Osama bin Laden’s secret personal diary, seized during the US Navy Seals raid on his house in Abbottabad on May 2, 2011 that ended with his killing, offers an insight into the mind of someone who was once one of the world’s most wanted men.
In the al-Qaeda documents, bin Laden comes across as an engaged commentator reacting to current events, not a strategic thinker taking part in shaping and influencing those events from his hideout.
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In the tranche of documents released by the US Central Intelligence Agency on November 1, bin Laden shows no global vision or strategy.
The dominant theme of the secret journal is its dissection of the revolts of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, with bin Laden offering little more than commentaries and analyses.
On Libya, for example, he discussed the decision of longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi of attacking the rebels who were trying to topple his government.
Bin Laden expressed apprehension that Gaddafi might be able to defeat the rebels and emerge victorious.
On a different page, he discussed the possibility of Gaddafi winning the war and of the “hypocritical” West opting to normalise their relations with him.
The Libyan uprising
In the case of Libya, bin Laden was hopeful that the rebels would eventually win.
“The difference between the revolts in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt is that Libya has opened the door for the Mujahedin [to operate in] whereas it would take years to have that in Tunisia and Egypt,” he wrote.
For bin Laden and al-Qaeda, the disintegration of nation-states, chaos and state failure represented a fertile ground to exploit and establish their foothold on.
In the case of Yemen, however, bin Laden expressed reservation that the impoverished Arabian Peninsula country was moving too fast towards its revolution, arguing from the perspective that the Yemeni people are still not ready for such a step.
“We need to think for a long time about Yemen,” he wrote.
“Yemen needs at least six months more to raise the awareness of the public.
“Keeping the country unstable is the best environment to spread the ideas of al-Qaeda and Islam.”
Bin Laden suggested that al-Qaeda could speed things up in Yemen by “assassinating the Yemeni president”, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was later deposed.
In his secret journal, bin Laden does not offer deeper insights into the events he was commenting on so extensively.
People who knew bin Laden personally during his days in Afghanistan say that the man was neither a religious scholar nor an Islamic thinker.
“Bin Laden was a pious, rich businessman who committed himself and his fortune to the cause of jihad as he understood it,” a source, who knew bin Laden personally during the 1990s but declined to give his name, told Al Jazeera.
“Because of this background, bin Laden was more of a spiritual inspiration for hardened jihadists than a religious scholar or an ideological thinker.
“He was a practical man who was more concerned with the day-to-day operations of the al-Qaeda organisation in Afghanistan, similar to the way he ran his businesses before he embarked on his quest for jihad.”
The diary, written in Arabic, contains exchanges and questions between bin Laden and one of his sons each time.
It starts off with a biographical question, presumably by one of his sons, about when he thought about “jihad” for the first time in his life.
He said he thought about “jihad” when he was in high school.
“I was influenced by the general environment [in the country] as any individual at home and at school and in the street. I was religious by nature. I always prayed since I was young.”
He also described his first encounter with the West during a visit to Britain that took place in 1969, when he was 13 years old.
‘Degenerate and immoral’
The impression of the West that he came away with was one of “degenerate and immoral” social life.
“Because of that I decided to never go back to the West, because no religiously committed person should go there.”
He spoke about a revolt in Sudan, but he spoke about the Sudanese “highly peaceful tendencies”, meaning that they were not prone to revolutions or rising against the government.
On Saudi Arabia, he estimated that “it will only take six months to fall”, adding that “it is important that Jordan falls before Saudi Arabia” does.
The secret journal indicates that bin Laden, predictably, did not think highly of the US government.
But what comes as a surprise is that he regarded it in the same way he viewed authoritarian Arab governments.
From bin Laden’s standpoint, the US government was “the head of the snake”: Once you had cut it, the Arab regimes would lose their protector and sponsor and then fall.
That was perhaps why he chose to attack the US on September 11, 2001, not the Arab regimes he sought to dismantle.
It is clear that he, and al-Qaeda as a whole, underestimated the US response to the 9/11 attacks.
One of bin Laden’s former close confidants told Al Jazeera that bin Laden and al-Qaeda thought the US would just do its usual bombing runs against their camps in Afghanistan, but not go as far as invading the country and occupying it.
“The invasion of Afghanistan was a total disaster for us,” said the confidant, who spent years with bin Laden in Afghanistan but now lives in his native country in the Middle East.
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