A few months before Osama bin Laden’s death, Web sites linked to al-Qaeda ran excited commentary about a proposed new killing machine dubbed the “human lawn mower.” The idea was to attach rotating blades to the front of a pickup truck and drive the contraption into crowds.
While some jihadists admired the idea, one graying veteran of the terrorist movement took a stand against it. That was bin Laden himself, by then living out his twilight years in a Pakistani villa with ample time to think about his legacy. The man who famously ordered jetliners flown into skyscrapers drew the line at cutting down humans like weeds.
“He was upset about it,” said a former U.S. intelligence official who viewed bin Laden’s writings on the subject, part of a trove of documents seized from the terrorist’s compound in Pakistan a year ago this week. “He felt it conflicted with his vision for what he wanted al-Qaeda to be.”
Bin Laden’s chances of trying to remake al-Qaeda’s image ended abruptly when Navy SEALs kicked in the door of his Pakistani hideout. But in the year since his death, U.S. officials have gained a deeper understanding of the man, his internal struggles and his plans for the terrorist group he co-founded.
Although some insights from the documents have been revealed over the past year, new excerpts show the extent of bin Laden’s obsession with ideological purity as he sought to manage the group’s demoralized and scattered networks in his final years. They show him seeking to reassert control over factions of loosely affiliated jihadists from Yemen to Somalia, as well as independent actors whom he believed had sullied al-Qaeda’s reputation and muddied its central message.
The new details about bin Laden’s final months were provided in interviews with current and former U.S. officials — several of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide assessments of documents that are not yet public — as well as a pair of new books that quote extensively from the documents recovered from computer equipment seized during the May 2 raid.
Bin Laden emerges from these accounts as a chief executive fully engaged in the group’s myriad crises, grappling with financial problems, recruitment, rebellious field managers and sudden staff vacancies resulting from the unrelenting U.S. drone campaign. In some memos he worried about his own security, and in others he fretted about missing a huge potential marketing opportunity: the Arab Spring, with its millions of street revolutionaries looking to reshape politics in the Middle East.
The Saudi who built the world’s first truly global jihadist movement is viewed as distracted at times by mundane details, such as which crops should be planted by al-Shabab allies in Somalia. He was coolly cordial with his former partner Ayman al-Zawahiri, and increasingly drawn to the ideas of a younger lieutenant who possessed a firmer grasp of the power of the Internet and an ambition to modernize al-Qaeda’s message.
The new deputy, Libyan-born Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, a veteran of Algeria’s brutal Muslim-against-Muslim violence in the 1990s, emerged in bin Laden’s final year as a key advocate for reining in al-Qaeda-inspired carnage in Iraq and other Middle Eastern lands.
With bin Laden’s support, Atiyah, as the aide is informally known, began trying to codify rules of behavior for al-Qaeda and its affiliates, warning that killings of innocent Muslims would hurt the organization and probably violate sharia, or Islamic law. The killing of Americans — including noncombatants — would meanwhile remain permissible, even obligatory. Bin Laden’s aversion to the “human lawn mower” was noted last year in a report on ProPublica’s Web site.
“To the end, Atiyah kept trying to rein in attacks inside the Middle East,” said Jarret Brachman, an author and consultant on al-Qaeda to U.S. government agencies. “Both he and bin Laden remained rabid in their hatred for the West. But they felt that attacks within Muslim countries were bad for their public image.”
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.”
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