By Matthew Rosenberg
WASHINGTON: US drones were devastating the upper ranks of al-Qaida, his men were killing suspected spies, and Osama bin Laden wondered: Could an Iranian dentist have planted a tracking device in his wife’s tooth?
“The size of the chip is about the length of a grain of wheat and the width of a fine piece of vermicelli,” he wrote, using the nom de guerre Abu Abdallah.
A few paragraphs later, bin Laden signs off and then adds, “Please destroy this letter after reading it.”
The letter was among thousands of pages of documents and other materials seized by Navy SEALs during the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011, and it was declassified Tuesday with 112 other pieces of writings and letters found in the al-Qaida leader’s hideout.
US officials have said that the intelligence seized by the SEALs during the raid included letters, spreadsheets, books and pornography. Yet only a fraction of the materials have been made public — Tuesday’s release was the second set of documents from the raid to be declassified — and experts have cautioned against drawing broad conclusions until there is more.
The bulk of the materials released Tuesday come from the last decade of bin Laden’s life, and include letters to lieutenants and loved ones, drafts of speeches he was preparing to release and stray bits of operational minutia.
Though there do not appear to be any major revelations, the materials provide a glimpse of bin Laden’s thinking and his struggle to keep al-Qaida’s main branch and its offshoots in line as US drones killed the group’s senior leaders and demoralized its foot soldiers.
Bin Laden’s will
An undated will that bin Laden is believed to have written by hand in the late 1990s was included in the documents released Tuesday.
In it, Bin Laden reviewed his finances, saying he had received $12 million from one of his brothers and that he had $29 million in Sudan, where he lived from 1991 to 1996. If he was killed, he wrote, he hoped his family would “spend all the money that I have left in Sudan on Jihad.”
A senior intelligence official, who the CIA insisted speak on the condition of anonymity, said the agency did not know what became of the money, or if any of it remained at the time of bin Laden’s death. But the will, the official said, was probably important to bin Laden, because he carried it with him for years.
Fear of surveillance
The fixation on the possibility of his own premature death, and the fear of the US efforts to track him and kill him, is a theme that surfaces again and again. In one letter, bin Laden warns that a suitcase used to deliver a ransom could contain a tracking device.
Even people presenting themselves as friends were not trusted. In another letter, which does not appear to have been written by bin Laden, the author relates that a Qatari diplomat visited al-Qaida members in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, and brought gifts, including a “huge” watch.
But after the diplomat left, a militant identified by the pseudonym Abu Umamah took the watch and “smashed it with a hammer” because he was afraid of it.
The latest documents include new details of bin Laden’s apparent struggle to impose bureaucratic uniformity across his terrorist network, including an educational syllabus for new fighters.
Titled a “Course of Islamic Study for Soldiers and Members,” it includes a list of subjects and skills to be taught. (No. 1 is reading and writing.) There is also a reading list of mostly books about Islam as well as lectures ranging from the history of jihad in the Horn of Africa to “a brief word on raising children.”
Bin Laden, who considered himself a student of history, tended to view events through a conspiratorial lens that often distorted his conclusions. The documents made clear, for example, that he believed the West, and the United States in particular, was controlled by a Jewish cabal.
But bin Laden did not reject all things Western. One document released Tuesday outlines the structure of a “chief of staff committee” replicating the structure of a military command staff that originated in 19th century France and is now used by almost all NATO members, including the United States.
The various branches of the staff are laid out numerically, much like the Pentagon. No. 1 is personnel, No. 2 is intelligence and No. 3 is operations. No. 4 is logistics, or what the al-Qaida document calls its “provisions and supplies wing.” The unidentified author added al-Qaida’s own No. 5 role, which could be translated as a morals branch.
The intelligence officials could not say whether the group ever tried to put the command staff structure into practice.
Tuesday’s release was at the insistence of Congress, which in 2014 directed the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to review the material seized in the raid and make as much of it public as possible. It has been a slow process. The review began in May 2014, and the first release, which included nearly 80 documents, books, news media clippings and other materials, did not occur until May 2015.
Most of the documents released in 2015 were notes from bin Laden and his top deputies, and they suggested that the al-Qaida leader spent his final years seeking to direct a terrorist network that appeared to have grown far beyond his control. There was talk of training recruits and of how to select the most talented to carry out major attacks in the West. There were discussions of whom to promote and how to deal with the group’s franchises in the Middle East and North Africa.
In the 2015 release, the intelligence director’s office also made public a list of books found in the compound. There were sober works of history and current affairs, such as “Obama’s Wars,” by Bob Woodward, and wild conspiracy theories, like “The Secrets of the Federal Reserve,” by Eustace Mullins, a Holocaust denier.
Then there was the application for new al-Qaida recruits, which was perhaps the oddest find in the first set of declassified materials. The application blended the mundanely bureaucratic with the frighteningly absurd, asking questions like “Do you wish to execute a suicide operation?” and “Who should we contact in case you become a martyr?”
Whether it was ever used is a question that US officials have not answered.