In the months before his death in May 2011, Osama bin Laden was discussing new gambits — from a truce with Pakistan to opportunistic alliances with jihadist groups spawned by the Arab Spring — so that he could focus on tipping what he called “the balance of fear” with his main enemy, the United States.
This picture of a cagey, quirky bin Laden, directing a terrorist “great game” from his secret lair in Abbottabad, Pakistan, emerges in eight documents released a few months ago. They were declassified to bolster the U.S. government’s case against a Pakistani named Abid Naseer but received scant media attention. Naseer was convicted in March for his role in an alleged al-Qaeda plot to bomb the New York subway. The documents deserve a closer look.
The new bin Laden files show that he recognized the opportunities that Arab upheaval offered for al-Qaeda and was moving to exploit them. Al-Qaeda’s main leadership had been rocked by America’s drone war, but the group still had big ambitions, even at a time when U.S. officials said it was buckling.
The bin Laden of these documents is ruminating about big strategic ideas but also micromanaging personnel decisions and counterespionage tactics. In one passage, he admonishes his deputy, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, to pay more attention to climate change that might affect Somalia, a key recruiting area; in another, he proposes sending al-Qaeda recruits to universities to master advanced technologies that could benefit the terror group.
Bin Laden speaks in the aristocratic voice of a terrorist-intellectual, a Muslim version of the 19th-century anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. In one paragraph of a message to Rahman, he ominously presses for news about “a big operation inside America.” In the next paragraph, he asks blithely: “If you have any brother who is knowledgeable about poetry, please let us know about it.”
Bin Laden and his lieutenants believed in early 2011 that the world was moving their way, despite the harassment of drone attacks. Rahman explained: “We are currently following the Arab revolutions and the changes taking place in Arab countries.” He mentioned Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria, and said, “In general, we think these changes are sweeping, and there is good in them, God willing.”
Rahman urged his boss to send a message about “the demise of these tyrants,” expressing solidarity with the protesters. “You could support the revolutions against oppression, corruption, criminality, and tyranny.” He explained that he had sent al-Qaeda operatives to Libya, where there was “an active Jihadist Islamic renaissance underway.” That jihadist presence helped drive the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi the next year.
Even as bin Laden was seeking to capitalize on the Arab upheaval, he was considering local truces with Pakistan and among feuding factions in North Africa. Rahman said his operatives had conveyed this stand-down message to the Pakistani government, including contact with former intelligence chief Hamid Gul, and was exchanging messages with a senior Taliban official named Tayeb Agha (who would later meet secretly with the United States).
Rahman succinctly summarized the truce offer to Pakistan: “You became part of the battle when you sided with the Americans. If you were to leave us and our affairs alone, we would leave you alone.” Bin Laden concurred, noting: “We would like to neutralize whomever we possibly can during our war with our bigger enemy, America.”
At that time, the United States was beginning secret peace feelers with the Taliban. Gul allegedly told his al-Qaeda contacts: “We are putting pressure on them [America] to negotiate with al-Qaeda . . . [and] that negotiating with the Taliban separate from al-Qaeda is pointless.”
The most tantalizing nugget in these documents is Rahman’s claim that the British, too, were exploring a separate peace. He told bin Laden that according to Libyan operatives in Britain, “British intelligence spoke to them . . . [to] find out what they [al-Qaeda] thought of the following idea: England is ready to leave Afghanistan if al-Qaeda would explicitly commit to not moving against England or her interests.” A spokesman for the British Embassy in Washington said “the claims are completely untrue.”
Hunkered down in Abbottabad, bin Laden was utterly focused on striking the United States “in its heartland.” He noted that the slow bleed wasn’t working: Vietnam had been far more costly to America than Afghanistan; al-Qaeda’s allies would have to kill 100 times more people to equal the Vietnam death toll.
What was needed, he said a few weeks before his death, was another “large operation inside America [that] affects the security and nerves of 300 million Americans.” Al-Qaeda and its offshoots haven’t achieved that goal yet.