WASHINGTON — Letters from Osama bin Laden’s last hideaway, released by U.S. officials intent on discrediting his terror organization, portray a network weak, inept and under siege — and its leader seemingly near wit’s end about the passing of his global jihad’s glory days.
The documents, published online Thursday, are a small sample of those seized during the U.S. raid on bin Laden’s Pakistan compound in which he was killed a year ago. By no accident, they show al Qaeda at its worst. The raid has become the signature national security moment of Barack Obama’s presidency and one he is eager to emphasize in his re-election campaign.
Those ends are served in the 17 documents chosen by U.S. officials for the world to see — not to mention American voters. The Obama administration has refused to release a fuller record of its bin Laden collection, making it difficult to glean any larger truths about the state of the terrorist organization.
What is clear from the documents released so far is that al Qaeda’s leaders are constantly on the run from unmanned U.S. aircraft and trying to evade detection by CIA spies and National Security Agency eavesdroppers.
In one letter, either bin Laden himself or his senior deputy tells the leader of Yemen’s al Qaeda offshoot that, in the face of U.S. power, it is futile to try to establish a government that will offer it safe haven.
“Even though we were able to militarily and economically exhaust and weaken our greatest enemy before and after the eleventh,” the letter says, referring to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, “the enemy continues to possess the ability to topple any state we establish.”
Again and again in the letters, bin Laden and his inner circle struggle to keep the focus of Islamic terrorism on killing Americans and tamp down attacks by al Qaeda affiliates on Muslim innocents. The documents describe the U.S. as “a malicious tree with a huge trunk,” and its allies as mere branches not worth al Qaeda’s time.
“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.”
Such passages offer a glimpse into the terrorist’s mindset. They also fit into the U.S. government’s public relations fight with al Qaeda. The U.S. has repeatedly sought to diminish the group’s standing in the Muslim world.
The documents, which date from September 2006 to April 2011, were declassified by U.S. intelligence officials and posted by scholars at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. As part of the declassification process, intelligence officials would have withheld any documents that they felt could inflame anti-American sentiment — another reason the documents offer a largely sanitized version.
The release was the latest beat in a drumroll from the Obama administration. Over several weeks, officials have leaked select documents seized in the raid, Obama has made a surprise visit to Afghanistan and the president and senior officials have made themselves available for an hour-long show about the raid on NBC.
Yet the administration has refused requests by the Associated Press to review U.S. government records — including helicopter maintenance logs and reports about the performance of military gear used in the raid — that could provide insights into how bin Laden died, how the U.S. verified his identity and how it decided to bury him at sea.
Obama’s re-election campaign distributed a video questioning whether Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney would have ordered the raid on bin Laden’s compound. Romney snapped back that “of course” he would have.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the new documents came out after a long process of declassification and analysis, and the timing was driven in part by interest surrounding the anniversary of bin Laden’s death.