The quest to understand Osama bin Laden continues, four years after his death.

The U.S. government on Wednesday released a trove of documents allegedly collected from the compound in which the world’s most well-known terrorist hid and was killed in 2011. The dump of more than 100 letters, directives and miscellaneous reports (including a partial list of the titles that graced the al-Qaeda leader’s bookshelf) paints a picture of a man simultaneously inhabiting two worlds: one atop a sprawling terror organization; the other a decidedly normal, suburban existence. Strategic reports on attacking U.S. oil companies abroad are presented alongside books on calligraphy and video-game manuals.

The documents were released days after a blockbuster article in the London Review of Books by veteran journalist Seymour Hersh, offering an alternate version of how the al-Qaeda leader was killed. Among the myriad details offered by Mr. Hersh – and disputed by Washington – is an allegation that no useful intelligence was gathered following the raid on the bin Laden compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which released the documents, made no mention of Mr. Hersh’s allegations, and some experts who have seen these and other documents collected during the raid say it is unlikely the release was prompted by Mr. Hersh’s work. Still, the document dump represents an attempt by Washington to walk a fine line – showing that useful intelligence was recovered, without revealing anything too damaging or embarrassing in the process.

Many of the documents are undated and unsigned, making it difficult to fully pinpoint who is speaking to whom. Others are strangely bureaucratic: ajihadi job application form asks potential recruits to list their names, vital statistics and whether they would be willing to undergo a suicide operation.

But taken together, the documents shine a light into the inner workings of al-Qaeda – a terror organization that was, in the years leading up to its leader’s death, deeply uncertain about its own place in the world.

Many of the documents show a deep concern with the events of the Arab Spring. Sensing a fundamental shift in the Middle East – and the potential downfall of long-ruling dictators everywhere from Egypt to Yemen – al-Qaeda’s senior leadership sought to capitalize on the turmoil.

“History taught us that the people in revolt will change the existing situation, and we at the moment should exert our efforts to guide them and to prevent their being represented by the half-solution people such as [Egypt’s Muslim] Brotherhood,” reads one letter, purportedly written by al-Qaeda’s leader himself, “and we hope that the next stage will be the reinstating of the rule of the Caliphate.”

For al-Qaeda, the Arab Spring revolutions presented the most significant opportunity in years for a group that had been seriously weakened by years of war.

“In 2011 and 2012, folks in the West were hoping what was happening in Tunisia [and neighbouring countries] would bring in democracy,” says Seth Jones, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation. “[Al-Qaeda] were hoping to fracture some of these governments, and were working to build networks in those areas.

“Looking back now from May, 2015, they turned out to be more right than many in the West were – Libya has provided a sanctuary for these types of groups.”

But the interests of al-Qaeda’s leadership were varied. Letters from senior leaders show a group struggling to contain infighting among various terror factions (especially in Iraq), as well as maintaining calm in al-Qaeda-held areas.

“I also wish to remind our brothers in the Taliban of the great importance of treating the tribes and villagers with compassion,” reads one letter. “Regarding the tribes that joined or intend to join [a U.S.-led project], please warn them not to overreact in dealing with these tribes so as to not anger these tribes. Explain this to them and remind them of the experience of our brothers in Iraq with this.”

Interspersed with dozens of high-level strategic documents are myriad indicators of the numbing normalcy of Mr. bin Laden’s existence during the last years of his life. Inside the compound where he was killed, U.S. agents found books on Arabic calligraphy, video-game manuals, a suicide prevention guide and a book on sports nutrition (all of which, the U.S. government assumes, were read by other members of the household).

In addition to varied books about the nature and history of the U.S. war on terror, his bookshelf contained books on the Illuminati and others written by so-called 9/11 “truthers” who claim the Sept. 11 attacks were conducted by groups other than al-Qaeda. The documents retrieved also included dozens of think-tank analysis reports, especially ones undertaken by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.

There are some signs that this week’s document dump was undertaken by the U.S. government in a hurry, or at least with a few glitches. There is no uniform standard among the translated documents: Some are translated fully, while others are summarized, “gisted,” or not translated at all. Some of the English translations are matched to Arabic source documents that are entirely unrelated to the translation. In some documents, portions of the English translations are highlighted, even though no such highlights exist in the original Arabic material. No explanation is given for these highlights.

