Inside the Late-Life Struggles of Osama Bin Laden

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New documents show the terrorist leader worried about al-Qaeda's portrayal in the media.

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Supporters of Pakistani religious party Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam hold an image of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden during an anti-American rally in Quetta. / Reuters

U.S. officials have long argued that Osama bin Laden was actively plotting new attacks inside the United States right up to the end, including ambitious plans for strikes timed to the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks or designed to derail passenger trains and cause large numbers of civilian deaths.

But that's not the picture of the leader which emerges from Thursday's release of nearly 200 pages of materials recovered from the bin Laden compound after his killing at the hands of American commandos one year ago. The 17 sets of papers include five written by bin Laden and two others that were sent to the terrorist leader by other senior Qaida leaders.

The documents instead portray a bin Laden whose primary focus when it came to the Sept. 11th anniversary was to find sympathetic media outlets that could be trusted to disseminate his message to a worldwide audience.

"We need to benefit from this event and get our message to the Muslims and celebrate the victory that was achieved," bin Laden wrote in an October 2010 letter to a top aide.  "This is a chance to explain our motives for continuing the war."

Bin Laden even had specific ideas for how to maximize the coverage: reaching out to the Arabic satellite channel Al-Jazeera to "cooperate with them by answering any questions" and sending printed, audio, and video materials to CBS or other American news channels "that can be close to being unbiased."

Bin Laden, according to the documents released by West Point's Combating Terrorism Center, was also trying to persuade his putative followers in countries such as Pakistan and Somalia to avoid strikes killing significant numbers of other Muslims, describing such attacks as sins that risked al-Qaida's standing in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

 "We ask every emir in the regions to be extremely keen and focused on controlling the military work ... we could have reached the target without injuring the Muslims," bin Laden wrote in May 2010. "Making these mistakes is a great issue; needless to say, the greatness of the Muslim blood violation in addition to the damage impacting the jihad."

Other senior Qaida figures called for ceasing attacks on Christian targets in the Middle East, arguing that they reduced potential sources of converts and political supporters.

"The Catholics are a fertile ground for call of God and to persuade them about the just cause of the mujahedeen," al-Qaida's American-born spokesman Adam Gadahn wrote in a January 2011 document. "But the attacks on Christians in Iraq ... does not help us to convey that message."

The new documents arrive in the middle of a growing political firestorm over bin Laden's killing, with the Obama administration releasing campaign videos trumpeting his decision to order the high-risk raid into Pakistan and Republicans accusing the White House of politicizing the raid.

Politics aside, the papers paint a more complex picture of bin Laden than that in the public domain since the successful May 2011 assault by Navy SEALs.

The documents leave little doubt about bin Laden's bloodthirsty ambitions. He urges his followers to strike American targets in South Africa and South Korea, which he believed to be less defended than those in Afghanistan and Iraq. He also speaks wistfully of assassinating President Obama and current CIA Director David Petraeus, writing that a President Biden would be "totally unprepared for that post, which will lead the U.S. into a crisis." American officials have consistently said there are no indications those aspirations ever reached the planning stages.

Still, the documents released on Thursday don't appear to substantiate the administration's early claims that bin Laden exercised operational control over much of al-Qaida's activities. Last summer, for instance, an unnamed U.S. official claiming to have been briefed on the documents told The New York Times that bin Laden "continued to plot and plan, to come up with ideas about targets, and to communicate those ideas to other senior Qaida leaders.''

The bin Laden of the documents is a far more nuanced figure, sending specific instructions on how to treat a handful of French hostages but showing little ability to actually plan or direct large-scale strikes himself. 

"It would be nice if you would nominate one of the qualified brothers to be responsible for a large operation in the US," he wrote to an associate, adding that the militant should be able to "live there or it should be easy for him to travel there."

The note, chilling as it is, is a far cry from the bin Laden who coolly dispatched 20 hijackers on well-planned suicide missions that ended in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

"I think they illustrate that bin Laden was connected, but not necessarily that he was in control," said Brian Fishman, a terrorism analyst at the New America Foundation. "Bin Laden was offering advice and strategic guidance, but he clearly was frustrated by the operational choices of various affiliates."

Al-Qaida itself comes across as an organization facing financial difficulties and the challenges of keeping senior leaders safe from American drones. In one letter, anxious Qaida officials ask if they can invest money in the stock market or use proceeds from drug sales to help finance their operations (yes to the former, no to the latter). In another, bin Laden warns associates to travel only on cloudy days to avoid being spotted by U.S. drones.

By the time of bin Laden's death, his hold over Qaida affiliates around the world had clearly weakened. His call for a cessation of terrorist attacks on other Muslims, meanwhile, went nowhere. Last August, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan - a group that bin Laden and his aides had specifically ordered not to carry out such strikes - blew up a mosque in northwest Pakistan, killing more than 50 people. A similar bombing that November killed at least 50 more.

Bin Laden's associates also appeared willing to go their own way on much more mundane matters. One of the documents contains a draft of a statement that Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida's No. 2, planned to release during the Arab Spring.  A senior Qaida figure, possibly bin Laden, made 12 edits, mostly to tone down the missive's self-aggrandizement. Only one of the corrections made it into the finished product.

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Yochi J. Dreazen

Yochi Dreazen is writer-in-residence at the Center for a New American Security and a contributing editor for The Atlantic.

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