Peter Bergen says documents from the bin Laden compound show he was isolated and had few resources left
Bodyguards were fed up, and planned to leave him, the documents show
Editor’s Note: 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 the new book “United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists.”
In the last months of his life, an isolated Osama bin Laden was in a serious dispute with the two brothers who had been pretty much his only connection to the outside world for the previous eight years.
The brothers – two longtime members of al Qaeda whose family hailed from northern Pakistan, not far from where bin Laden was hiding in the city of Abbottabad – did everything for bin Laden.
Worried about the CIA hunting for him, bin Laden was confined to one building inside the large compound in Abbottabad, which the brothers had moved him to in 2005.
The two brothers shopped for produce from local markets for bin Laden as well as for the dozen members of his family who were living with him.
Crucially, it was one of the brothers who was the courier who delivered messages to and from al Qaeda’s leader to senior members of al Qaeda living in other parts of Pakistan.
Bin Laden was completely reliant on the two brothers both to maintain any semblance of control over al Qaeda and its far-flung affiliates and also for the daily necessities of life.
But by January 2011, just four months before U.S. Navy SEALs killed bin Laden, he and the two brothers were having a serious dispute.
According to letters released by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence that were recovered during the SEAL raid, by early 2011 the brothers were fed up with all the pressure that came from protecting and serving the world’s most wanted man.
A fallen leader
Indeed, the documents portray bin Laden, a man who once had commanded training camps in Afghanistan that had churned out thousands of recruits and had also overseen the single most deadly assault on American civilians in the history of the United States, as entirely dependent on his two bodyguards, running out of money and paranoid that even his family members might have concealed tracking devices to home in on him.
Bin Laden confided to one of his wives that the brothers who protected him were “exhausted” by all the pressures on them and were planning to quit.
Things got so bad with his two protectors that on January 14, 2011, bin Laden took the unusual step of writing the brothers a formal letter, despite the fact that they lived only yards away from him on the Abbottabad compound.
In the letter bin Laden said the brothers had been so “irritated” in a recent meeting with him that he was resorting to writing them a letter to clarify matters. He asked the brothers to give him adequate time to find substitute protectors.
Bin Laden then wrote a letter to one of his confidantes asking if he knew of any Pakistanis who could be trusted with “complete confidence” who might replace the two brothers as his liaisons to the outside world.
Relations between bin Laden and the two brothers deteriorated to the point that they entered into a written agreement that they would separate sometime in 2011 or early 2012 and that bin Laden and his family would move away from the compound in Abbottabad.
Of course, that didn’t happen and on the night of May 2, 2011, bin Laden and his two bodyguards were killed in the SEAL raid.
But the new documents underline the fact that if the CIA had learned of the compound in Abbottabad later than it did, or if President Obama had not ordered the SEAL raid when he did, it’s quite possible that bin Laden could have left for another location and the trail that led the CIA to his Abbottabad compound might have gone cold.
Feeling the pressure
In addition to the conflict that bin Laden was having with his two key protectors, the newly released documents underline some themes that had emerged in documents recovered from the SEAL raid that had been previously released by the U.S. intelligence community.
Al Qaeda was an organization that felt increasingly under pressure. Bin Laden fretted about the CIA drone program, which was picking off so many key members of al Qaeda in the Pakistani tribal region of Waziristan bordering Afghanistan. Bin Laden instructed his organization to “leave Waziristan.”
Bin Laden was also keenly aware that as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approached he hadn’t pulled off another attack in the States and he pushed al-Qaeda’s affiliates to not get distracted by local issues, but to attack Americans and the United States. He advised the leader of al Qaeda in Yemen to recruit Yemenis with U.S. visas or American citizenship to carry out attacks in the States.
Al Qaeda leaders were worried about financing for the group, and despite the fact that bin Laden had drafted a will mentioning a supposed $29 million stashed in Sudan from his sojourn there in the mid-1990s, that money had long disappeared. Bin Laden was the scion of a wealthy Saudi family but there is no indication he had access to that fortune by the time of the raid that killed him.
Bin Laden also drafted a number of speeches he planned to videotape about the “Arab Spring” revolutions that began in early 2011 and were roiling the Arab world. He never delivered those speeches, but he clearly believed these revolutions to be momentous.
Despite the pressures he was under, while he was in hiding, bin Laden tried to maintain control of al Qaeda affiliates around the Muslim world. He conducted correspondence with the leader of al Qaeda in Yemen, a supporter in Saudi Arabia, a fellow militant in Egypt, members of al Qaeda in Iraq, the leadership of al Qaeda in North Africa, and with the Somali terrorist group al-Shabaab.
Bin Laden also remained in touch with the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, as late as 2010, sending him a letter intended to be a pep talk about how NATO was tiring of the occupation of Afghanistan. It cited the scheduled pullout of Canadian troops and Obama’s decision to eventually pull U.S. troops out as well. In a separate letter in September 2010, bin Laden graciously thanked Mullah Omar for a letter he had sent him.
Despite the well-publicized claims of American journalist Sy Hersh, who wrote a piece in the London Review of Books in May that bin Laden was being guarded by the Pakistani military and that he was simply handed over to the SEALS the night of May 2, 2011, there is no evidence for that in the documents released Tuesday, which run to thousands of pages.
In fact quite the reverse: The documents describe the Pakistani army as “infidels,” as well as “the intense Pakistani pressure on us” and they include lengthy plans for attacks to be carried out on Pakistani military targets.