Among the documents seized in the raid were thousands of electronic memos and missives that captured conversations between bin Laden and his deputies around the world, U.S. officials say. Because the security-conscious bin Laden had no Internet connection, the documents were hand-delivered by couriers over circuits that would require up to a month to complete.
Despite bin Laden’s physical isolation, the documents show him as a hands-on manager who participated in the terrorist group’s operational planning and strategic thinking while also giving orders and advice to field operatives scattered worldwide. The exchanges were described in interviews, as well as in new books, including “Manhunt,” by Peter L. Bergen, and “Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of al Qa’ida After 9/11,” by Seth G. Jones.
“He was not a recluse; he was the CEO of a global terrorist organization,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA counterterrorism official and White House adviser on terrorist groups. “He was receiving communications from al-Qaeda’s operatives literally around the world, and he was instructing them to carry out acts of terror.”
But bin Laden was a weakened leader, presiding over a group that had lost scores of key operatives to U.S. drone strikes while being pursued around the world. Increasingly, bin Laden’s musings about future terrorist strikes took on a fanciful air, given the group’s dwindling resources. Occasionally his talk of bold attacks was met with shrugs and skepticism, said one senior U.S. counterterrorism official familiar with the documents.
“It was a classic headquarters-vs.-field mentality,” the official said. “Headquarters thinks it knows better and instructs the field to do something, and the field manager says, ‘Boss, you don’t know what kind of stress we’re under.’ ”
Among those offering advice to bin Laden was Atiyah, a rising star within al-Qaeda’s upper echelon who helped engineer the group’s successful suicide attack on a CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan, in December 2009. Atiyah had posed for a phony secret video made by a supposed Jordanian spy to win the trust of U.S. intelligence operatives, a key step in luring the agency into a deadly trap.
Atiyah, slim with a youthful, wispy beard, commiserated with bin Laden about the group’s mounting problems while occasionally indulging in wistful planning for a grand strike against the United States that would reverse al-Qaeda’s decline.
The two found common cause in their drive to break the group’s affiliates of their use of high-casualty attacks on Muslim civilians. In March 2011, less than two months before bin Laden’s death, Atiyah warned jihadists against bombing marketplaces, mosques, playgrounds and other sites where innocent Muslims were likely to be killed.
Supervision of such high-
impact operations should not be delegated to field commanders but rather “assigned to trusted specialized committees of seekers of religious knowledge and military men,” wrote Atiyah, who was killed a few months after bin Laden, in a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan last August.
Bin Laden, in his missives, displayed an increasingly legalistic interpretation of whether a terrorist act is permissible under sharia. When Pakistani American Faisal Shahzad tried to detonate a car bomb in New York’s Times Square in May 2010, his attempt, widely hailed by jihadists, drew a surprising rebuke from bin Laden, who took a rare break from his self-imposed seclusion in central Pakistan to denounce Shahzad.
It wasn’t the prospect of civilian deaths that upset bin Laden, but rather the fact that Shahzad had planned the act after swearing a loyalty oath to the United States as a newly naturalized citizen.
“You know it is not permissible to tell such a lie to the enemy,” bin Laden wrote, according to a copy of his missive obtained by Jones, a senior political scientist at Rand Corp. (Bergen also refers to this incident in his book.)
Complaining of the “negative effects” to al-Qaeda’s image, bin Laden noted that jihadists already were under suspicion in parts of the world for “reneging on oaths, and perfidy.”