We have been anxiously awaiting the release of the documents captured in Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad, Pakistan compound. According to informed U.S. intelligence officials, thousands of documents were captured in bin Laden’s lair, as was video and other types of media.
Today, the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point released translations of a grand total of “17 declassified documents…totaling 175 pages in the original Arabic and 197 pages in English translation.”
This is a paltry subset of the documents and media captured.
We think that nearly all of Osama bin Laden’s files should be declassified and released to the public – not just a tiny fraction of them. In this case, there are no sources and methods to protect. Everyone knows how and when the captured files were obtained. There is undoubtedly information contained in the files that is still operationally relevant, and exceptions to declassification can be made in some cases.
Overall, however, the government should declassify and release nearly all of bin Laden’s files. Some of the files were authored more than a decade ago, yet none of those dated documents were released today. The earliest document released by CTC is dated September 2006. This means that any documents pertaining to the planning of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the October 12, 2000 USS Cole bombing, and the August 7, 1998 embassy bombings were not released. Yet, these are the types of documents that deal directly with al Qaeda’s assault on American interests that precipitated more than a decade of controversial wars.
It is clear from the media’s reporting on the documents that journalists have either been shown, or informed of, many more documents than those released today. And those documents produce intriguing leads for understanding al Qaeda. There is no reason to think that this reporting has jeopardized security in any way and the documents underlying that reporting should be released.
Consider two examples.
First, some of the documents reportedly indicate that Osama bin Laden had a hand in planning the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, which were executed by Lashkar e Taiba, an al Qaeda ally that is also closely tied to the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment. The source for this reporting is Bruce Riedel, a former advisor to President Obama, who was apparently briefed on bin Laden’s documents or shown them.
None of the documents pertaining to Osama bin Laden’s reported role in the Mumbai attacks were released today. Yet, these documents may have a direct bearing on bin Laden’s relationships with various elements of the Pakistani state.
Second, the Guardian (UK) has reported that 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 the Guardian’s sources says that the files indicate a “very considerable degree of ideological convergence” between the Taliban and al Qaeda.
These documents were not released either, even though (if the reporting on them is accurate) they shed important light on the relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda.
In some cases the documents released by CTC are not even the complete document, but instead “part” of longer correspondences.
While the 17 documents released today do contain interesting pieces of information, which we will be reporting on, no analyst can draw any firm conclusions about al Qaeda’s operations and alliances solely from them. The documents must be compared to other available information and, more importantly, other documents from Osama bin Laden’s extensive files that have not been released.
Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio are senior fellows at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and editors of the Long War Journal.