The al Qaeda Files: Bin Laden Documents Reveal a Struggling Organization

Terror leader's last years were focused on palm oil cultivation, climate change, and how to kill Americans more effectively.

Palm oil cultivation in West Africa, climate change, and how to kill Americans more effectively than cigarettes. These were the issues on Osama bin Laden’s mind in his final years as he struggled to direct the terrorist group’s activities from his hideout in Pakistan, according to newly released files retrieved from the compound where he was killed.

Direct communications between the al Qaeda leader and his inner circle were entered as evidence in a terrorism trial recently concluded in Brooklyn, New York, effectively doubling the amount of publicly available documents recovered from bin Laden’s final hideout. Together the newly disclosed documents paint a picture of a man who, despite being holed up for years in his high-walled compound in the garrison town of Abbottabad, Pakistan, maintained a hands-on role managing al Qaeda in the face of a crippling “espionage war” and mounting bureaucratic obstacles.

The emergence of the documents marks just the second time since the historic 2011 raid, which ended in the death of bin Laden, that documentary evidence recovered from his compound has been made public; 17 other documents were declassified and released to West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center in 2012.

The new documents were entered as evidence in the federal trial of Abid Naseer, a Pakistani national convicted of plotting with al Qaeda to carry out a bomb attack in Manchester, England between 2008 and 2009; Naseer is not mentioned in the documents. U.S. attorneys used the recovered documents to support the testimony of an FBI agent who was present when a team of U.S. Navy SEALs returned bin Laden’s body and the materials they recovered from his compound to a U.S. base in Afghanistan.

Multiple media outlets have reported on the existence of the bin Laden files, quoting passages from them without posting the full set of documents. DOWNRANGE, an online forum managed by Kronos Advisory, a firm specializing in terrorism investigations, obtained and published the full set of files.

Kronos’s research and analysis team includes Cindy Storer, a former CIA senior al Qaeda analyst who was part of the team that tracked bin Laden to Abbottabad. Michael S. Smith II, the firm’s chief operating officer, told The Intercept the bin Laden documents “came from a very reliable source.”

Totaling more than 150 pages, the documents include communications between bin Laden, his chief of external operations, his general manager and others connected with the group. They reveal al Qaeda’s frustrated efforts to carry out overseas attacks.

In a handwritten letter scrawled on crumpled notebook paper, bin Laden’s chief of external operations admitted losing contact with operatives sent to carry out attacks in Britain, Russia and Europe. He cited shortcomings in the commitment of his personnel, communications challenges, lack of necessary travel documents and a failure to execute operations as key problems.

“One of the main impediments to our work … is that the brother is unable to carry out his work due to the lack of required tools (materials – weapons); hence, we had to contemplate new methods to obtain the tools or invent new methods of execution,” he wrote, suggesting the group move “towards new methods like using the simplest things such as household knives, gas tanks, fuel, diesel and others like airplanes, trains and cars as killing tools.”

Bin Laden’s general manager, meanwhile, offered a detailed account of al Qaeda’s challenges in Pakistan, chief among them: the CIA’s drone war. He used the 2010 killing of al Qaeda’s former third in command, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, also known as Saeed al-Masri, as an example.

In late May 2010, al-Yazid was in the tribal regions of Pakistan, attending meetings with his “media brothers,” when the house where he and his family were staying was hit by a drone strike.

Al-Yazid and his family had fallen asleep in the building.

“Less than an hour later they were hit,” bin Laden’s manager wrote. “This house was, as we say, completely ‘burned down.’” He described the home as “a very, very combustible place (a house owned by one of our well known supporters).”

The strike killed al Yazid, his wife, three daughters and granddaughter. The “young sons” of another al Qaeda figure — it is unclear how many — and the owners of the home died as well, according to the documents. (Media accounts at the time reported varying numbers of casualties resulting from the strike; according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, as many as 960 civilians have been killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, including up to 207 children.)

