Bin Laden Letters Show Desire to Attack U.S. Targets

WASHINGTON — Osama bin Laden’s let­ters urged jihadist groups to stop domes­tic attacks that killed Mus­lim civil­ians and focus on the Unit­ed States, “our desired goal,” says a study of declas­si­fied doc­u­ments cap­tured dur­ing last year’s U.S. raid on his com­pound in Pak­istan.

The 59-page study titled “Let­ters from Abbot­tabad: Bin Laden Side­lined?” released online today, was writ­ten by a team of researchers the Com­bat­ing Ter­ror­ism Cen­ter at West Point and sup­ple­ment­ed with reviews and sup­port from oth­er experts.

The cen­ter is an inde­pen­dent, pri­vate­ly fund­ed research and edu­ca­tion­al insti­tu­tion at the U.S. Mil­i­tary Acad­e­my that informs coun­tert­er­ror­ism pol­i­cy and strat­e­gy.

The end of the Abbot­tabad raid was the start of a mas­sive ana­lyt­i­cal effort, retired Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the center’s chair­man, said in the report’s fore­word, adding that experts from across the intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty worked to exploit the cap­tured doc­u­ments.

The let­ters total 175 pages in the orig­i­nal Ara­bic and 197 pages in the Eng­lish trans­la­tion. The ear­li­est is dat­ed Sep­tem­ber 2006 and the lat­est April 2011, the authors write, adding that some let­ters are incom­plete or undat­ed and not all attribute their authors or indi­cate an addressee.

Besides bin Laden, those who appear in the let­ters as authors or recip­i­ents include al-Qai­da lead­ers Atiyy­at­ul­lah and Abu Yahya al-Libi; Adam Yahya Gadahn, an Amer­i­can al-Qai­da spokesman and media advi­sor; Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr, leader of Soma­li mil­i­tant group Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahidin; Abu Basir, or Nasir al-Wuhayshi, leader of Yemen-based al-Qai­da in the Ara­bi­an Penin­su­la; and Hakimul­lah Mah­sud, leader of Tehrik-e-Tal­iban Pak­istan.

“Bin Laden’s frus­tra­tion with region­al jiha­di groups and his seem­ing inabil­i­ty to exer­cise con­trol over their actions and pub­lic state­ments is the most com­pelling sto­ry to be told on the basis of the 17 declas­si­fied doc­u­ments,” the report said.

Bin Laden’s pub­lic state­ments focused on Mus­lim ene­mies such as cor­rupt Mus­lim rulers and their West­ern “over­seers,” the analy­sis said, but “the focus of his pri­vate let­ters is Mus­lims suf­fer­ing at the hands of his jiha­di ‘broth­ers.’ ”

The late al-Qai­da chief­tain also had been bur­dened by the incom­pe­tence of affil­i­ate ter­ror group, the report said, “includ­ing their lack of polit­i­cal acu­men to win pub­lic sup­port, their media cam­paigns and their poor­ly planned oper­a­tions” that killed thou­sands of Mus­lims.

The fail­ures of al-Qai­da in Iraq wor­ried bin Laden, who urged oth­er groups not to repeat their mis­takes. Gadahn advised al-Qai­da to pub­licly dis­so­ci­ate itself from the group, the report says.

Bin Laden also wor­ried about expan­sion plans of al-Qai­da in the Ara­bi­an Penin­su­la, for exam­ple warn­ing them not to declare an Islam­ic state in Yemen, and about indis­crim­i­nate attacks against Mus­lims by Tehrik-e-Tal­iban Pak­istan, or TTP.

Such attacks “caused Atiyy­at­ul­lah and Abu Yahya al-Libi to write to TTP leader Hakimul­lah Mah­sud to express their dis­plea­sure with the group’s ‘ide­ol­o­gy, meth­ods and behav­ior,’ ” the report said.

The al-Qai­da lead­ers “also threat­ened to take pub­lic mea­sures ‘unless we see from you seri­ous and imme­di­ate prac­ti­cal and clear steps towards reform­ing [your ways] and dis­so­ci­at­ing your­self from these vile mis­takes [that vio­late Islam­ic Law],’ ” the report added.

Bin Laden with­held recog­ni­tion of a Feb­ru­ary pledge of loy­al­ty to al-Qai­da by Soma­li rebel move­ment al-Shabab, the report said, fear­ing “that a for­mal merg­er with al-Qai­da would pre­vent invest­ment and for­eign aid in Soma­lia.”

The doc­u­ments released to the Com­bat­ing Ter­ror­ism Cen­ter at West Point men­tioned al-Qai­da in the Islam­ic Maghreb, the Tal­iban and Jaysh al-Islam, but the report says the dis­cus­sions “are not sub­stan­tive enough to inform an under­stand­ing of the rela­tion­ship between al-Qaida’s senior lead­ers and these groups.”

Among the doc­u­ments is an April 2011 let­ter from bin Laden respond­ing to the Arab Spring, which he con­sid­ered a “for­mi­da­ble event” in the mod­ern his­to­ry of Mus­lims.

“This let­ter,” the report says, “reflect­ed his intend­ed strat­e­gy of respond­ing to the new polit­i­cal land­scape that was emerg­ing in the Mid­dle East and North Africa.”

In the Arab world, bin Laden want­ed al-Qai­da to focus its efforts on media out­reach and “guid­ance.” He believed that a media cam­paign should be launched to incite “peo­ple who have not yet revolt­ed and exhort them to rebel against the rulers,” the report said.

But he also want­ed to invest, the report said, in “edu­cat­ing and warn­ing Mus­lim peo­ple from those [who might tempt them to set­tle for] half solu­tions, such as engag­ing in the sec­u­lar polit­i­cal process by form­ing polit­i­cal par­ties.”

In Afghanistan, bin Laden want­ed jihadis to con­tin­ue the fight against the Unit­ed States.

Bin Laden believed their efforts, the report said, “weak­ened the Unit­ed States, enabling Mus­lims else­where to revolt against their rulers, no longer fear­ing that the Unit­ed States would be in a pow­er­ful posi­tion to sup­port these rulers.”

The doc­u­ments show that al-Qaida’s rela­tion­ship with Iran is one of “indi­rect and unpleas­ant nego­ti­a­tions over the release of detained jihadis and their fam­i­lies, includ­ing mem­bers of bin Laden’s fam­i­ly,” the report said, adding that dis­cus­sion about Pak­istan in the doc­u­ments is “scarce and incon­clu­sive.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)