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Paper Trail of Terror


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FDD's Long War Journal

Jonathan Schanzer

June 1, 2022

Editor’s note: The review of ‘The Bin Laden Papers’ was originally published at The Washington Free Beacon.

In autumn of 2017, my colleague Thomas Joscelyn was invited to visit the Central Intelligence Agency. It was a long time coming. He and our colleague Bill Roggio at FDD’s Long War Journal had for years pushed the intelligence community to release the complete set of documents that American Navy SEALS captured at Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 1, 2011. The al Qaeda leader was shot dead that night, ending a 10-year search for the man behind the 9/11 attacks.

(Snip)

But by 2017, the files were growing stale. The arguments for releasing them finally prevailed. When I accompanied Tom to the CIA that day, he was handed a couple hard drives. But there were few smiles in the room. Joscelyn and Roggio had been a thorn in the agency’s side. To return the favor, our interlocutors gave no guide for the files. It was a veritable haystack, with no indication of what the needles even looked like. Many files were infected with viruses. It would take years to get through them all.

Thankfully, the Long War Journal was able to produce some relevant analysis based on a video of bin Laden’s son, Hamza, at his wedding in Iran and several other documents. But it wasn’t much of a head start. The documents were released to the public shortly thereafter.

*Five years later, Nelly Lahoud, a senior fellow at New America, has released a book based on roughly 6,000 of those documents. It is no simple task to stitch together a narrative that made sense of the various letters, journal entries, and other missives from bin Laden’s files. Unfortunately, Lahoud’s book only underscores this.

(Snip)

Lahoud emphasizes the tensions that existed between bin Laden and the affiliate groups that pledged allegiance to al Qaeda. While command and control was undeniably a challenge at times, bin Laden held far more sway than Lahoud concedes. And it’s now clear that these affiliates are bin Laden’s primary legacy. Without them, al Qaeda would be confined to its original redoubts in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

It’s unclear why Lahoud chose not to explore the deeper complexities of these issues yet devoted pages of the book to banal poetry written by bin Laden’s third wife, for example. Indeed, questions surrounding the next phase of jihadism, not to mention America’s relations with Iran and Pakistan, remain highly relevant to U.S. foreign policy even as the “War on Terror” is eclipsed by domestic discord in America and escalating great power competition with China and Russia, not to mention the latter’s invasion of Ukraine.

The fight over the release of bin Laden’s files is over. But the battle over how to interpret them continues.

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* Her book is now The Narrative, according to Our Betters. She has been on 60 minutes, that font of all wisdom and knowledge.

Apr 26, 2022 During the mission that killed Osama bin Laden, Navy SEALs seized thousands of the al Qaeda leader's personal letters and notes. Sharyn Alfonsi speaks with the woman who's analyzed it all.

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