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Al Qaeda Wasn’t ‘on the Run’

Why haven’t we seen the documents retrieved in the bin Laden raid?

Sep 15, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 01 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Three weeks before the anniversary, the administration provided that handpicked set of documents to analysts at the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point. The CTC team, according to two sources familiar with the events, was instructed to prepare a study to accompany the release of the documents around the upcoming anniversary.

To some involved in the CTC study, it was clear that the report was to be part of a broader administration public relations effort. But others assumed good faith on the part of the administration. “They didn’t pressure us on timing at all,” says Lieutenant Colonel Liam Collins, at the time the director of the center. 

The administration originally approved 19 documents for declassification and release. But shortly after providing them to the CTC, Lieutenant General Doug Lute, a senior official on the National Security Council, called to ask that one of the documents be withheld. The document in question detailed the close relations between al Qaeda and senior leaders of the Afghan Taliban. Lute explained that the administration had restarted secret negotiations with the Taliban, and releasing the document could present unwanted complications. The document was not released.

The White House may have been spooked by a report from Jason Burke in the Guardian on April 29, just days before the scheduled release of the declassified materials. “Documents found in the house where Osama bin Laden was killed a year ago show a close working relationship between top al Qaeda leaders and Mullah Omar, the overall commander of the Taliban, including frequent discussions of joint operations against NATO forces in Afghanistan, the Afghan government and targets in Pakistan.” 

Burke continued: “The news will undermine hopes of a negotiated peace in Afghanistan, where the key debate among analysts and policymakers is whether the Taliban—seen by many as following an Afghan national agenda—might once again offer a safe haven to al Qaeda or like-minded militants, or whether they can be persuaded to renounce terrorism.” Burke tells The Weekly Standard that he doesn’t know if he was shown the documents as part of a broader rollout. 

On April 30, John Brennan, then Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser and now his CIA director, made a striking claim: The elimination of al Qaeda was imminent. “If the decade before 9/11 was the time of al-Qaeda’s rise, and the decade after 9/11 was the time of its decline, then I believe this decade will be the one that sees its demise,” he told an audience at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. Then Brennan previewed the release of the bin Laden documents: 

With its most skilled and experienced commanders being lost so quickly, al Qaeda has had trouble replacing them. This is one of the many conclusions we have been able to draw from documents seized at bin Laden’s compound, some of which will be published online, for the first time, this week by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center. For example, bin Laden worried about—and I quote—“the rise of lower leaders who are not as experienced and this would lead to the repeat of mistakes.”

Al Qaeda leaders continue to struggle to communicate with subordinates and affiliates. Under intense pressure in the tribal regions of Pakistan, they have fewer places to train and groom the next generation of operatives. They’re struggling to attract new recruits. Morale is low, with intelligence indicating that some members are giving up and returning home, no doubt aware that this is a fight they will never win. In short, al Qaeda is losing, badly.

Others echoed Brennan’s claims. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta declared that the United States was “within reach of strategically defeating al Qaeda,” and President Obama, in remarks the day after Brennan’s speech, boasted, “The goal that I set—to defeat al Qaeda and deny it a chance to rebuild—is now within our reach.”

The CTC report was released on May 3 under the title “Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Laden Sidelined?” The authors were careful to note that they were given just a fraction of the document collection and that researchers there had “no part in the selection of documents.” The conclusions of the study were consistent with the administration’s line: Al Qaeda had been badly weakened, and in the months before his death Osama bin Laden had been marginalized. 

As the public heard this carefully managed story about al Qaeda, analysts at CENTCOM were poring over documents that showed something close to the opposite. 

The broader collection of documents paints a far more complicated picture of al Qaeda. There are documents laying out al Qaeda’s relationships with terror-sponsoring states, including Iran and Pakistan. There are documents that provide a close look at bin Laden’s careful cultivation of a vast array of increasingly deadly affiliates, including the one we now know as ISIS. Other documents provide a window into the complex and highly secretive system of communications between al Qaeda leaders and operatives plotting attacks. Still others offer a glimpse of relations between bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri, and the others who run the global terror syndicate.

One document laid bare bin Laden’s relationship with Hafiz Saeed, the leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba, and suggested that the al Qaeda leader helped plan the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai that killed 150 people and injured more than 600. “The documents and files found in Abbottabad showed a close connection between bin Laden and Saeed, right up to May 2011,” former Obama adviser Bruce Riedel told the Hindustan Times. The documents “suggested a much larger direct al Qaeda role in the planning of the Mumbai attacks than many had assumed.” 

