An intelligence analyst told the French news agency AFP: "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."

Bin Laden failed to win the argument. After his death, al-Qaida's leadership called for lone wolf attacks, and the idea of "individual jihad" won out.

He also warned against Muslim infighting, saying that conflict within regimes in the Middle East would distract the extremists from hitting at what he considered the real enemy – America.

The correspondence reflects bin Laden's "worry that disunity within the global jihadist movement could spell its demise," a senior U.S. intelligence analyst told AFP.

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 by al-Qaida's branch in Iraq -- a group that would later morph into the Islamic State.

"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 a letter dated May 22, 2007, from the Jihad and Reform Front.

A July 2010 letter showed that bin Laden pressured al-Qaida groups to heal
local rivalries, even pressuring al-Qaida in Yemen, one of the group's more active affiliates, to make peace with the government and focus on America.

Western spying fears

Bin Laden's final years were haunted by his accurate hunch that he was being hunted by a technologically advanced foe. With his family, he issued ever more detailed instructions as to how they were to avoid leading U.S. agents to him.

According to a letter that was declassified Wednesday and provided by the CIA to AFP, bin Laden warned one of his wives traveling from Iran to be careful as "some chips have been lately developed for eavesdropping, so small they could easily be hidden inside a syringe," he wrote in a September 2010 letter.

Bin Laden told her to "leave everything behind ... since the Iranians are not to be trusted, it is possible to implant a chip in some of the belongings that you might have brought along with you."

The letter was one of scores seized when U.S. commandos stormed a compound in Abbottabad, a Pakistani city that also was home to a Pakistani military base, on May 2, 2011, and killed bin Laden. He was the leader of the militant organization responsible for the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, in which about 3,000 people died.

Also, U.S. intelligence agencies for the first time released the list of English-language texts found at bin Laden's compound.

The books included a number by conspiracy theorists, as well as by U.S. journalist Bob Woodward and linguist and leftist Noam Chomsky. A history of the French economy and an unpublished manuscript of a study called "Did France Cause the Great Depression?" were also found.

Jeffrey Anchukaitis, spokesman for the U.S. director of national intelligence's office, said bin Laden "appears to have been interested in attacking the economy of France in the hope that an economic collapse there would trigger one in the U.S. or the rest of the Western world."

But Anchukaitis told AFP that "just because he had these books doesn't mean he was committed to that course of action. … It means he had asked his lieutenants to bring him information on France.”

Explaining security needs

In other letters, bin Laden struggled to explain to his sometimes reluctant lieutenants why security was paramount, even when it made running a global jihadist operation harder.

"Concerning using the Internet for correspondence, it is OK for general messages, but the secrecy of the mujahideen does not allow its usage, and couriers are the only way," he wrote.

Atiyah Abd al Rahman, bin Laden's right-hand man and a commander known in al-Qaida as Mahmud, balked at the practice.

"The issue is highly complicated. How can we correspond with brothers in Algeria, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia?" Rahman asked in one letter, pushing to use online communication. "Sometimes there is no other means after taking precautions. As for Iraq, we will try, but it is too difficult."

But bin Laden was immovable on the subject.

As a reminder of U.S. technological reach, one of the declassified documents is a list of al-Qaida fighters who were killed or captured in the wake of the 2001 collapse of Afghanistan's Taliban regime.

Next to each name is the error that spelled their doom: One group was bombed after using a satellite phone, another had associated with known Pakistani agents, others gathered too many vehicles in one place even when a US AC-130 Spectre gunship was overhead.

The letters also show the bind al-Qaida found itself in: its experienced jihadists, battle-hardened in Afghanistan, were often known to enemy intelligence agencies and lacked travel papers while its young recruits with the skills and documents to infiltrate the West lacked the patience and training for the war ahead.

Bin Laden's answer to the problem is couched in surprisingly managerial language: "We need a development and planning department," according to the AFP.

9/11 anniversary media blitz

Documents released Wednesday show bin Laden was planning a coordinated media push to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks – which occurred just months after his death. He was planning a video address and jihadist propaganda blitz.

"We are awaiting the 10th anniversary of the blessed attacks on New York and Washington," Bin Laden wrote in letter to his allies. "You are well aware of its importance and the importance of taking advantage of the anniversary in the media to embody the victories of Muslims and communicate what we want to communicate to people.

"I have been in correspondence with the brothers to provide Al Jazeera with several statements when the channel starts covering the attacks on the first of September," he said, referring to the Qatar-based news network.

"I have sent you a video statement about two months ago, but it has not been broadcast in the media yet. I plan to redo it before broadcasting it," he added.

In a separate message dated April 5, 2011, bin Laden's right-hand man, Rahman, offered advice on the content: "It should contain instructions and reminders to the youth and the entire nation. It should be generic and not go into details. It should also urge people to continue on the path of jihad, repentance and return to God."

At the time of his death, bin Laden was also grooming his son Hamza, then 22, to take over as al-Qaida's leader, U.S. intelligence officials told AFP.

Speculation still swirls about where Hamza was on the night his father died, and no proof has emerged that he was at the compound. He has not appeared publicly or made any public video statements in years, and his whereabouts remain a mystery, senior U.S. intelligence officials said.

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-Qaida to smuggle him to his father's hideout in Pakistan.

"Bin Laden at the time of his death had ... planned to bring his son Hamza to his Abbottabad compound to groom him as a successor," a senior intelligence analyst told AFP.

Some material for this report came from AFP Reuters.

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