The U.S. released a trove of documents seized when special forces stormed Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan in 2011 that include references to unfulfilled plots such as an attack on the U.S. embassy in Moscow.
Among the documents captured at the hideout in Abbottabad, where the terrorist behind the Sept. 11 attacks was killed, are appraisals of extremist efforts in Pakistan and Afghanistan, an eclectic list of books owned by the al-Qaeda leader and an application form to join his group.
The trove of captured material, released on Wednesday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, underscored bin Laden’s preoccupation with attacking U.S. and Western targets. That’s in contrast to the emphasis on capturing territory and establish a caliphate in the Middle East that has been the prime goal so far of the Islamic State group that broke off from al-Qaeda and has seized a swath of Syria and Iraq.
A document labeled “Report on the external operations” expresses frustration that several plots had failed because of “bad luck and God wasn’t on our side.” Those included targets in “Russia (exploding the gas line or the American embassy),” and the U.K., as well as Americans in Denmark, where the letter said a European group “formed of 3 brothers” was sent to carry out an operation.
The document said terrorists should turn to “new methods like using house knifes, Gas or Gasoline or diesel tanks and other means, such as airplanes, trains, cars as killing tools.” It said the priority is “putting the Jews first” as targets and that there was progress in “cooperating with two groups who are working in the same fields.”
The release of documents -- many of them unsigned and some previously disclosed in court cases -- comes after an extensive interagency review. It contains a list of nonclassified material found in and around the compound. A second list includes documents that are now declassified, including diatribes on the “despotism of big money” and thoughts on the German economy.
Recurrent calls in the documents to concentrate first on attacking U.S. and Western targets -- and not on building a caliphate -- only underscore that the idea has met resistance from groups with different aims, finances, resources and enemies. Bin Laden’s America-first terrorist strategy failed to bring the U.S. and allies to their knees and led ultimately to the breakaway Islamic State organization.
“He was still focused on carrying out that catastrophic attack against the United States that would ultimately spell the downfall of the despots,” said Daniel Benjamin, a former counterterrorism coordinator at the State Department in Obama’s first term who’s now director of Dartmouth College’s Dickey Center for International Understanding.
“He was really focused on those attacks that were going to essentially cause a pivot in history,” Benjamin said. “He seemed to never have lost faith in that approach.”
A 2010 letter written by Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, a top deputy to bin Laden, describes a plan by al-Qaeda to seek a truce with the government of Yemen, long a base for the terrorist group, or to send a message to the government through mediators “to leave ‘us’ alone in exchange of focusing on America.”
“The purpose is to focus on striking inside America and its interests abroad especially oil-producing countries to agitate public opinion and to force U.S. to withdraw from Afghanistan and Iraq,” the letter said.
It also recommends “extra security measures” for Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemen-based al-Qaeda recruiter who was subsequently killed in a 2011 U.S. drone strike.
An undated letter from an author who isn’t identified said members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, one of the group’s African affiliates, should be asked “to avoid insisting on the formation of an Islamic State at the time being, but to work on breaking the power of our main enemy by attacking the American embassies in the African countries, such as Sierra Leone, Togo, and mainly to attack the American oil companies.”
Another document summarizes progress for al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“Work in Pakistan is almost self-sufficient,” it says. “We are participating in the work in Afghanistan, and we have to do that, but praise be to God, Taliban almost does not need us. We are providing only moral and symbolic support, but in spite of that our participation is good and important.”
The al-Qaeda membership application drafted by the group’s “security committee” asked would-be terrorists for biographical information, “Any hobbies or pastimes?,” how much they had studied the Koran, what experience they had in chemistry or communications, and whether they ever had traveled to Pakistan. It also asked applicants whether they “wish to execute a suicide operation” and for information on a contact person “in case you became a martyr.”
One memo, citing drought in Africa and floods in Pakistan, expressed concern about “climate change.” It said studies have found it will affect more people than are “victimized by war, for which the states recruit their strongest men, offer their best training and slash major portions of their budgets.”
A category titled “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf” includes religious documents, tracts by other extremist groups, and English-language media articles that show bin Laden kept a close eye on Washington political currents. The terrorist leader had dozens of publicly available U.S. government documents, including “The 9/11 Commission Report.”
Several copies of the magazine “Foreign Policy” were found in the compound, along with publications such as the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Popular Science and U.S. News and World Report. The report also listed English-language books, from “Obama’s Wars” by Bob Woodward to “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy” by Greg Palast.
The items collected by U.S. special forces also included some material used by other residents of bin Laden’s compound, according to the intelligence office. Among those were an Arabic dictionary and grammar book, as well as a guide to healthy eating for wrestlers titled, “The Grappler’s Guide to Sports Nutrition.”
Also found: a written guide to playing “Delta Force: Xtreme 2,” the multiplayer videogame that depicts military combat scenarios.