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.
From his redoubt in Pakistan, bin Laden was keenly aware that his organization’s standing with Muslim populations was crumbling.
“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.
The documents show that bin Laden’s inner circle was frustrated when, in 2010, attention in the U.S. shifted to the economic downturn without linking al Qaeda to the damage. “All the political talk in America is about the economy, forgetting or ignoring the war and its role in weakening the economy,” wrote his spokesman, Adam Gadahn.
As bin Laden struggled to right his organization, no detail seemed too small for his attention. In one letter, he wrote that “controlling children” was one of the keys to hiding in cities, as he did for years while U.S. forces searched Pakistan’s rugged frontier.
He encouraged his followers in hiding to teach their children the local language and not let them out of their homes “except for extreme necessity like medical care.” Adults should be with them outside to keep their voices down, he said.
The main message of the documents released so far is that “bin Laden is burdened by the incompetence of his jihadi brothers,” said Nelly Lahoud, one of the West Point scholars who studied the correspondence. “I wouldn’t want to be any one of them.”
Bin Laden’s operatives, much like armchair political junkies in the United States, were attentive viewers of U.S. TV news.
Gadahn described ABC as “all right, actually it could be one of the best channels as far as we are concerned,” criticized CNN as being too close to the government and heaped scorn on Fox News, which “falls into the abyss, as you know, and lacks neutrality.” He said of Fox: “Let her die in anger.”
Al Qaeda’s relationship with Iran, a point of abiding interest to the U.S. government, was rough, judging from the documents. After the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, some top al Qaeda operatives and their families fled to Iran, where authorities there put them under house arrest. Over the years, Iran has released some, including members of bin Laden’s family. Others remain.
Abd al-Rahman, who became al Qaeda’s No. 2 after bin Laden’s death, complained bitterly about dealing with the Iranians and what he considered their Byzantine methods of negotiating. He died in a U.S. drone strike.
“The criminals did not send us any letter, nor did they send us a message through any of the brothers,” he wrote of the Iranians. “Such behavior is of course not unusual for them; indeed, it is typical of their mindset and method. They do not wish to appear to be negotiating with us or responding to our pressures.”
In other documents:
• It appeared bin Laden was unaware of the planned bombing of Times Square in New York in May 2010, by al Qaeda associates in Pakistan, but he was disappointed that it failed.
• Bin Laden warned the leader of the affiliate group in Yemen against attempting to take over the government and establish an Islamic state, instead saying he should “refocus his efforts on attacking the United States.”
• Bin Laden appeared uninterested in recognizing Somali-based al-Shabab when that 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, such as cutting off the hands of thieves.
The picture formed from the small sampling — of terrorists who were more pathetic than potent — is not complete.
In the period covered by the letters, al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen rattled the U.S. by smuggling a bomb onto a plane and nearly taking it down on Christmas 2009. That group also sneaked bombs onto cargo planes in 2010 as part of a plot that the U.S. foiled at the last minute.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemen branch is known, has an elusive master bomb maker among its ranks and remains intent on carrying out attacks on U.S. interests.
• Associated Press writers Adam Goldman, Kimberly Dozier and Eileen Sullivan contributed to this report.
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