Osama bin Laden was killed by an elite group of Navy Seals one year ago this week. And bin Laden’s files, a massive trove captured in his Abbottabad, Pakistan safe house, have been the subject of various articles since. Now, the Obama administration has reportedly decided to release “some” of the files to the public.
That’s good news. The files should be released to the public. But not just “some”—nearly all of them should be released.
Yes, some files still contain operationally relevant intelligence and exceptions can be made in such cases. But the vast majority of bin Laden’s documents should be made freely available online. Why?
Everything in what was formerly known as the “war on terror” has been the subject of a fierce and partisan debate – from the war in Afghanistan to the strength of al Qaeda today. And perhaps the best way for the American public to have an informed, intelligent debate is to see how al Qaeda’s deceased master viewed the world. This is especially true in the middle of an election year in which America’s fight against al Qaeda has already been politicized.
Some of the documents will likely help President Obama make his case. Others probably will not. We should see them all (again, with as few exceptions as possible) and let the American people be the judge.
What has been reported about the documents thus far suggests that bin Laden’s files will radically alter how many people view al Qaeda, including some in the Obama administration. Based on the files he was shown by a “senior Obama administration official,” the Washington Post’s David Ignatius reported that bin Laden was a “lion in winter,” who “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.”
When compared to so much other reporting on the bin Laden files, this looks like pure spin.
The latest report comes from Jason Burke of the Guardian (UK). We learn the files “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.” One of Burke’s sources says that the files indicate a “very considerable degree of ideological convergence” between the Taliban and al Qaeda.
This is hardly surprising, but it directly contradicts the Obama administration’s arguments for ending the war in Afghanistan. Vice President Joseph Biden has claimed, for instance, that “the Taliban, per se, is not our enemy,” even after a decade of Taliban forces targeting Americans in Afghanistan. Biden’s argument is based on the false premise that the Taliban and al Qaeda are not closely allied. Bin Laden’s documents, according to the Guardian, disprove this wishful thinking.
The Washington Post’s Greg Miller reports that the files include “a lengthy paper by bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al Zawahiri, laying out the al Qaeda strategy for Afghanistan in the years after the United States withdraws, current and former U.S. officials said.” This contradicts the idea that al Qaeda doesn’t have an eye on Afghanistan.
Other reporting on the contents of the bin Laden files challenges much of the conventional wisdom about how al Qaeda has operated all these years, too. It has been widely argued that bin Laden was out of touch with al Qaeda’s affiliates and that they operate with complete autonomy.
But the same article in the Post says the files “show that through his couriers, bin Laden was in touch not only with al Qaeda’s established affiliates but also with upstarts being groomed for new alliances. Among them was Nigeria’s Boko Haram, a group that has since embraced al-Qaeda and adopted its penchant for suicide attacks.”
Until recent years, Boko Haram was a nonentity in counterterrorism circles. Now we learn that the terror master himself had been grooming it as part of al Qaeda’s planned expansion in Africa.
Previous press reports have discussed the ties between al Qaeda central in Pakistan and al Qaeda’s affiliates as well. Bin Laden was in contact with Al Shabaab, the Somali terrorist group that has long been allied with al Qaeda and “formally” merged with it earlier this year.
In addition, bin Laden was in contact with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has repeatedly targeted the U.S. and the Obama administration considers the most dangerous al Qaeda affiliate. AQAP asked for bin Laden’s permission to name Anwar al Awlaki, who was subsequently killed in a U.S. drone strike, as the new emir of the organization. Bin Laden reportedly declined, preferring to keep his former aide-de-camp, Nasir al Wuhayshi, in command.
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.”
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.”
And then there is the issue of bin Laden’s relationships with allied Pakistani jihadist groups. The former al Qaeda CEO’s files reportedly show that he had a hand in planning the 2008 Mumbai attacks. That assault was headed by Lashkar-e-Taiba, a proxy of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
These are just some of the ways the documents have shed light on al Qaeda’s global operations.
Some in the Obama administration want to believe that the “war on terror is over.” There is no doubt that al Qaeda’s central leadership in Pakistan has been weakened through the combined efforts of the Bush and Obama administrations. However, there is evidence that in other ways al Qaeda has grown stronger, and also has long-term allies who will continue to wage its global campaign of terror.
Let the American people see Osama bin Laden’s files and then judge for themselves whether or not the 9/11 wars are a thing of the past.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.