Months before he was finally found by the CIA and killed, Osama bin Laden wrote that it might be time for him to move.
In a letter voicing deep frustration with the isolation at his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the al-Qaeda leader contemplated a departure that might have altered the course of post-Sept. 11, 2001, history.
“I think that I have to leave them,” bin Laden wrote, referring to the
two Pakistani brothers who sheltered him and served as his primary connections to the outside world. “But it will take a few months to arrange another place,” bin Laden said, a location where his third wife, Khairiyah, his son Hamza and other family members “can join us.”
Less than six months later, in May 2011, Navy SEALs descended on the compound, killing bin Laden and his Pakistani caretakers. Khairiyah, whom he had addressed in the letter and who ultimately joined him in Abbottabad, was captured and turned over to Pakistani authorities.
The correspondence is part of a new set of documents that were declassified and released to the public Wednesday. The documents were recovered during that raid and scrutinized for years by U.S. intelligence analysts.
The trove includes dozens of messages composed by the al-Qaeda leader on his computers, reinforcing the perception of bin Laden as a tireless correspondent and micromanager of his terrorist network.
But the SEALs collected other materials that provide new insights into bin Laden’s interests and mind-set. Among them is an extensive set of English-language books found in his library at Abbottabad — a collection whose titles appear to reflect a keen interest in U.S. missteps in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
A separate stack comprises dozens of articles by U.S. news organizations and think tanks, similarly focused on critiques of U.S. foreign policy. Other materials border on the banal, including a lengthy spreadsheet breaking down al-Qaeda expenses as well as a guidebook for the “Delta Force: Xtreme 2” computer game that U.S. intelligence officials say was used by others in the compound.
The collection released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence includes files in their original Arabic as well as translations by the CIA. In a statement, the DNI said U.S. intelligence agencies are “reviewing hundreds more documents in the near future for possible declassification and release.”
The materials span nearly a decade during which bin Laden continued to exert a surprising degree of control over the terrorist network he founded, even as CIA drone strikes and a U.S.-led manhunt forced him to sever almost all direct contact with the outside world.
Some of the most compelling messages in the collection describe the toll of that existence, including the letter that he composed in 2011 to his wife Khairiyah, who was among a contingent of family members who had taken refuge in Iran.
In the three-page document, bin Laden recounts his efforts to reunite his family, but he says his proposals for doing so were rejected by Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti and his brother, who were responsible for protecting the al-Qaeda leader and whose families also lived at the compound.
“They are getting exhausted — security-wise — from me staying with them and what results from that,” bin Laden wrote. “They have reached a level of exhaustion that they are shutting down, and they asked to leave us all.”
Bin Laden wrote that he proposed compromises, including allowing Khairiyah to visit only temporarily, or having her replace one of the other residents so that the number of people staying at the compound would not increase.
All were rejected by his protectors, bin Laden wrote, prompting him to consider the possibility that “I might have to leave them.” His willingness to contemplate a risky relocation suggests a level of desperation after years in which he had rarely ventured outside the concrete walls of the three-story compound.
The Pakistani brothers appear to have relented in the end, at least in part. Bin Laden’s wife arrived
in Abbottabad at a time when
the CIA had the site under near-constant surveillance, and just months before the May 2, 2011, raid by the SEALs. But their son, Hamza, did not come and remains at large.
The letter is undated but refers to the 10-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks as approaching in “nine months.”
The same document also reveals the degree of paranoia that had seeped into al-Qaeda’s leadership ranks. In another passage, bin Laden urged his wife to have a recent dental filling removed in case the CIA or another adversary had managed to conceal a tracking device in her tooth.
Bin Laden kept a substantial library of English-language books, a collection whose titles underline his interest in finding vulnerabilities in U.S. institutions and policies, as well as a preoccupation with his own image and impact.
His bookshelf included “Imperial Hubris,” a harshly critical account of U.S. counterterrorism efforts by the former head of the CIA unit that was responsible for tracking him in the years before the Sept. 11 attacks.
He also had a copy of “Obama’s Wars” by The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, a book whose 2010 publication indicates that bin Laden had his couriers collecting even recent releases on U.S. counterterrorism operations and war.
A book on “antiaircraft weapons and techniques for guerrilla forces” may reflect the al-Qaeda leader’s search for an antidote to the drone campaign that decimated the terrorist group’s ranks.
U.S. officials said they believe that bin Laden could understand and read at a basic level of English at least.
The released materials also include a mix of religious texts, think tank studies, software manuals and news articles. Even so, the most revealing documents are 103 messages to or from the al-Qaeda leader, most of them stored on computer disks or thumb drives smuggled out of Abbottabad by a network of couriers.
In them, bin Laden describes his hope that the Arab Spring revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa would bode well for al-Qaeda, a notion many counterterrorism officials once scoffed at but now largely accept.
Bin Laden urged followers to remain focused on attacking the United States and denounced efforts by a wayward al-Qaeda franchise to found a new territory years before that same group seized parts of Iraq and Syria and declared itself the Islamic State.
But bin Laden also wrote extensively — and at times endearingly — to aunts, wives, sons and daughters from whom he had been separated. “What is the latest funny news?” he wrote in one undated message to a daughter whom he asked to “forgive me if I made you mad — and perhaps for having done so frequently.”
Another letter addressed to a sister is dated April 26, 2011, six days before he was killed. “Please transfer my greetings to all my beloved daughters,” he wrote, adding, “Please destroy this message after reading it.”