Hunkered down in his Pakistani compound, bin Laden pleaded with his followers to stay focused on attacking the US instead of being dragged into Muslim infighting.
“The focus should be on killing and fighting the American people and their representatives,” bin Laden wrote in one of the documents revealed on Wednesday.
The letter was among thousands of files found by US Navy SEALs on May 2, 2011, when they descended on bin Laden’s hideout in the garrison town of Abbottabad and shot him dead.
US intelligence agencies have now declassified more than 100 of these documents taken from bin Laden’s archive, after politicians ordered the move and critics accused the CIA of withholding material.
The AFP news agency was given exclusive access to the documents in advance of their release.
Jeff Anchukaitis, spokesman for the US Director of National Intelligence’s office, said the release of “a sizeable tranche of documents recovered during the raid” was in keeping with US President Barack Obama‘s call for “increased transparency”.
It was also in accordance with a law obliging the spy agencies to review all the bin Laden materials for possible release, he said.
The documents are CIA translations of the originals in English, and AFP had no way to independently verify the materials or the accuracy of the translation.
The release came shortly after US journalist Seymour Hersh alleged that Washington’s official account of the hunt for bin Laden and the raid that led to his death was a lie.
But CIA spokesman Ryan Trapani said the declassification had been long planned and had not been intended as a response to Hersh’s report.
From the strategic and theological discussions to the mundane details of domestic funding and security measures, the documents show Bin Laden once again attacking the West in a spectacular fashion.
Mindful of drone raids taking out senior leaders, bin Laden frequently referred to security headaches and advised against communicating by email.
He scolded his followers for gathering in large groups and fretted about a microscopic bug being inserted in his wife’s clothes.
He laid out plans to groom a new cadre of leaders willing to risk the dangers of joining al-Qaeda, and his associates discussed arrangements for smuggling bin Laden’s favourite son and likely heir, Hamza, to Pakistan.
Citing domestic US public opposition to the Vietnam War, bin Laden argued that the only way to alter US foreign policy was to “start striking America to force it to abandon these rulers and leave the Muslims alone”.
But the documents also highlight deep divisions among his followers over how to wage their campaigns.
Bin Laden warned that conflict with regimes in the Middle East would distract the fighters from hitting hard at what as far as he was concerned was the real enemy – the US.
“We should stop operations against the army and the police in all regions, especially Yemen,” he wrote.
The correspondence reflected bin Laden’s “worry that disunity within the global jihadist movement could spell its demise,” said a senior US intelligence analyst.
The letters also show bin Laden was stunned by the Arab uprisings that erupted across the region from 2010 and urged his deputies to seize the moment of “revolution” and rally Muslim youth.
ISIL and bin Laden
Bin Laden and his then deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, received a scathing rebuke in a letter from some Iraqi supporters, who demanded they denounce the bloodletting in Iraq.
The Jihad and Reform Front warned bin Laden that God would hold him to account “for blessing the work done by the al-Qaeda in Iraq organisation without disavowing the scandals that are committed in your name”.
“If you still can, then this is your last chance to remedy the jihad breakdown that is about to take place in Iraq, that is mostly caused by your followers,” said the letter dated May 22, 2007.
Bin Laden wrote of the need for large-scale operations, even though some of his deputies were finding it difficult to organise massive attacks as they tried to avert drones overhead and US eavesdropping.
One document recently declassified in a “terrorism” trial in New York but not released on Wednesday quotes Abu Musab al-Suri, an al-Qaeda veteran, who advocated going after smaller targets of opportunity as a more realistic approach, intelligence officials said.
“Bin Laden at the time of his death remained focused on large-scale operations while other al-Qaeda leaders believed smaller operations, or inciting lone attacks, could succeed at bleeding the West economically,” the intelligence analyst said.
Bin Laden failed to win the argument. After his death, al-Qaeda’s leadership called for lone-wolf attacks, and Suri’s idea of “individual jihad” won out.
ISIL, which was officially excommunicated from al-Qaeda, now controls vast swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria and its online propaganda has been blamed for inspiring attacks from Paris to the Dallas suburbs.