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A Lion in Winter?

9:05 AM, Apr 13, 2012 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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Last week, foreign press outlets ran a story that deserves to receive a lot more attention in America. Documents captured in Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad, Pakistan compound reportedly show that the terror master helped plan the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India.

Osama bin Laden

You may be thinking: So what? That’s what Osama bin Laden did, he planned terrorist attacks. Fair enough, but the story deserves more attention from American journalists for at least two reasons.

First, the documents go to the heart of how we understand al Qaeda’s operations. The Mumbai attacks were carried out by Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a terrorist group that has long been sponsored by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI). The LeT has been allies with al Qaeda for more than two decades. That much was known. But if bin Laden’s documents are as advertised, then they demonstrate a much closer working relationship between the two groups. The documents also raise new questions about the relationship between the ISI and al Qaeda.

A Pakistani-American named David Headley scouted the locations in Mumbai that other LeT operatives attacked. During an American trial of one of his co-conspirators last year, Headley testified that two ISI-connected handlers worked with him in the plot. Sajid Mir and a man known as “Major Iqbal” both worked with and directed Headley throughout his missions. Both Mir and Iqbal were once majors in the Pakistani army.

Intercepted phone calls revealed that Mir directed the LeT’s hitmen during their assault on Mumbai. Major Iqbal gave Headley $25,000, which Headley used to pay for his reconnaissance missions.

The Abbottabad documents reportedly show that Headley’s surveillance reports, which were paid for by the ISI’s man, may have ended up in bin Laden’s hands.

Second, the Mumbai documents (again, assuming they say what has been reported) directly contradict a narrative some in the Obama administration have been pushing in the press.

David Ignatius of the Washington Post was recently shown a sampling of the documents by a “senior Obama administration official” and afterwards described bin Laden as “a lion in winter.” Bin Laden “lived in a constricted world, in which he and his associates were hunted so relentlessly by U.S. forces that they had trouble sending the simplest communications,” Ignatius claims. Bin Laden’s “tone” in the documents “is almost that of a man who senses the end may be near,” Ignatius writes, and the terror master was “much like a boxer in the late rounds who knows he is losing but still looking for the knockout blow.”

But if bin Laden was directly involved in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, then his world was not as “constricted” as Ignatius’s source claims.

Interestingly, the source for the press reports on bin Laden’s Mumbai role is Bruce Riedel, a former adviser to President Obama on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Riedel was evidently briefed on the documents, shown them, or both.

“The documents and files found in Abbottabad showed a close connection between Bin Laden and [Hafiz] Saeed, right up to May 2011,” Riedel told the Hindustan Times. Hafiz Saeed is the head of LeT, and has been protected by the Pakistani ISI for years – even after the U.S. offered a $10 million reward for his capture earlier this month. If bin Laden was in direct contact with Saeed, it is difficult to believe that the Pakistani ISI would not know about it.

Riedel added that the captured files “suggested a much larger direct al Qaeda role in the planning of the Mumbai attacks than many assumed.”

The Mumbai documents are not the only ones captured in Abbottabad that indicate bin Laden remained active to the end. Shortly after bin Laden was killed in May 2011, CNN cited a U.S. official who described the documents. “There are strong indications there is back and forth with other terrorists,” this official said. “These are not just the writings of an elderly jihadi.”

This directly contradicts Ignatius’s “lion in winter” description.

Similarly, in May 2011, ProPublica’s Sebastian Rotella talked to intelligence officials who had knowledge of the documents. Rotella concluded that bin Laden “clearly played a role in al Qaeda's operational, tactical and strategic planning.”

“You could describe him as a micro-manager,” one U.S. official told Rotella. “The cumbersome process he had to follow for security reasons did not prevent him from playing a role...He was down in the weeds as far as best operatives, best targets, best timing.”

Still other evidence comes from relatively recent plots, including al Qaeda’s nascent plan to launch Mumbai-style attacks against European cities in 2010. That plot was reportedly ordered by bin Laden himself.  

Some in the counterterrorism community have long tried to downplay or outright dismiss bin Laden’s role in managing al Qaeda’s operations after he fled Afghanistan in late 2001. Evidence demonstrating the opposite was true—that bin Laden maintained a direct role in managing terrorist operations until his death—continues to mount.

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies

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