Other messages sounded a similar theme. At least two came from the head of al-Qaeda’s security unit, a group that had been established to protect against penetrations by informants who might provide targeting tips to the CIA. The group is thought to be behind executions of dozens of suspected informants. In some cases, corpses were found with notes attached declaring that the deceased was an American spy.
The unit leader complains “about having a very low budget, a few thousand dollars,” the official said. The letter refers to “ideas” about how to better guard against informants and electronic eavesdropping. But the most obvious solutions, including restricting meetings and movements, would also hamper al-Qaeda’s ability to function.
Other messages make frequent mention of the organization’s financial hardships, including e-mails in which bin Laden himself complains about the lack of funds. One bin Laden message sent in spring 2010 “instructed a deputy to form a group that would get money through kidnapping and ransom of diplomats,” the U.S. official said.
The message was sent to Rahman.
“The term ‘financial hardship’ was used” in the message, the U.S. official said. But there are no files that provide specific figures or a comprehensive picture of al-Qaeda’s financial position. “There’s not a bank sheet for al-Qaeda,” the official said. “There is some insight into time periods when money was coming in and when it wasn’t and what they were trying to do to get more.”
Kidnappings had been embraced by other militant groups, including the Afghan Taliban, which abducted the Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan as well as a New York Times reporter in 2008.
Several messages contain mentions of militants seen as suitable candidates for al-Qaeda operations, information that has led to an undisclosed number of arrests by other governments overseas, the officials said.
The exchanges read like status updates between a headquarters and a satellite branch, officials said, with bin Laden pressing far-flung followers for more information on their plans, then waiting, sometimes for weeks, for replies.
The cache contains correspondence between bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, who recently succeeded bin Laden as al-Qaeda’s leader. The two express frustration that the conflict between al-Qaeda and the United States is not more widely perceived among Muslims as the front of a religious war. They also voice concern about how insurgent killings of civilians in Iraq and elsewhere could undermine al-Qaeda’s standing among Muslims.
U.S. officials said nothing in the messages indicates that either knew where the other was hiding.
Bin Laden repeatedly prods al-Qaeda’s affiliates to put off their regional ambitions to remain focused on attacking the United States. A 2010 message sent to Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, said that Yemen “was ripe for establishing an Islamic state but that it wasn’t the right time,” a U.S. official said.
AQAP, as the Yemen-based group is known, had already launched high-profile but unsuccessful attacks against U.S. targets, including the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009.
The group expressed interest in moving faster to establish local institutions that would enforce sharia law. But bin Laden cautioned against such efforts, saying they didn’t have adequate support, and said the group needed to stay focused on attacking the United States.
Bin Laden’s messages were mostly composed on computers, then smuggled out on small disks or thumb drives by couriers, who would then copy the contents into e-mails that could be sent securely to followers — whether they were mere miles from bin Laden’s compound or overseas.
The analytic task force was based at a CIA facility in Northern Virginia. Officials declined to disclose the current location of the more than 15 computers and 100 storage devices recovered from the bin Laden compound, except to say that they are in FBI custody.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.