Osama bin Laden may have been the evil mastermind behind the world's most successful terrorist group. But in his final days, he sounded more and more like your great aunt Henrietta: nagging his subordinates for not hating America enough — the terrorist equivalent of telling the kids to get off his lawn — and getting awfully confused about this whole email thing.
These are just some of the revelations contained in a selective declassification of documents taken from bin Laden's Abbottabad compound during the Navy SEAL raid that killed him. Coming on the heels of the raid's anniversary, the document release is an evident attempt at driving a wedge between al Qaeda's remaining terrorists and their dead leader's legacy. But they still contribute to a deeper understanding of what al Qaeda is 10 years after the 9/11 attacks.
The documents don't show many weapons striking fear into al Qaeda's hearts. (Surprisingly, there's no mention of the drones that harass al-Qaida in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.) Except for one unlikely warbird: Russian helicopters, used to attack terrorists in Algeria. Along with the infrared sensors "provided to the Algerian tyrant by the Americans," wrote one of bin Laden's acolytes, the "laser-guided missiles" fired by the MI-34s "are impacting on the four-wheel-drive vehicles, which are indispensable in the Sahara Desert". The terrorist begged Osama for cash "for good-quality weapons to counter these menacing helicopters; the mujahidin don't have single one of them, nor a single missile."
Osama bin Laden didn't really use email. Or, at least, that was what US officials told reporters after last year's raid. In order to stop US spies from eavesdropping on his communications, they said, bin Laden would give couriers thumb drives packed with his messages that they would email out from anonymous accounts at internet cafes.
But it may be that bin Laden just wasn't that familiar with how email worked.
"I have sent you also a file named Attachments for Shaykh Mahmud," reads a message bin Laden typed, redundantly, to that very Shaykh Mahmud. Sure, it's a cheap shot. But recall that bin Laden was a man in his 50s who spent much of his life living in technologically austere conditions. No wonder attachments mystify him the same way they confuse great-aunt Henrietta.
Among Osama's top complaints about the next generation of terrorists was that they just didn't care enough about killing Americans. Toward the end of his life, he started sending out clear instructions for targeting them — even when it made little military sense.
"If we were on the road between Qandahar and Helmand and army vehicles of Afghanis, NATO and Americans drove by, we should choose to ambush the American army vehicles, even though the American army vehicles have the least amount of soldiers," bin Laden wrote to a deputy. "The only time you are allowed to attack the other army vehicles is if those army vehicles are going to attack our brothers. In other words, any work to directly defend the mujahidin group will be excluded from al Qaeda's general politics policy because the mujahidin group should be able to carry out its mission, which is striking American interests."
Bin Laden kept harping on the point, even when it led to bizarre advice. "Whatever exceeds our capability or what we are unable to disburse on attacks inside America, as well as on the Jihad in open fronts, would be disbursed targeting American interests in non-Islamic countries first, such as South Korea," he urged in a separate communique. (There have never been any al-Qaida attacks in South Korea.)
"US Sees Iranian, al Qaeda Alliance" read the Wall Street Journal headline last July, purporting to reveal signs picked up by US spies that an unlikely partnership between Shiite and Sunni extremists had developed. That was definitely not the case when bin Laden was alive.
Much discussion between bin Laden and his deputies about Iran concerned how to get top al-Qaida operatives like the Egyptian Saif al-Adel out of Iranian captivity. Some of the chosen tactics were evidently violent. Wrote ‘Attiya, one of bin Laden's chief deputies, "We believe that our efforts, which included escalating a political and mediacampaign, the threats we made, the kidnapping of their friend the commercialcounselor in the Iranian Consulate in Peshawar, and other reasons that scared them based on what they saw [we are capable of], to be among the reasons that led them toexpedite [the release of these prisoners]."
‘Attiya used the term "Rafidah" to refer to Iranians, a derogation implying that Shiites rejected the true Islamic faith.
On the other hand, ‘Attiya also grew concerned that members of al-Qaida were too eager to fight the Iranians. "They used to write to us and blame us for being negligent with regards to the ‘Rafidi' issue, and blame us for not envisioning the Iranian Rafidi danger and others," ‘Attiya wrote, apparently to bin Laden, "and they used to say, "The Rafidi" danger is greater than the American danger!!'" However nettlesome the Iranians were, to bin Laden, the Americans were always the main target.
Ayman Zawahiri, now al Qaeda's leader. Image: IntelCenter
Ayman Zawahiri was one of bin Laden's most important allies. An Egyptian religious fanatic, he was considered the ideological backbone fortifying bin Laden's charisma and took over leadership of al Qaeda last year.
Not everyone in al Qaeda is happy about that. One terrorist, using the nom de guerre "Abu Abdallah" to refer to bin Laden, expressed disgust with "Shaykh Ayman" in an email to a colleague that made its way to Abbottabad.
"How true is what I hear from people aligned with religious students, who may be biased, that Shaykh Ayman al-[Zawahiri] is the most influential man in the organisation, and that Abu ‘Abdallah is like a puppet on his hand, and that Abu ‘Abdallah has given authority to Zawahiri to run everything, though the former disagrees with some of Shaykh Ayman's behavior?" wrote an al-Qaida operative in Yemen. "(This is what some of the enemies or hated families in the peninsula and elsewhere are saying). This really has me agitated, and I don't accept it. But I wanted to verify with you the role of Shaykh Ayman. Has al-Qa'ida been tinged with his ideology and opinions, and is Abu ‘Abdallah not the most influential man in the organization?"
Bin Laden wasn't just a terrorist. He was a narcissist. Obsessed with his image, he dyed his grey beard black before filming propaganda videos. And however much he hated America, he and his deputies were positively obsessed how they came across in American media.
"We should also look for an American channel that can be close to being unbiased, such as CBS, or other channel that has political motives that make it interested in broadcasting the point of view of al- Mujahidin," bin Laden wrote shortly before his death. "Then, we can send to the channel the material that we want the Americans to see. You can ask brother Azzam about the channel that you should send the tape to and let me know your opinion and his."
"Brother Azzam" is bin Laden's California-bred (and ex-metalhead) media deputy, Adam Gadahn. Gadahn tracked the press like he worked for Fishbowl DC. Fox News will "die in anger," he predicted. CNN "seems to be in cooperation with the government more than the others." And he fell out of love with MSNBC.
"I used to think that MSNBC channel may be good and neutral a bit," Gadahn observed, "but is has lately fired two of the most famous journalists — Keith Olberman [sic] and Octavia Nasser [sic] the Lebanese — because they released some statements that were open for argument." Nasr was actually fired from CNN after seeming to praise Hezbollah. ("It seems she is a Shia," Gadahn speculated.)
Bin Laden's US media diet even got occasionally eggheaded. To refute the idea that the US was on the side of the angels during the Arab Spring, bin Laden suggested reading "the RAND centre publications, especially the books ‘Civil and Democratic Islam,' and ‘Building Moderate Muslim Networks'", since the monographs "emphasise that the US's interests are with secularists and reformists because they are the true allies."
All this media obsession was meant to protect al-Qaida's brand. But the group's own offshoots kept trashing it. A flunky wrote to bin Laden about the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq: "They said Abu Hamzah is much more bloodthirsty and more enthusiastic about [killing], is tyrannical in his dealings with others, and has no patience for anyone who disagrees with him, etc." Much easier to attack Fox News than rein in bloodthirsty terrorists who thought they were only following in bin Laden's footsteps.