Inside the Late-Life Struggles of Osama Bin Laden

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.

Presented by

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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