Osama bin Laden was preoccupied with attacking the United States over all other targets, a fixation that led to friction with followers, according to U.S. intelligence officials involved in analyzing the trove of materials recovered from the al-Qaeda leader’s compound.
In handwritten journals and long-winded compositions saved on computer hard drives, the officials said, bin Laden always seemed to be searching for a way to replicate the impact of al-Qaeda’s most devastating strike.
He exhorted followers to explore ways to recruit non-Muslims “who are oppressed in the United States,” in the words of one official — particularly African Americans and Latinos — and to assemble a plot in time for the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Even while sealed inside a cement compound in a Pakistani city, bin Laden functioned like a crime boss pulling strings from a prison cell, sending regular messages to his most trusted lieutenants and strategic advice to far-flung franchises, including al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen. Some followers pledged their fealty to him; others, however, chafed at his exhortations to remain focused on U.S. targets instead of mounting less risky operations in places such as Yemen, Somalia and Algeria.
“Bin Laden is saying, ‘You’ve got to focus on the U.S. and the West,’ ” said a senior U.S. intelligence official who was involved in reviewing the stockpile, adding that some of bin Laden’s followers seemed more concerned with regional issues and were reluctant to conduct an attack that would provoke an American response.
A little over a week after obtaining one of the largest intelligence hauls on a terrorist group, U.S. officials involved in reviewing the trove said they are learning more about bin Laden and the al-Qaeda bureaucracy than about the locations of operatives or specific plots that might be unfolding.
Overall, the officials said, the new information — as well as the lack of any apparent effort by bin Laden to prevent it from falling into U.S. hands — provides a strikingly rich portrait of the al-Qaeda chief.
“Bin Laden got lazy and complacent,” said the senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information. “I don’t think he thought he would meet his maker in that house. And he certainly didn’t make any preparations” to escape a raid or destroy the information found inside, the official said.
Officials said they are still in triage mode as they sift through the contents of more than 110 flash drives, laptops and other digital storage devices, in addition to piles of paper documents. The trove, which represents millions of pages that must be translated from Arabic, is being scrutinized at a secret CIA facility in Northern Virginia. Analysts and Arabic linguists from other agencies are being brought in to review the materials.
The early effort has focused on searching the most recent materials for key words, including the names of major American cities. Analysts are also scanning for references to names of al-Qaeda figures, phone numbers and other details that could provide clues for CIA operatives and military counterterrorism teams working overseas.
U.S. officials said bin Laden had a relatively short list of senior al-Qaeda members whom he was in touch with frequently and directly, albeit through messages smuggled out of the compound by couriers.
Among them were Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian physician who had long functioned as bin Laden’s second in command, as well as Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, a Libyan operative who is the latest to fill the organization’s vulnerable No. 3 slot.
Bin Laden’s directions tended to be big-picture in nature, officials said, focusing more on broader objectives than on granular operational details. “I wouldn’t call it command and control” that bin Laden was exercising, the senior U.S. intelligence official said. Indeed, there is no indication that bin Laden even knew the specific whereabouts of Zawahiri and others. Al-Qaeda’s fragmented nature and operational security appear to have kept its leader substantially in the dark.
“We’re not going to find operational manuals or Excel spreadsheets” with rosters of operatives and points of contact, the senior intelligence official said. Bin Laden served as a “chief executive who is giving fairly generic, broad instructions and guidance rather than tactical orders,” the official said.
Even so, the communications are expected to help the CIA and other organizations, including the National Counterterrorism Center, gain significant insights into al-Qaeda’s structure and relationship to regional affiliates.
The U.S. intelligence official said bin Laden’s records have “confirmed our view that AQAP is first among equals in terms of relationships with al-Qaeda core.” The acronym refers to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based group that has been behind a series of plots targeting the United States, including the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009.
Bin Laden does not appear to have been in communication with the most widely recognized AQAP figure, the American-born cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi, a relative newcomer who never met the al-Qaeda leader, U.S. officials said. But bin Laden did relay messages to others in Yemen whom he appears to have known personally.
Largely because of Aulaqi’s influence, AQAP has emerged as what U.S. counterterrorism officials have described as the most immediate threat to American interests.
Because bin Laden “was the author and prime proponent of global jihad,” a central question among counterterrorism analysts is “whether some of that ebbs” with bin Laden’s death, the U.S. official said.
A second U.S. official familiar with the data review said that, based on the records, bin Laden also seemed to have placed a low priority on operations inside Afghanistan and Pakistan, urging his network to focus on efforts that will “make America weak, using Latinos and African Americans, people who are oppressed in the United States.”
Al-Qaeda has articulated such goals before. In 2007, Zawahiri issued a message that appealed in part to African Americans, saying, “We are waging jihad to lift oppression from all mankind.”
Al-Qaeda appears to have done little to recruit minorities beyond issuing such appeals, officials said. “Their recruiting has been extremely passive” in recent years, the senior U.S. intelligence official said. “It’s not like they have talent scouts at mosques in the United States.”
The trove does not point to any contact between bin Laden and members of the Pakistani military or intelligence services. The fact that bin Laden appears to have spent the past six years hiding in a compound surrounded by Pakistani military installations, including the country’s top military academy, has fueled speculation that Islamabad was protecting bin Laden or knew his whereabouts.
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Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.