The Magazine

John Brennan and the Bin Laden Files

Mar 11, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 25 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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Although communications were hampered by security protocols, Rotella continued, bin Laden “managed to retain authority over al Qaeda’s affiliates in Yemen, North Africa, and Iraq.” He sent messages to them, and they sent responses. In one instance, some in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) suggested that Anwar al Awlaki take over leadership of the group. Bin Laden nixed that idea, preferring to keep his longtime aide-de-camp, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, in charge. Wuhayshi remains in that position today. 

There are additional examples in this early reporting that support the same view: Osama bin Laden managed a cohesive, international terrorist network. 

Nearly one year later, however, the fix was in. Some in the Obama administration had decided to spin bin Laden’s documents to portray the slain al Qaeda chieftain as a recluse with little sway over the terror network he had helped build. 

This new narrative was first pushed by administration-friendly journalists such as the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, who characterized bin Laden as “a lion in winter” in a March 18, 2012, article. A month and a half later, in a May 3 opinion piece riddled with logical contradictions, CNN’s Peter Bergen described bin Laden as “isolated” and yet a “micromanager.” Bergen has repeatedly argued that the threat from al Qaeda is insignificant, and his reporting on the documents more often than not is intended to buttress his view.

A pathetically small sample of documents, the 17 mentioned above, was given to West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center (CTC), which analyzed them and concluded that bin Laden “enjoyed little control over either groups affiliated with al Qaeda in name,” such as AQAP or Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), “or so-called fellow travelers,” such as the Pakistani Taliban. 

The CTC’s analysis, also published on May 3, 2012, clearly contradicted the initial assessments made in the wake of the Abbottabad raid. We cannot say that the CTC report’s authors had better access to the documents in the year that followed, though, as the documents they looked at were not even a significant percentage of the vast cache recovered. Moreover, even the documents analyzed in the CTC report do not support its conclusions. 

What has been reported about the documents excluded from the administration-approved subset does not support the CTC’s conclusions either. Consider what the Guardian’s Jason Burke reported on April 29, 2012—just days before the CTC report was published. Burke reported that the documents recovered in bin Laden’s compound “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.” Both Osama bin Laden and his replacement, Ayman al Zawahiri, were involved in coordinating attacks with the Taliban.

Mysteriously, the documents Burke reported on were not among those the administration allowed the CTC to publish just four days later. Why? As Burke noted beforehand, the documents “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 nationalist agenda—might once again offer a safe haven to al Qaeda or like-minded militants, or whether they can be persuaded to renounce terrorism.”

Indeed, the Obama administration has repeatedly pushed for fantasyland peace talks with the Taliban. At one point, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made it clear that the Taliban must renounce al Qaeda, which it has repeatedly refused to do. Simultaneously, administration officials, including the president, have sought to downplay al Qaeda’s presence inside Afghanistan. If the Taliban and al Qaeda are closely cooperating on attacks, and they are, then the entire rationale for drawing down forces in Afghanistan comes into question.

Another, more startling example of what the administration excluded from the documents released to the public was offered by Bruce Riedel, a former adviser to President Obama. Riedel said the files show a close relationship between bin Laden and the leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Hafiz Saeed. The LeT is a Pakistan-based terrorist group with known ties to the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment. It was responsible for the November 2008 siege in Mumbai, India, in which 166 people were killed and hundreds more wounded. 

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