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Osama bin Laden Thought There Was Too Much Money in US Politics, Declassified Letters Show

On Tuesday, a cache of 113 documents seized from the al Qaeda leader's Pakistani hideout were made publicly available on the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s website.

by Avi Asher-Schapiro
Mar 1 2016, 7:40pm

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In the final years of his life, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden tried to manage the terrorist network's operations and comment on world affairs, even as he grew more and more paranoid about spies and, in the end, worried about his own death.

A cache of 113 documents seized from bin Laden's Pakistani hideout have been translated and declassified by US intelligence agencies, and are now publicly available on the Office of the Director of National Intelligence's website. It's the second release of bin Laden material since Navy Seals killed the wanted terrorist in a raid on his compound in 2011.

Along with operational directives and personnel correspondence — including a handwritten will for bin Laden's $29 million fortune — the new documents also contain letters and essays on a wide range of issues, including the US financial crisis, the growing influence of Iran in the Middle East, and President Barack Obama's political prospects.

Many of the most interesting tidbits relate to bin Laden's increasing paranoia in the final years of his life. In one letter, using the pseudonym Abu Abdallah, the al Qaeda leader expresses alarm over his wife's visit to a dentist while in Iran, fretting that a tracking chip might have been implanted along with a dental filling.

"I need to know the date you had the filling, also about any surgery you had, even if it was only a quick pinch," he wrote. "The size of the chip is about the length of a grain of wheat and the width of a fine piece of vermicelli." The note ends with an order to destroy the letter immediately.

In another document, bin Laden ordered one of his subordinates to be careful when arranging a ransom payment for a hostage al Qaeda held in Afghanistan.

"It is important to get rid of the suitcase in which the funds are delivered, due to the possibility of it having a tracking chip in it," bin Laden wrote to an aide named Shayk Mahmud.

Related: Now You Can Own the CIA's Bizarre Osama bin Laden Doll and Board Game

He was also particularly mindful of the threat posed by US drones. He advised al Qaeda agents using rented house in the Pakistani city of Peshawar to keep indoors, "except on a cloudy, overcast day."

The newly released documents also contain lengthy screeds on world affairs, including geopolitical analysis regarding America's rivalry with Iran.

"If America refuses to direct strong military hits that would send Iran backwards for several decades, and if America enters the war and loses it in the intermediate or long term, the Iranian expansion will start imposing its control on the area," reads an essay titled "Draft Speech About Iran and America with Mahmud's Comments." It isn't clear if the speech was ever delivered or who Mahmud was.

Bin Laden's commentary also extends to a detailed analysis of the US economy in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Though he hoped that the US would succumb to financial woes, he criticized those in al Qaeda who he thought naively put too much emphasis on the country's weakening dollar.

"Some among us might think that the dollar's weakness is a sign of pending collapse or of the weakness of the American economy, particularly after the unusual turn to precious metals — gold — by investors as a safe haven," he wrote. "The fact is that the weakness of the dollar in terms of pricing is to the benefit of the American economy, not against it!"

He then launches into a detailed macroeconomic explanation of how a country's weakened currency can often benefit its export economy, and warns his followers not underestimate the long-term financial health of the US.

Related: What I Learned About al Qaeda from Analyzing the 'Bin Laden' Tapes

Elsewhere, bin Laden had kind words for Abu Musa'b al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant and al Qaeda leader in Iraq, whose followers eventually went on to found the Islamic State. In an undated essay criticizing Iran's growing influence in the Middle East, bin Laden wrote, "The emir imam Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, God have mercy on his soul, had the longest hand in scandalizing and striking at their plans."

At the time, Zarqawi was leading an insurgency in Iraq against American forces and carrying out suicide attacks against Iraq's Shia population as a blow to Iran's influence in the country. Zarqawi's harsh tactics eventually led to a schism between him and his followers and al Qaeda's central leadership.

In 2005, bin Laden's right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, wrote a letter to Zarqawi warning that his suicide attacks could drive other Muslims away from al Qaeda. After Bin Laden's death, Zawahiri fully repudiated the Islamic State, which grew out of Zarqawi's movement in Iraq. In a message released in September 2015, Zawahiri — who took over al Qaeda after bin Laden's death — called the caliphate that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared in Syria and Iraq "illegitimate," professing that al Qaeda did not recognize it.

The cache of documents also shows that bin Laden wasn't above addressing thoughts to the "American people," as in one letter in which he comes off sounding almost like Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, denouncing the influence of lobbyists and what he considered to be the false hope of the Obama presidency.

"The course of the policies of the present administration in several areas clearly reveals that whoever enters the White House, even with good intentions to safeguard the people's interest, is no more than a train operator. His only task is to keep the train on the tracks that are laid down by the lobbyists in New York and Washington to serve their interests first, even if it is counter to your security and economy," he wrote. " Any president who tries to move the train from the lobbyist's tracks to a track for the American people's interests will confront very strong opposition and pressures from the lobbyists."

Bin Laden had anti-Semitic conspiratorial notions about "Jewish" financial interests, however, rather than the Wall Street bankers that Bernie Sanders, himself a Jew, has made a focal point of his presidential campaign. 

Though bin Laden was largely sequestered in Pakistan at the time the documents were produced, he still tried to coordinate further attacks on the United States.

"We need to extend and develop our operations in America and not keep it limited to blowing up airplanes," says a letter apparently written by bin Laden to Nasir al-Wuhayshi, head of al Qaeda's Yemen branch.

Related: In Photos: At Home With Osama bin Laden

In another missive, he urged the Somali group and al Qaeda-affiliate al Shabaab to seek out and target French nationals.

Despite his attempts to exercise his reach over the group's affairs, the documents show the strains of managing al Qaeda's external networks, including identifying capable leaders and finding resources to fund operations abroad. One associate, who signed his 2009 note simply as "Your beloved Atiyah" acknowledged complications in replacing an ineffective leader for external operations, saying some of the best candidates were dead.

"There are new brothers, perhaps some would be suitable in the future, but not now," he wrote.

In a sign that the al Qaeda leader might have known his days were numbered, bin Laden penned a handwritten will and a goodbye note his father. In the will, he claimed to have $29 million in Sudan, and asked that it be spent on jihad.

In a bizarre letter to his father, who'd been dead for decades, that was penned on August 8, 2008, bin Laden speculated about his own death.

"If I am to be killed, pray for me a lot and give continuous charities in my name, as I will be in great need for support to reach the permanent home," he wrote. "I would like you to forgive me, if I have done what you did not like."

US Navy Seals killed bin Laden in May 2011 at his hideout in Abbottabad. In 2014, Congress ordered the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to review materials discovered at the al Qaeda leader's hideout and release documents that need not be classified. That process began in May 2014, and it took another full year to release any information. The first release the following May included around 80 documents, a list of books in the al Qaeda leaders shelves, and some news clippings.

An unknown number of bin Laden documents remain classified. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence plans to continue releasing more of the material, but it has warned that the review process can drag on.

"The document review process can be time consuming because, once a document is declassified, it cannot be reclassified," the department says on its website. "The Intelligence Community needs to ensure no declassified document will directly injure efforts to keep the nation secure."

Reuters contributed to this report.

Follow Avi Asher-Schapiro: @AASchapiro

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