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
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
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.
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
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
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
“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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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. Could it be that ISI did not know that bin Laden was next door?
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Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.