WASHINGTON – In letters from his last hideout, Osama bin Laden fretted about dysfunction in his terrorist network and crumbling trust from Muslims he wished to incite against their government and the West.
A selection of documents seized in last year's raid on bin Laden's Pakistan house was posted online Thursday by the U.S. Army's Combating Terrorism Center. The documents show dark days for al-Qaida and its hunkered-down leader after years of attacks by the United States and what bin Laden saw as bumbling within his own organization and its terrorist allies.
"I plan to release a statement that we are starting a new phase to correct (the mistakes) we made," bin Laden wrote in 2010. "In doing so, we shall reclaim, God willing, the trust of a large segment of those who lost their trust in the jihadis."
Until the end, bin Laden remained focused on attacking Americans and coming up with plots, however improbable, to kill U.S. leaders. He wished especially to target airplanes carrying Gen. David Petraeus and even President Barack Obama, reasoning that an assassination would elevate an "utterly unprepared" Vice President Joe Biden into the presidency and plunge the U.S. into crisis.
But a U.S. analysts' report released along with bin Laden's correspondence describes him as upset over the inability of spinoff terrorist groups to win public support for their cause, their unsuccessful media campaigns and poorly planned plots that, in bin Laden's view, killed too many innocent Muslims.
Bin Laden adviser Adam Gadahn urged him to disassociate their organization from the acts of al-Qaida's spinoff operation in Iraq, known as AQI, and bin Laden told other terrorist groups not to repeat AQI's mistakes.
The correspondence includes letters by then-second-in-command Abu Yahya al-Libi, taking Pakistani offshoot Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan to task over its indiscriminate attacks on Muslims. The al-Qaida leadership "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," al-Libi wrote.
And bin Laden warned the leader of Yemeni AQAP, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, against attempting a takeover of Yemen to establish an Islamic state, instead saying he should "refocus his efforts on attacking the United States."
Bin Laden also seemed uninterested in recognizing Somali-based al-Shabab when the group pledged loyalty to him because he thought its leaders were poor governors of the areas they controlled and were too strict with their administration of Islamic penalties, like cutting off the hands of thieves.
The U.S. said the letters reflect al-Qaida's relationship with Iran — a point of deep interest to the U.S. government — as "not one of alliance, but of indirect and unpleasant negotiations" over some al-Qaida terrorists and their families who were imprisoned in Iran.
Nothing in the papers that were released points directly to al-Qaida sympathizers in Pakistan's government, although presumably such references would have remained classified. Bin Laden described "trusted Pakistani brothers" but didn't identify any Pakistani government or military officials who might have been aware or complicit in his hiding in Abbottabad.
It wasn't immediately clear how many of bin Laden's documents the U.S. was still keeping secret. In a note published with the 175 pages in Arabic that were released Thursday, along with English translations, retired Gen. John Abizaid said they probably represent only a small fraction of materials taken from the compound in the U.S. raid that tracked down and killed bin Laden in May 2011. The U.S. said the documents span September 2006 to April 2011.
Bin Laden was proud of the security measures that kept his family safe for many years, the report said. It said bin Laden boasted that his family "adhered to such strict measures, precluding his children from playing outdoors without the supervision of an adult who could keep their voices down."
The report said the Special Forces troops in the bin Laden raid were trained to search the home afterward for thumb drives, printed documents and what it described as "pocket litter" that might produce leads to other terrorists. "The end of the raid in Abbottabad was the beginning of a massive analytical effort," it said.
It said the personal files showed that, during one of the most significant manhunts in history, bin Laden was out of touch with the day-to-day operations of various terrorist groups inspired by al-Qaida. He was "not in sync on the operational level with its so-called affiliates," researchers wrote. "Bin Laden enjoyed little control over either groups affiliated with al Qaida in name or so-called fellow travelers."