The documents, declassified by the Obama administration, represent only a small fraction of the material recovered in the bin Laden raid, a sample that seems aimed at exposing the discord between al-Qaeda’s core and the franchises that are now considered more worrisome national security threats.
But the files also provide an intriguing glimpse into the aging al-Qaeda leader’s thoughts as his life neared its end. He expressed concern that the group’s brand had been tarnished by attacks against Muslims, and that the group had become distracted by regional fights.
“Our strength is limited,” bin Laden wrote in a 2010 letter that compared the United States to a tree with branches that project across the world. “So our best way to cut the tree is to concentrate on sawing the trunk.”
The details are embedded in a collection of 17 files that span 175 pages and were made available online by the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The organization had exclusive access to the material for several months and issued a report summarizing its findings.
The release came one year and one day after bin Laden was killed, and coincides with new efforts by President Obama to make the administration’s counterterrorism achievements a central part of his reelection campaign. The files cover a span from 2006 to the week before bin Laden’s death.
In a 2010 letter to one of his top deputies, bin Laden expressed alarm about the “increased mistakes” committed by the “brothers” in countries including Iraq and Yemen, and he pushed to bring the groups in line.
Bin Laden harbored doubts about Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born propagandist who was a rising figure in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, as the Yemen affiliate is known.
Awlaki should “remain in his position” and not be placed in charge of AQAP, bin Laden said. He instructed the affiliate to submit a detailed résuméon Awlaki and let him prove himself in battle. “We here become reassured of the people when they go to the line and get examined there,” bin Laden said. Awlaki was killed in a CIA drone strike in Yemen in September.
Others in al-Qaeda’s inner circle expressed exasperation with the clumsy operations and propaganda efforts of regional affiliates. The U.S.-born media adviser Adam Gadahn urged bin Laden and others to disavow franchises that refused to toe the line.