By David Ignatius
WASHINGTON — What’s riveting about the documents taken from Osama bin Laden’s compound, beyond the headline items about plots to kill American leaders, is the way they allow the reader to get inside the terrorist mastermind’s head.
I’ve only seen a small sample of the thousands of items that were carried away the night of May 2, 2011. But even those few documents shown to me by a senior Obama administration official give a sense of how bin Laden looked at the world in the years before his death.
This was the lion in winter: Bin Laden was hidden in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, pacing in his courtyard, watching television, dictating messages to his wives. He was at once a worldly man, trying to run a global terror network, and an introspective Muslim scholar who argued his points by using sayings of the prophet Muhammad or citing battles waged by the prophet’s associates.
A sense of bereavement hovers over these pages, not simply because of the loss of bin Laden’s colleagues, whom he eulogizes every few pages, but because bin Laden sensed that the movement itself had lost its momentum. He lived in a constricted world, in which he and his associates were hunted so relentlessly by U.S. forces that they had trouble sending the simplest communications.
Bin Laden wanted to save what remained of his network by evacuating it from the free-fire zone of Pakistan’s tribal areas. He noted “the importance of the exit from Waziristan of the brother leaders. … Choose distant locations to which to move them, away from aircraft photography and bombardment.”
This evacuation order comes in the most revealing document I was shown, which is a voluminous 48-page directive to Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, who served, in effect, as bin Laden’s chief of staff. Throughout this document, bin Laden pondered the likelihood that al-Qaida had failed in its mission of jihad.
Bin Laden begins by recalling the glory days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks when his al-Qaida mujahedeen were “the vanguard and standard-bearers of the Islamic community in fighting the Crusader-Zionist alliance.”
But the al-Qaida leader turns immediately to a bitter reflection on mistakes made by his followers — especially their killing of Muslims in Iraq and elsewhere. The result, he said, “would lead us to winning several battles while losing the war at the end.” Bin Laden ruminated on the “extremely great damage” caused by these overzealous jihadists. Not only is the organization’s reputation being damaged, he noted, but “tens of thousands are being arrested” in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
The brooding bin Laden advised his followers to back off on these self-defeating attacks in Muslim nations and instead begin “targeting American interests in non-Islamic countries first, such as South Korea.” At another point, he stressed: “The focus must be on actions that contribute to the intent of bleeding the American enemy.”
With his followers hunted and on the run, bin Laden emphasized the tradecraft for avoiding detection. He warned subordinates against talking to journalists, for example, noting that “a tracking chip could be put into some of their personal effects” and that they might be “involuntarily monitored … either on ground or by satellite.”
The commander-in-hiding suggested surveillance-avoidance routines that involved switching cars in tunnels. And he warned cadres who traveled through Iran to jettison anything acquired there, because “the Iranians are not to be trusted” and may plant “eavesdropping chips … so small that they can even be put inside a medical syringe.”
The terrorist leader wanted a big punch — much like a boxer in the late rounds who knows he is losing but is still looking for the knockout blow. At one point bin Laden advised Atiyah to pick 10 brothers to “study aviation” and be ready “to conduct suicide actions” and “do daring, important and precise missions.”
Bin Laden spoke of errors “outside the human will” and said it was necessary to apologize when these mistakes happened in wartime. Toward the end of his long message to Atiyah, he spoke of his son Hamzah and his desire that the young man be educated as a religious scholar in Qatar so that he can “refute the wrong and the suspicions raised around Jihad.” The tone is almost that of a man who senses the end may be near, who hopes that his son will clear his name.
“We are approaching a stage where narrow-mindedness is a killer,” says bin Laden on the penultimate page. That was truer than he knew.
David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is email@example.com.