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Story highlights

U.S. releases unprecedented number of Osama bin Laden documents from 2011 raid

Documents show bin Laden's correspondence with family and al Qaeda associates

Material paints complex portrait of the world's most wanted man in years before his death

Editor’s Note: Watch the special “‘We Got Him’: President Obama, Bin Laden and the Future of the War on Terror” on “Anderson Cooper 360°” Monday at 8 p.m. E.T.

Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the author of “Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden – From 9/11 to Abbottabad.” This article was originally published in May, 2015.

(CNN) —  

In his final years hiding in a compound in Pakistan, Osama bin Laden was a man who at once showed great love and interest in his own family while he coldly drew up quixotic plans for mass casualty attacks on Americans, according to documents seized by Navy SEALs the night he was killed.

The U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence has released an unprecedented number of documents from what U.S. officials have described as the treasure-trove picked up by the SEALs at bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 2, 2011.

Peter Bergen
CNN
Peter Bergen

Totaling 103 documents, they include the largest repository of correspondence ever released between members of bin Laden’s immediate family and significant communications between bin Laden and other leaders of al Qaeda as well as al Qaeda’s communications with terrorist groups around the Muslim world.

Also released was a list of bin Laden’s massive digital collection of English-language books, think tank reports and U.S. government documents, numbering 266 in total.

To the end bin Laden remained obsessed with attacking Americans. In an undated letter he told jihadist militants in North Africa that they should stop “insisting on the formation of an Islamic state” and instead attack U.S. embassies in Sierra Leone and Togo and American oil companies. Bin Laden offered similar advice to the al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, telling it to avoid targeting Yemeni police and military targets and instead prioritize attacks on American targets.

Much of bin Laden’s advice either didn’t make it to these groups or was simply ignored because al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and North Africa continued to attack local targets.

ISIS, of course, didn’t exist at the time bin Laden was writing. The group, which now controls a large swath of territory in the Middle East, grew out of al Qaeda in Iraq and has charted a different path, seeking to create an Islamic state and not prioritizing attacks on the United States and its citizens.