FT.com – May 12, 2011
Osama bin Laden’s private journal and other documents recovered in last week’s raid have shown that the al-Qaeda leader remained the driving force behind many terror plots during his years in hiding, US officials say.
His personal, handwritten journal and his collection of computer files show that he advised leaders of al-Qaeda cells from Yemen to London to hit Los Angeles, not just New York, and to target trains as well as aircraft.
US officials described the intelligence to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to talk publicly about what had been found in the al-Qaeda leader’s hideout.
They said the haul – which US officials have lauded as possibly the greatest intelligence success of a generation – showed the al-Qaeda leader’s desire to launch an attack comparable in size to the September 11 atrocity 10 years ago, seeing this as the only way to persuade the US to withdraw from the Arab world.
Only a body count of thousands, something on the scale of the attacks on New York and Washington, would shift US policy, he believed.
He told his followers to aim to strike on significant dates, such as July 4, US Independence day, and the forthcoming 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
US officials said on Wednesday that bin Laden’s writings showed him to be more than just an inspirational figurehead, and that he was involved in helping to plan every recent significant al-Qaeda threat the US is aware of, including plots in Europe last year that had travellers and embassies on high alert.
The leaks came as Eric Holder, US attorney-general, said the mission that killed bin Laden “was not an assassination … his surrender would have been accepted”.
Speaking on the Today programme, he said: “It was a kill-or-capture mission. And as I said, if the possibility had existed, if there was the possibility of a feasible surrender, that would have occurred.”
“Anybody can decide to surrender, can be taken alive,” he said. “But given the specific circumstances that those Navy Seals faced, on that evening, the decision that they made was an appropriate one.”
It was important for the US to act consistently with moral values, he argued.
So far, the data uncovered during the raid has not produced any evidence of new plots, according to officials. But intelligence officials say it will take weeks, if not months, to sift through the written documents and computer files.
The records show that bin Laden was communicating from his walled compound in Pakistan with al-Qaeda’s offshoots, including the Yemen branch, which has emerged as the leading threat to the US.
He was aware of US counterterror strategies and schooled his followers in ways to work around them, the messages show. He advised his followers to spread out their targets beyond New York and also looked at ways to sow political dissent in Washington and exploit political rivalries, the US officials said.
The communications were in missives sent via about 100 plug-in computer storage devices called flash drives, ferried to bin Laden’s compound by couriers.
British officials said the Americans had shared some information with them about the bin Laden cache, but that there had been nothing yet to indicate that he had been involved in any of the recent terror plots in Britain.
Britain’s two largest terror attacks and plots – the 2005 suicide bombings and the transatlantic liquid explosive plot to blow up several airliners in 2006 – both had trails that led back to Pakistan and al-Qaeda figures, but there was never a direct link to bin Laden himself.
Al-Qaeda has not yet named a successor, but all indications point to his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, assuming the top spot.