Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden remained committed to plotting attacks on the U.S., even as he struggled to control followers who wanted to build an Islamic caliphate, newly released documents show.
It’s a conflict that continued to play out after his death, as al-Qaeda was overshadowed by Islamic State, a breakaway group that declared a self-styled caliphate after seizing a swath of Iraq and Syria.
The documents, captured when U.S. forces stormed bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan and killed him in 2011, were released on Wednesday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The material on the terrorist leader behind the Sept. 11 attacks may be followed by hundreds more documents to be released in coming months, the intelligence agency said.
The tensions over bin Laden’s America-first terrorism strategy were demonstrated in a 2010 letter written by Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, one of his top deputies. He described 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.
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 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 President Barack 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.”
While Islamic State also has sought to inspire attacks on the U.S. and allies, counterterrorism officials have said the biggest threat from that group is the thousands of “foreign fighters” who may return home after first fighting in Iraq and Syria.
An undated letter in the documents 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.”
Paul Pillar, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer now at Georgetown University in Washington, said such missives help explain the differences over tactics that led to divisions within a once-united terrorist organization.
“Bin Laden’s focus was on hitting the far enemy, namely us,” he said. “Having a caliphate would be something far in the future.” Islamic State, by contrast, capitalized on chaos in Iraq and a civil war in Syria to seize territory for its religious state.
As bin Laden remained holed up in Abbottabad, Pakistan, “he was losing the prominence of being the lodestar for radical Sunni jihadism,” Pillar said.
The materials released on Wednesday -- most of them translated from Arabic to English for the intelligence agency -- also include references to unfulfilled plots such as an attack on the U.S. embassy in Moscow.
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 Abbottabad compound. A second list includes documents that are now declassified, including diatribes on the “despotism of big money” and thoughts on the German economy.
An 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.”
The document release, which the U.S. intelligence office 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.”
He also possessed books by conspiracy theorists such as “Bloodlines of the Illuminati” by Fritz Springmeier, and “Secrets of the Federal Reserve” by Eustace Mullins, who has been described as a Holocaust denier and anti-Semite.
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 video game that depicts military combat scenarios.