Bin Laden's Surprising Taste in Literature

Paul Kennedy, whose book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers appeared among the terrorist’s literature, suspects the al-Qaeda leader didn’t read the whole thing.

A U.S. Army cadet reads a book entitled "Kill Bin Laden" while waiting for U.S. President Barack Obama to deliver an address at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York. (Shannon Stapleton / Reuters)

Updated 4:04 p.m.

On Wednesday, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released what it called “a sizeable tranche of documents recovered during the raid on the compound used to hide Usama bin Ladin.” A sorted list of those materials appears in a slick web production on the ODNI’s website entitled “Bin Ladin’s Bookshelf.”

What Was Released

Among the materials made public were previously classified documents, non-classified documents, and a trove of English-language materials found at Bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound following his death in a raid by U.S. Navy SEALs in 2011. That includes letters, public American government documents, religious sermons, scholarly books written in English, and several digital issues of Foreign Policy, in addition to maps, dictionaries, and a suicide-prevention guide (which the ODNI believes was for someone else in the house).

What It Reveals

As NBC News noted, the library offers titles “that indulged [bin Laden’s] interest in conspiracy theories about the United States” as well as books that were critical of American foreign policy. Offerings from MIT linguist Noam Chomsky, a book about the Illuminati, a conspiratorial and anti-Semitic tract about the global banking system, Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars, and an alternative history of September 11th were also logged.

“In terms of the materials that are there, some of the things that we’ve found to be of note were that Bin Laden was probably an avid conspiracy theorist,” a senior intelligence official told BuzzFeed’s Rosie Gray. “Of the 38 full-length English language books he had in his possession, about half of them were conspiracy theory books.”

Why Now?

Many have noted that today’s release follows a highly controversial report by Seymour Hersh in The London Review of Books last week, which challenged the American government’s story about the death of bin Laden. In addition to positing that the Pakistani government had been holding the terrorist mastermind in detention for years and had coordinated with the United States on the raid that killed him, the article also offered testimony from an unnamed official who claimed that the “treasure trove” of intelligence taken from the compound was fake.

On Wednesday, the spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence told Gray that the release of the contents of bin Laden’s library had “nothing to do” with the Hersh article.

Author Reactions

Paul Pillar, a former CIA intelligence officer whose 2004 Washington Quarterly article “Counterterrorism after al-Qaeda” was found among bin Laden’s documents, said in a phone call on Wednesday that the overall list didn’t surprise him.

“A major theme of the list, and that article of mine would fall into that category,” he said, was that bin Laden was seeking to gaininsight into the thinking of his chief adversaries.”

As for the more conspiracy-themed parts of the collection, Pillar suggested that bin Laden might have viewed them as “possible propaganda material,” that he could use for a Muslim audience. “I think he was a sophisticated enough guy that he would look at some of the crackpot things on the list with a more detached perspective.”

Paul Kennedy, whose book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers also appeared on the list, registered some surprise via email. Kennedy speculated that bin Laden’s assistants might only have read his book’s chapter “about possible American decline” and not the one “on how their religious fanaticism brought them down in the 16th century.”