Bin Laden files show a fixation on striking US

Leader sought to replicate 9/11 attack

By Greg Miller
Washington Post / May 12, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Osama bin Laden was preoccupied with attacking the United States over all other targets, a fixation that led to friction with followers, according to US intelligence officials involved in analyzing the trove of materials recovered from the Al Qaeda leader’s compound.

In handwritten journals and compositions saved on computer hard drives, the officials said, bin Laden always seems to be searching for a way to replicate the impact of Al Qaeda’s most devastating strike.

He exhorts followers to explore ways to recruit non-Muslims “who are oppressed in the United States ’’ — particularly African-Americans and Latinos, one official said — and to assemble a plot for the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Even while sealed inside a cement compound in a Pakistani city, bin Laden seems to have functioned like a crime boss pulling strings from a prison cell, sending regular messages to trusted lieutenants and strategic advice to far-flung franchises, including Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen. Some followers pledge their fealty to him; others, however, chafe at his exhortations to remain focused on US targets instead of mounting less risky operations in places such as Yemen, Somalia, and Algeria.

“Bin Laden is saying, ‘You’ve got to focus on the US and the West,’ ’’ said a senior US intelligence official who was involved in reviewing the stockpile, adding that some of bin Laden’s followers seem more concerned with regional issues and appear reluctant to conduct an attack that would provoke an American response.

Little over a week after obtaining one of the largest intelligence hauls on a terrorist group, US officials involved in reviewing the trove said they are learning more about bin Laden and the Al Qaeda bureaucracy than about the locations of operatives or specific plots.

Overall, the officials said, the new information — as well as the lack of any apparent effort by bin Laden to prevent it from falling into US hands — provides a strikingly rich portrait of the Al Qaeda chief.

“Bin Laden got lazy and complacent,’’ said the senior US official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information. “I don’t think he thought he would meet his maker in that house. And he certainly didn’t make any preparations to escape a raid or destroy the information found inside,’’ the official said.

Officials said they are still in triage mode as they sift through the contents of more than 110 flash drives, laptops, and other digital storage devices, in addition to piles of paper documents. The trove, which represents millions of pages that must be translated from Arabic, is being scrutinized at a secret CIA facility in Virginia. Analysts and Arabic linguists from other agencies are being brought in to review the materials.

The early effort has focused on searching the most recent materials for keywords, including the names of major American cities. Analysts are also scanning for references to names of Al Qaeda figures, phone numbers, and other details that could provide clues for CIA operatives and military counterterrorism teams working overseas.

US officials said bin Laden had a relatively short list of senior Al Qaeda members with whom he was in touch frequently and directly, albeit through messages smuggled out of the compound by couriers.

Among them are Ayman al-Zawahri, the Egyptian physician who has long functioned as bin Laden’s second in command, as well as Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, a Libyan operative who is the latest to fill the organization’s number three slot.

Bin Laden’s directions tended to be big-picture in nature, officials said, focusing more on broader objectives than on granular operational details. “I wouldn’t call it command and control’’ that bin Laden was exercising, the senior US intelligence official said.