In his final days hiding out in a compound in Pakistan, Osama bin Laden was still trying to control his global terrorist enterprise, while also taking an intense interest in the welfare of his some two dozen children from his five wives.
It’s another side of the al Qaeda leader that was revealed in 49 documents released Thursday. The new material, which comprises many hundreds of pages, is the fourth group of bin Laden documents to be released by the US government since 2012. They were seized from bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad during the raid by US Navy SEALs that resulted in his death five years ago.
The newly released documents were made public the day before the Obama administration transitions to the Trump administration.
In a bin Laden letter dated January 7, 2011 — just five months before he was killed in the US Navy SEALs raid — al Qaeda’s leader wrote to his sons Uthman and Muhammad, saying that he was “longing” to see them, but he regretted that “our security situation does not allow us at this time to be together.”
Uthman and Muhammad, both in their 20s, had been living under some form of house arrest in Iran for many years and had recently been allowed to go free by the Iranian regime. In the note to his sons, bin Laden gave them elaborate instructions to meet someone who lived in the western Pakistani city of Peshawar who could help them with their lives on the run.
Bin Laden — who, as a fugitive for many years, was given to a certain amount of understandable paranoia — told his two sons that he was worried that the Iranians might have injected them with some kind of “shot” before they were allowed to leave Iran. Bin Laden wrote that such a shot might have been “loaded with a tiny chip” no larger than a “seed of grain” that could track their whereabouts.
An undated letter to bin Laden discusses another of his sons, Hamza. In that letter, an al Qaeda member says that he could not send Hamza from his current location in Pakistan’s tribal regions on the border with Afghanistan to join his father in Abbottabad in northern Pakistan because the journey was too dangerous.
Bin Laden sent a letter to Hamza telling him to leave the tribal regions and move to the megacity of Karachi on Pakistan’s southern coast. He told Hamza to make the journey on a “cloudy day,” presumably to avoid being spotted by CIA drones that fly over Pakistan’s tribal regions trying to locate members of al Qaeda.
When the SEALs raided bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad they expected they might find Hamza there, but he wasn’t. Since then, Hamza, 28, has starred in a number of al Qaeda propaganda videos and this month was officially designated as a terrorist by the US State Department.
An undated note from one of bin Laden’s daughters, Khadija, is a rare find because it’s one of the few missives from one of his daughters that has become public. Khadija, who was living on the run somewhere in the lawless region along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, told her parents that she had suffered a number of health problems including malaria and typhoid as well as a miscarriage. In another letter, Khadija wrote there was no electricity where she was living and she was rarely able to use her computer as a result.
Bin Laden stayed in touch with terror groups around the world
While bin Laden fretted over the welfare of his children, in other memos he wrote to leaders of al Qaeda and its affiliated groups, portraying himself as the leader who was setting policy for the global jihadist movement.
Despite his isolation in the Abbottabad compound — where for security reasons he didn’t have phone service or the Internet — the newly released documents show that bin Laden and his top aides still managed to stay in touch with a range of al Qaeda affiliates and other jihadist groups in Nigeria, North Africa, Pakistan and Yemen.
Letters to these groups were carried on thumb drives by bin Laden’s courier and were then uploaded to the Internet far from the hideout in Abbottabad.
In the summer of 2007, bin Laden received a detailed report from his North African affiliate, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), detailing its cash flow and personnel issues. The report asked bin Laden to send more expert instructors from the Iraqi and Afghan war zones to train AQIM’s fighters, and to send surface-to-air missiles.
A letter three years later to AQIM from an al Qaeda leader about a “top secret matter” advised that the “brothers” in the group who were not married could be allowed to “masturbate” to relieve sexual tension.
The same letter suggested that French female hostages then being held by AQIM should be released for ransom of “say 5 million Euros” (almost $7 million). The letter went on to suggest that male hostages held by AQIM should continue to be held and be used to make propaganda videos to be released to the media “every 2-3 months.”
In an undated 26-page memo addressed to the leader of al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, bin Laden made it clear that al Qaeda’s far-flung branches had to remain focused on the main goal of attacking the United States, which bin Laden described as “the head” of “infidel” forces.
Bin Laden also warned his followers in Yemen that while it was the Arab country best positioned to become an “Islamic State,” al Qaeda simply didn’t have the capacity to run a real state. (This advice is in sharp contract to what ISIS decided to do in 2014 when it declared itself to be an Islamic State and “caliphate” that controlled large numbers of subjects and great swaths of territory across Iraq and Syria.)
A report from Nigeria in 2009 gave al Qaeda’s leaders details about a then-largely unknown group, Boko Haram, which has since gained infamy for kidnapping hundreds of Nigerian girls and has proclaimed its allegiance to ISIS.
A memo from the same year by bin Laden painted an extremely unflattering picture of the Shia regime in Iran. In public, the al Qaeda leader was careful to avoid criticism of the Iranians — who were then holding several members of his family and organization in Iran, where they had fled following the fall of the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan — but in private, bin Laden viewed the Shia regime with great disdain, writing that they have a “hatred for the family of Islam.”
An undated memo that may be from bin Laden makes for sinister reading. It advocated the killing of journalists and writers and celebrates the murder of “a BBC photographer” in Saudi Arabia, which appears to be a reference to Simon Cumbers, who was killed in 2004 in a terrorist attack in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, an attack that also targeted BBC correspondent Frank Gardner, who survived but is partially paralyzed and uses a wheelchair.
The bureaucracy of terror
Like any bureaucratic organization, the newly released memos show that al Qaeda had a set of guidelines that it circulated internally. An undated memo for its “administrators” outlined 22 best practices that included the installation of “complaint boxes” in al Qaeda’s guesthouses. The “oversight committee” was instructed to handle any complaints.
There was also an undated ledger for monthly revenues of around $50,000, which al Qaeda members spent on diesel fuel, food, and wedding gifts for members as well as “relocation” costs for its leaders.
A total of 282 documents from bin Laden’s compound have been publicly released during the past five years, as well as 266 related items, such as think-tank studies and US government documents that bin Laden kept in the library he maintained at his Abbottabad compound.
According to US officials familiar with the document haul, between 100 and 200 of the al Qaeda leader’s documents have not been publicly released yet because they are believed to have some continued intelligence value.
Earlier reports about the bin Laden documents suggested there were far more documents. According to US officials familiar with the document haul, bin Laden was a meticulous editor who sometimes made up to 50 revisions on the documents he was writing. A news junkie, he also kept tens of thousands of scanned pages of media articles that his courier would bring to him on thumb drives and which he would download onto his computer.
Those multiple revisions and the large numbers of media articles accounted for the confusion about the scale of the number of documents that were recovered in Abbottabad.
It’s now up to the Trump administration to decide if the remaining bin Laden documents should be released.
Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the author of Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden — From 9/11 to Abbottabad.