Al Qaeda was so unpopular among Muslims that Osama bin Laden considered changing the terror network's name and warned other extremist groups to keep their distance in public, according to computer files found at his hideout.
The U.S. Military Academy's Combating Terrorism Center on Thursday is expected to publish part of the trove of declassified documents recovered at bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, one year ago by the Navy SEAL team that killed him.
The hundred pages of documents "show bin Laden was not just a micromanager but delusional about al Qaeda's capabilities," author Peter Bergen, who has seen them, said in an interview.
Mr. Bergen said memos drafted by bin Laden outlined "improbable schemes to attack the United States," including calling for the assassination of both President Obama and Gen. David H. Petraeus, now head of the CIA.
Bin Laden believed his group could still "force a change in American foreign policies in the Muslim world if only he could mount another big attack" on the U.S. homeland, but his subordinates were skeptical, Mr. Bergen said.
"His guys were pushing back [telling him], 'It's not that easy to attack America,'" Mr. Bergen said.
Mr. Bergen got early access to the translated documents - part of more than 6,000 pages recovered from computers and flash drives seized at Abbottabad - as part of the research for his latest book, "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden From 9/11 to Abbottabad." In 1997 Mr. Bergen became the last Western journalist to interview bin Laden.
"There's a clear narrative emerging from the accounts" of Mr. Bergen and others who have previewed the documents, said Jarret Brachman, the former director of research at counterterrorism center at West Point, N.Y.
"It seems a strange combination of serious introspective analysis and delusional aspirations of grandeur," said Mr. Brachman, who continues to consult with U.S. government agencies.
According to Mr. Bergen's book, James R. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, believes some of the plots described in bin Laden's documents are "nutty."
"Some of it was operational, a lot of it was aspirational, and I thought quite a bit of it was delusional," Mr. Clapper said. "It kind of reminded me of Hitler in the later stages of World War II. He's moving all these army groups around that didn't exist."
The book also says that bin Laden was running low on money. Records show he paid the two brothers who shared his compound and were his key bodyguards and couriers just $100 a month each.
Mr. Bergen said the documents "paint a picture of an organization that understood it was in deep danger" from the CIA's campaign of lethal drone strikes against its leadership in a mountainous sanctuary in Pakistan's tribal regions.
In one 48-page memo to his chief of staff in October 2010, bin Laden discussed the possibility of al Qaeda abandoning its safe haven because the intensity of drone strikes launched by the CIA.
"I am leaning toward getting most of our brothers out of the area," bin Laden wrote, according to Mr. Bergen.
In the same memo, bin Laden advised his followers against moving around the tribal regions except on overcast days to avoid being spotted by U.S. drones.
"The Americans have great accumulated expertise of photography of the region due to the fact they have been doing it for so many years," bin Laden lamented.
He noted that the drones could even identify individual houses that received more than the usual number of male visitors.
"Bin Laden knew al Qaeda's brand name was in deep trouble, in particular because the group and its affiliates had killed so many civilians," Mr. Bergen added.
In August 2010, bin Laden wrote to the leader of the al-Shabab Islamic extremist militia in Somalia, advising the group to avoid publicly identifying itself as an al Qaeda affiliate.
"If asked, it would be better to say there is a relationship with al Qaeda, which is simply a brotherly Islamic connection, and nothing more," he wrote.
He explained that the group's affiliate in Iraq had attracted many enemies by adopting the al Qaeda name.
In a letter to the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, bin Laden warned his followers in Yemen not to kill leaders of the local tribes, a tactic al Qaeda in Iraq had frequently used. Those attacks helped launch a Sunnin backlash in 2006.
In another internal memo, bin Laden pointed out that "Obama [says] that our war is not on Islam or the Muslim people, but rather our war is on the al Qaeda organization." He considered adding the word "Islam," or "Muslim" to the group's name.
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