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Documenting al Qaeda's Durability


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Lessons from the long-hidden bin Laden files.

Thomas Joscelyn

Nov 13, 2017


More than 16 years after the September 11, 2001, hijackings, America remains at war with jihadist groups around the globe. From South Asia through the heart of the Middle East and into West Africa, American forces are battling terrorist organizations that seek to control territory while threatening the West. How did we arrive at this point?

A complete history of the 9/11 wars won’t be written for decades. They haven’t been won or lost yet, so we don’t know how this story ends. But this past week, the CIA released an invaluable trove of information for understanding our enemies: a large tranche of Osama bin Laden’s files, retrieved during the May 2011 raid on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. There is perhaps no better source for understanding al Qaeda’s history and intentions than the formerly secret memos and musings of the master terrorist who launched the jihadists’ revolution.

* In a newly released, 228-page handwritten journal, bin Laden reflected on his longstanding anti-Americanism. “When was your first dealing with the West? Meeting or statement?” the al Qaeda founder privately asked himself. Bin Laden answered his own question, saying that he remembered “giving a lecture in Jeddah,” Saudi Arabia, in 1986 or 1987 titled “Pains and Hopes.” “I talked about Palestine, Jews, and that we must/should hit America on its head and boycott even American apples,” bin Laden wrote.

The al Qaeda founder would later cite the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia during and after the first Gulf war as a justification for his terrorism. But privately, in his yellow-bound diary, bin Laden explained that he had wanted to strike America all along, well before the United States intervened to stop Saddam Hussein’s aggression in the region.






* Well So Much For America's Never Ending Wars

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The Big Reveal: The Story of How 470,000 Documents from Osama Bin Laden's Compound Finally Got Into the Open

The CIA has finally released 470,000 files recovered from the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound. Here's why it took so long.

Stephen F. Hayes

Nov. 13 2017




ODNI duplicity on the Abbottabad documents didn’t end with that January announcement. On June 28, a meeting between NSC officials and representatives of the intelligence community featured a discussion on the proposed release of more documents from the Abbottabad collection, according to two sources familiar with the session. ODNI officials explained that they couldn’t declassify and release more of the files because they lacked the resources to undertake a job so challenging.

So, in public, ODNI says: The job is done. Move along. In private, ODNI says: Finishing this monumental job would overwhelm our bureaucracy.

When I asked Barrett about the meeting and to explain the contradiction, he emailed: “We have nothing further for you on this issue at this time.”


But with new political leadership come new marching orders. It will take time for interested reporters and analysts to digest the full scope of the documents the CIA has just disgorged. Many of them are no doubt worthless, but there are thousands of newly available files of importance, and this much is already clear: They are not just duplicates, they are not lacking in pertinence, they are not merely the personal detritus of an isolated and powerless has-been terrorist. As Thomas Joscelyn details elsewhere in these pages, among them can be found documents describing al Qaeda’s relationship with the Afghan Taliban; videos and photographs of senior al Qaeda operatives, including those running the terror network and its affiliates today; letters with new information on al Qaeda’s web of relationships inside Pakistan; documents explaining the ways in which al Qaeda was adapting to U.S. targeting of its leaders; and the 228-page handwritten journal of the jihad kept by Osama bin Laden himself.




The CIA release of the additional 470,000 documents includes a 19-page report on al Qaeda’s relationship with Iran authored by an unidentified al Qaeda operative. The author lays out some tensions between al Qaeda and Iran but makes clear those differences don’t preclude cooperation. The document reports that the Iranian regime was giving its “Saudi brothers” in al Qaeda “everything they needed.” This included safe haven in Iran, the facilitation of travel for senior al Qaeda operatives, and “money, arms,” and “training in Hezbollah camps in Lebanon, in exchange for striking American interests in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.”

The newly released documents also include a video from the wedding of Hamza bin Laden, Osama’s son and a prominent al Qaeda voice today. The video shows Hamza bin Laden and several other notable senior al Qaeda figures celebrating his marriage at an unidentified mosque. With the shouting of a child in the background echoing off marble walls, the shaky video shows the younger bin Laden, dressed in a gold robe and a black and white keffiyeh, reciting his wedding vows in a quiet, serious tone. The video was shot in Iran.


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