“He was upset about it,” said a former U.S. intelligence official who viewed bin Laden’s writings on the subject, part of a trove of documents seized from the terrorist’s compound in Pakistan a year ago this week. “He felt it conflicted with his vision for what he wanted al-Qaeda to be.”
Bin Laden’s chances of trying to remake al-Qaeda’s image ended abruptly when Navy SEALs kicked in the door of his Pakistani hideout. But in the year since his death, U.S. officials have gained a deeper understanding of the man, his internal struggles and his plans for the terrorist group he co-founded.
Although some insights from the documents have been revealed over the past year, new excerpts show the extent of bin Laden’s obsession with ideological purity as he sought to manage the group’s demoralized and scattered networks in his final years. They show him seeking to reassert control over factions of loosely affiliated jihadists from Yemen to Somalia, as well as independent actors whom he believed had sullied al-Qaeda’s reputation and muddied its central message.
The new details about bin Laden’s final months were provided in interviews with current and former U.S. officials — several of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide assessments of documents that are not yet public — as well as a pair of new books that quote extensively from the documents recovered from computer equipment seized during the May 2 raid.
Bin Laden emerges from these accounts as a chief executive fully engaged in the group’s myriad crises, grappling with financial problems, recruitment, rebellious field managers and sudden staff vacancies resulting from the unrelenting U.S. drone campaign. In some memos he worried about his own security, and in others he fretted about missing a huge potential marketing opportunity: the Arab Spring, with its millions of street revolutionaries looking to reshape politics in the Middle East.
Reining in attacks
The Saudi who built the world’s first truly global jihadist movement is viewed as distracted at times by mundane details, such as which crops should be planted by al-Shabab allies in Somalia. He was coolly cordial with his former partner Ayman al-Zawahiri, and increasingly drawn to the ideas of a younger lieutenant who possessed a firmer grasp of the power of the Internet and an ambition to modernize al-Qaeda’s message.
The new deputy, Libyan-born Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, a veteran of Algeria’s brutal Muslim-against-Muslim violence in the 1990s, emerged in bin Laden’s final year as a key advocate for reining in al-Qaeda-inspired carnage in Iraq and other Middle Eastern lands.