“A spy plane must have started making loops,” the al Qaeda manager wrote of the attack. “Especially those distinctive loops (circles) that we all know and, all of the brothers have experienced. They all know that if a plane starts doing those turns, it is going to strike.”

The al Qaeda manager reported that the organization’s fighters in Pakistan were effectively pinned down by the air strikes. “The planes are still circling our skies nearly every day,” he wrote. “Sometimes there are fewer of them because of weather conditions like thunder, wind, clouds and the like, then they come back when the sky is clear.” The official described how al Qaeda was “constantly uncovering and destroying spies’ networks […] But that has not kept airstrikes from hitting us repeatedly because we continue to make mistakes, and for other reasons.”

The group was working hard to find ways to jam or hack the drones, but “no results so far,” he wrote. “However, they are continuing.”

In addition to weathering drone strikes, the al Qaeda manager also described the group’s attempts to broker deals with the Pakistani government. According to the communications, al Qaeda told Pakistani intelligence officials, “We are aiming our war against the Americans in Afghanistan. If the Pakistani Army and government leaves us alone, we will leave them alone.”

Conducting large-scale terrorist attacks against the United States remained a priority for bin Laden, who argued that the number of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan was insufficient to prompt a significant change in U.S. foreign policy. To do that, he concluded, required something more. “[E]very year 400,000 (four hundred thousand) people die from smoking, which is a huge number compared to the number killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they still have not come out in mass protests to close down tobacco companies,” he wrote.

In communications back to his subordinates, bin Laden was given to long-winded and detailed replies. Describing his vision for operations in Somalia, he advised sending “a delegation of trusted Somali tribal leaders” to meet with businessmen in the Persian Gulf and “brief them about the living conditions of Muslims in Somalia and how their children are dying of extreme poverty, to remind them of their responsibilities towards their Muslim brothers.”

He also devoted an entire paragraph to the potential value of Palm Oil trees in the region; “It should be known that the income generated by one acre of palm oil trees was seven hundred and fifty dollars a few years ago, and it is supposed to have gone up now.”

The terrorist leader was particularly concerned with climate change, noting in one communication, “Attached is a report about climate change, especially the floods in Pakistan. Please send it to AI-Jazeera.”

The newly disclosed documents reflect bin Laden’s acute attention to operational security, revealing the al Qaeda leader was aware of his adversaries’ electronic surveillance capabilities years before Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations. “[J]ust because something can be encrypted doesn’t make it suitable for use,” bin Laden wrote. “As you know, this science is not ours and is not our invention. That means we do not know much about it. Based on this, I see that sending any dangerous matter via encrypted email is a risky thing.”

While the release of the bin Laden documents signals a significant increase in publicly available information gleaned from the raid on his compound, it represents only a sliver of the intelligence U.S. forces obtained in the operation.

In a Senate briefing just days after the raid, a senior Pentagon intelligence official described the materials recovered as “the single largest collection of senior terrorist materials ever” including “digital, audio and video files of varying sizes, printed materials, computer equipment, recording devices and handwritten documents.”

Analysis of the seized documents — which reportedly number in the thousands — was led by the CIA, with support from the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the NSA and the Pentagon’s National Media Exploitation Center. (Last month The New York Times reported that documents seized in an October mission in Afghanistan have fueled an “unprecedented” increase in U.S. special operations raids and may prove as significant as the documents pulled from bin Laden’s compound.)

“Today and in the future, we won’t necessarily be able to provide regular updates on what this operation yielded,” the Pentagon official said in the aftermath of the 2011 raid. “As you can understand, much of what we find will remain classified.  The war against al Qaeda and its affiliates continues.”

Correction, March 14th, 2015: The article originally stated that the documents pulled from bin Laden’s compound were fueling the recent increase in special operations raids in Afghanistan, rather than the more recent October raid.

Margot Williams contributed to this story.

Photo: United States v. Abid Naseer court records

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