The documents depict bin Laden as a terrorist leader who was fixated on finding a way to assassinate top U.S. officials but who appears to have devoted more thought to the anticipated fallout from such plots than to how they might be carried out.
In a message addressed to his top lieutenant, bin Laden urged his network to pursue ways to kill Obama with an attack on the presidential aircraft, Air Force One — a scheme that U.S. intelligence officials said was well beyond the reach of al-Qaeda’s decimated ranks. The records also identify then-Gen. David H. Petraeus, who was commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, as a priority target.
“The reason for concentrating on them is that Obama is the head of infidelity and killing him automatically will make Biden take over the presidency,” the message said, according to the account by Ignatius, who said he was given an opportunity to view the records. “Biden is totally unprepared for that post, which will lead the U.S. into a crisis.”
Bin Laden described Petraeus, now director of the CIA, as “the man of the hour,” according to Ignatius, and said that “killing him would alter the war’s path” in Afghanistan.
The references in the so-called bin Laden trove to the ambition to kill Obama — and the identification of Air Force One as a potential target — have been publicly reported since shortly after the al-Qaeda chief was killed by U.S. commandos in a raid on a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May. But actual language apparently drawn directly from long passages has not been previously disclosed.
American commandos recovered thousands of computer files and paper records from the Abbottabad compound on the night of the raid. A senior administration official said that declassified portions will be released to the public, in their original Arabic as well as translated versions, in several months.
A senior U.S. intelligence official confirmed Ignatius’s account and said that bin Laden’s messages to his senior followers seemed increasingly out of touch. “I do think it tends to portray him as a man with ambitions that outpace his capabilities,” the official said.
He and others spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the material, and stressed that they have seen no evidence that the “aspirational” plotting against Obama ever posed a serious threat.
Many of bin Laden’s messages were addressed to his operational lieutenant, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, and indicate that he hoped that a Pakistani terrorist, Ilyas Kashmiri, would be charged with developing attack plans.
“Please ask brother Ilyas to send me the steps he has taken into that work,” bin Laden wrote to Atiyah, according to Ignatius. Both operatives were killed in CIA drone strikes within months of the May 2 raid on bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound by Navy SEALs.
The documents also depict bin Laden as deeply concerned that attacks that killed Muslims had eroded al-Qaeda’s support, and that the network’s brand was so damaged it might need to consider adopting a new name.
Bin Laden “spent much of his time brooding and providing guidance that often fell on deaf ears,” a senior Obama administration official said.
U.S. officials said that Ignatius’s access to the documents was approved by the administration and took place at the White House, despite the unflattering references to Biden. Officials from the White House, the CIA and the office of the director of national intelligence declined to comment on the contents of the records or provide comparable access to them.