This isn’t the first time the U.S. government has released documents collected during the bin Laden compound raid. Three years ago, Washington released 17 of some 6,000 files picked up at the time. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has also promised to release more documents in the future, as long as making those documents public “will not hurt ongoing operations against [al-Qaeda] or their affiliates.”

Some of the documents recovered from the compound and released this week are provided with almost no context. As such, most observers are left to make educated guesses as to why, for example, Mr. bin Laden was found with a copy of the U.S. embassy in Pakistan’s 2005 Toys for Tots program or the Government of Canada’s country profile of France.

But more than any other topic, al-Qaeda’s leader seems to have been preoccupied with the Arab Spring in the weeks and months leading up to his death. For a man who saw his organization diminished and his hopes for a grand Islamic empire crushed, the revolutions of the Middle East shone as one last hope for al-Qaeda to achieve its most sought-after goal.

“Though the Mujahidin have several duties to perform, their main duty now is to support the revolutions taking place,” Mr. bin Laden writes in a letter. “Although carrying Jihad in Afghanistan until we impose the laws of God in that country is an important duty that we are carrying out … our main duty now is to liberate the billion and a half people and have them get hold of their holy places.”

On bin Laden’s bookshelf

The 2030 Spike by Colin Mason

A Brief Guide to Understanding Islam by I.A. Ibrahim

America’s Strategic Blunders by Willard Matthias

America’s “War on Terrorism” by Michel Chossudovsky

Al-Qaeda’s Online Media Strategies: From Abu Reuter to Irhabi 007 by Hanna Rogan

The Best Democracy Money Can Buy by Greg Palast

The Best Enemy Money Can Buy by Antony Sutton

Black Box Voting, Ballot Tampering in the 21st Century by Bev Harris

Bloodlines of the Illuminati by Fritz Springmeier

Bounding the Global War on Terrorism by Jeffrey Record

Checking Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions by Henry Sokolski and Patrick Clawson

Christianity and Islam in Spain 756-1031 A.D. by C.R. Haines

Civil Democratic Islam: Partners, Resources, and Strategies by Cheryl Benard

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins

Conspirators’ Hierarchy: The Committee of 300 by John Coleman

Crossing the Rubicon by Michael C. Ruppert

Fortifying Pakistan: The Role of U.S. Internal Security Assistance (only the book’s introduction) by C. Christine Fair and Peter Chalk

Guerrilla Air Defense: Antiaircraft Weapons and Techniques for Guerrilla Forces by James Crabtree

Handbook of International Law by Anthony Aust

Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance by Noam Chomsky

Imperial Hubris by Michael Scheuer

In Pursuit of Allah’s Pleasure by Dr. Naahah Ibrahim, Asim Abdul Maajid and Esaam-ud-Deen Darbaalah

International Relations Theory and the Asia-Pacific by John Ikenberry and Michael Mastanduno

Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions since World War II by William Blum

Military Intelligence Blunders by John Hughes-Wilson

Project MKULTRA, the CIA’s program of research in behavioral modification Joint hearing before the Select Committee on Intelligence and the Subcommittee on Health and Scientific Research of the Committee on Human Resources, United States Senate, Ninety-fifth Congress, first session, August 3, 1977. United States. Congress. Senate. Select Committee on Intelligence.

Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies by Noam Chomsky

New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions about the Bush Administration and 9/11 by David Ray Griffin

New Political Religions, or Analysis of Modern Terrorism by Barry Cooper

Obama’s Wars by Bob Woodward

Oxford History of Modern War by Charles Townshend

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy

Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower by William Blum

The Secret Teachings of All Ages by Manly Hall

Secrets of the Federal Reserve by Eustace Mullins

The Taking of America, 1-2-3 by Richard Sprague

Unfinished Business: U.S. Overseas Military Presence in the 21st Century by Michael O’Hanlon

The U.S. and Vietnam 1787-1941 by Robert Hopkins Miller

“Website Claims Steve Jackson Games Foretold 9/11,” article posted on (this file contained only a single saved Web page)

Source: Office of the Director of National Intelligence

The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, May. 20 2015, 1:04 PM EDT
Last updated Thursday, May. 21 2015, 12:08 AM EDT