The CENTCOM team reviewed documents detailing the complicated and dangerous relationship between al Qaeda and Tehran and found evidence that senior Iranian officials facilitated the travel and safe haven of top al Qaeda operatives both before and after the 9/11 attacks. Other documents suggest that the relationship between Pakistan’s intelligence service and al Qaeda leaders was even stronger than many intelligence officials had understood.

The exploitation by the CENTCOM team, though far from comprehensive, generated “hundreds of additional reports” on al Qaeda that were distributed throughout the intelligence community, according to congressional testimony from Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, then director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. The findings were briefed to senior intelligence and military officials, including Robert Cardillo, deputy director of national intelligence, and Admiral Michael Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Several members of Congress were briefed as well on the findings.

Derek Harvey, who supervised the DIA/CENTCOM team and conducted some of the briefings, has considerable credibility on these issues. He was one of the first intelligence analysts to warn of the growing insurgency in Iraq—just months after the invasion—challenging the happy talk from some members of the Bush administration. Later, Harvey worked closely with Sunni tribes in Iraq to lay the groundwork for the Iraq surge in 2007—work that was highlighted in The War Within, Bob Woodward’s account of the Bush administration’s attempt to save Iraq between 2006 and 2008. When David Petraeus went to CENTCOM, he took Harvey with him to the Tampa headquarters to create and run the Afghanistan-Pakistan Center of Excellence.  

Harvey would not discuss the contents of the documents. But he acknowledges that the DIA/CENTCOM conclusions contradicted the story the administration was telling the American people. “They were saying al Qaeda was on the run,” he recalls. “We were telling them al Qaeda was expanding and growing stronger.”

Meanwhile, the internal squabbling continued. The CIA, now under the direction of John Brennan, who had moved back to the agency from the White House, sought once again to limit DIA/CENTCOM’s access to the documents. And some analysts at the CTC were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the analysis in “Letters from Abbottabad.” According to three sources with knowledge of the handling of the documents, at least one CTC analyst drafted a memo—sometimes referred to as an “affidavit”—describing how the conclusions of the study would have been different had analysts been provided access to the full range of documents. The Weekly Standard asked CTC director Liam Collins about the memo in April. He responded: “I’m not tracking you on that.” Collins denied that anyone at CTC had written or distributed such a memo, and he reiterated his denial this month. 

But one U.S. intelligence official, told of Collins’s claim, scoffed, “It exists. Period.”

In July, Lieutenant General Flynn left his post as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, a year earlier than scheduled. Many intelligence professionals believe he was forced out, in part because he—and many who worked for him—aggressively challenged the administration’s view that al Qaeda was dying. Flynn’s views were shaped by the intelligence in the bin Laden documents.

Before he left, Flynn spoke to reporter James Kitfield, of Breaking Defense, who asked why he pushed back on the White House’s view that al Qaeda had died with Osama bin Laden. “There’s a political component to that issue, but when bin Laden was killed there was a general sense that maybe this threat would go away. We all had those hopes, including me. But I also remembered my many years in Afghanistan and Iraq. We kept decapitating the leadership of these groups, and more leaders would just appear from the ranks to take their place. That’s when I realized that decapitation alone was a failed strategy.” 

Flynn recalled pushing to get information to policymakers with the hope that it might influence their decisions. “We said many times, ‘Hey, we need to get this intelligence in front of the secretary of defense, the secretary of state, the national security adviser! The White House needs to see this intelligence picture we have!’ ” He added: “We saw all this connective tissue developing between these [proliferating] terrorist groups. So when asked if the terrorists were on the run, we couldn’t respond with any answer but ‘no.’ When asked if the terrorists were defeated, we had to say ‘no.’ Anyone who answers ‘yes’ to either of those questions either doesn’t know what they are talking about, they are misinformed, or they are flat out lying.”

There is, nevertheless, some good news. After sustained pressure from members of Congress, led by Representative Devin Nunes of California, and outside experts, including Bruce Riedel, the public will soon begin to see more of the bin Laden documents. “I have gone to great lengths to get access to these documents, but I have met with excuses and stonewalling at every turn,” says Nunes. “If there is nothing to hide, as the Obama administration claims, then it should release these vital papers.” Nunes inserted language into the Intelligence Authorization Bill requiring the director of national intelligence to complete a declassification review of the documents within 120 days and justify in writing any remaining classification.

There is little reason to believe the law will lead to the release of documents contradicting the administration’s narrative—at least not right away. Those in the administration and the intelligence community who propagated the myth that al Qaeda was dying have every incentive to fight revelations that make clear their mendacity. 

It’s far more likely that the declassification requirement will trigger another round of fighting over the documents. But that fight will take place in public—and the administration will be forced to defend withholding information. This is a small victory. 


Already in congressional testimony last year, DNI Clapper said there is “good reason for us to declassify” more of the documents, so long as doing so does not jeopardize “current operations.”

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