Osama bin Laden was long the most-wanted person on the planet. He was the maestro of the 9/11 attacks, and the commander of the world's most lethal and feared terrorist syndicate. Yet, documents taken from his Pakistan hideout reveal bin Laden had become anything but.
An Army analysis of 17 letters and other documents uncovered inside the Abbottabad compound where bin Laden was killed by SEALs reveal a frustrated terrorist leader who had lost control of the movement he helped launch, and who was increasingly frustrated by the actions of new al Qaeda cells.
"Bin Laden was not, as many thought, the puppet master pulling the strings that set in motion jihadi groups around the world," states an Army-led analysis of the documents released Thursday. In fact, as the U.S. war on terrorism forced him into hiding, his own jihadist movement grew and changed so quickly not even someone who at one time was perhaps the world's most powerful man could keep pace.
The Army's Combating Terrorism Center at West Point analyzed the documents and compiled the report.
In some of his final writings, the report states, "Bin Laden comes across as an outmoded jihadi."
While regional al Qaeda affiliates that sprang up after 9/11, that favor "indiscriminate jihad, [bin Laden] was more interested in carefully planned operations," states the CTC report. "In view of the recent marketing of 'lone wolf' operations as 'New Age' jihad, bin Laden instead urged methodical planning of suicide operations."
For bin Laden, his frustrations only grew because such repeated advice and guidance largely fell on deaf ears among the group's cells in Iraq, Yemen and other parts of the Middle East and North Africa.
The documents make clear bin Laden remained a major figure within the movement of extreme Islam that al Qaeda exemplified. But they also show his strategic whims were routinely questioned by lower-ranking operatives and his status seemed to slowly diminish over time.
"Al Qaeda-central has been pretty badly degraded," says Joshua Foust of the American Security Project. "I think they maintain the ambition to resume the global logistics and planning network they had in the 1990s but that's been pretty thoroughly smashed."
As early as 2006, some of his extremist lieutenants, who signed one letter "loving brother," wrote bin Laden to deliver what the Army report labels a "serious rebuke" of his policies.
"He alerted bin Laden that when one is distant from reality, as bin Laden was because of security measures he was forced to take, the soundness of one's judgment was bound to be impaired," states the report. The writer also advised the al Qaeda founder, in the Army report's words, that he "would still be in good company but only if he took measures to rectify his recent mistakes."
What's more, bin Laden possessed a deep distrust and was "far from being pleased with the actions" of al Qaeda-aligned groups in Iraq, Yemen and other nations. Bin Laden felt the groups were reckless, politically incompetent, disinterested in targeting the United States, and adrift from al Qaeda's mission of undermining heavy-handed regimes in the region.
In the letters and documents, bin Laden was particularly concerned with the actions of affiliate groups in Iraq and Yemen. The former for years battled American forces and fueled sectarian divisions in Iraq; U.S. intelligence officials say the latter is now the biggest terrorist threat to America. The Pentagon report concludes bin Laden came to see these cells as liabilities, not assets in his global jihad campaign.
Not only was bin Laden disgusted by the groups' attacks that killed other Muslims, he forcefully advised against the Yemeni group's plans to takeover that unstable nation.
Because Saudi Arabia would view an al Qaeda-controlled southern neighbor as its top threat, bin Laden wrote to an al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leader, Riyadh would "pump vast amounts of money to mobilize Yemeni tribes to fight against" al Qaeda forces there. The documents show bin Laden doubted AQAP had the financial resources or ample fighters to defeat an alliance of the Yemeni government, the wealthy Saudi Royal Family, and their collective Washington ally.