The CIA has finally published much of the previously unreleased data taken from al-Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden’s computer during the 2011 raid on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Among the most interesting revelations are details of Iran’s collusion with al-Qaeda and bin Laden’s citation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a formative influence on his political thought.
Some of the revelations are darkly amusing, such as evidence that one of history’s greatest monsters might have been an avid video game player, anime fan, and consumer of online pornography in his hideout. He also seems to have been interested in viral YouTube videos and crackpot conspiracy theories about the 9/11 attacks. The CIA said some of this material was not previously released because it includes bootleg copies of copyrighted material.
A reasonable caveat to keep in mind is that all of this data was pulled from bin Laden’s network, so it was not necessarily his personal game collection or porn stash. That might throw some cold water on the dreams of gamers who hope they blew bin Laden away a few times in Counter-Strike matches.
More clearly authentic are such items as bin Laden’s handwritten personal journal. The Long War Journal (LWJ) cites passages that indicate bin Laden hoped al-Qaeda could capitalize on the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings to expand its influence. He mentioned venerable cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is based in Qatar, as someone he thought could be helpful in turning the Arab Spring to al-Qaeda’s advantage. He also spoke approvingly of Qatar’s Al-Jazeera network, which he said, “carries the banner of revolutions.” Qaradawi and Al-Jazeera are major points of contention in the ongoing diplomatic crisis between Qatar and other Gulf Cooperation Council states.
The documents also clearly indicate bin Laden was actively involved in directing al-Qaeda at the time of his death, contrary to early reports that he was effectively retired and living in seclusion.
The data trove includes debates between bin Laden and al-Qaeda leaders over policy matters and clear evidence he was actively monitoring America’s involvement in the Middle East. “One of his minions even translated sections of Bob Woodward’s 2010 book, Obama’s Wars, so that he could understand the Obama administration’s strategy for those conflicts,” the Long War Journal reports.
Also released were audio messages of Osama bin Laden’s son Hamza bin Laden, who has been groomed by al-Qaeda as heir to his father’s terrorist throne. Video clips of Hamza’s wedding were recovered, which is significant because al-Qaeda has taken pains to avoid revealing what he looks like as an adult.
Equally significant is the apparent location of the wedding: Iran. An analysis of the video from Long War Journal’s Thomas Joscelyn notes that Hamza bin Laden was technically in Iranian custody until 2010 but does not seem to regard himself as a prisoner in letters he wrote to his father. Furthermore, Hamza reported being mentored in the ways of jihad by several senior al-Qaeda men who were supposedly in detention in Iran.
Osama bin Laden, in turn, told all three of his sons that “Iranians are not to be trusted” and fretted that they might have bugged members of his family.
A document recovered from Osama bin Laden’s system provides an extensive description of al-Qaeda’s collusion with Iran, as summarized by the Long War Journal:
The author explains that Iran offered some “Saudi brothers” in al Qaeda “everything they needed,” including “money, arms” and “training in Hezbollah camps in Lebanon, in exchange for striking American interests in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.” Iranian intelligence facilitated the travel of some operatives with visas, while sheltering others. Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, an influential ideologue prior to 9/11, helped negotiate a safe haven for his jihadi comrades inside Iran.
But the author of the file, who is clearly well-connected, indicates that al Qaeda’s men violated the terms of the agreement and Iran eventually cracked down on the Sunni jihadists’ network, detaining some personnel. Still, the author explains that al Qaeda is not at war with Iran and some of their “interests intersect,” especially when it comes to being an “enemy of America.”
The relationship has not been without its rough patches, such as al-Qaeda kidnapping an Iranian diplomat to trade for some of its people held by Tehran, and bin Laden was not happy with Iran’s growing influence throughout the Middle East. However, he was clear that Iran is a major covert supporter of al-Qaeda, providing funds, shelter for al-Qaeda operatives, and communications infrastructure. Two U.S. intelligence officials characterized the newly-released documents to NBC News as “evidence of Iran’s support for al-Qaeda’s war with the United States.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, chief Iranian architect of the nuclear deal with President Barack Obama, quickly denounced the documents as “fake news” selectively released by the CIA to “whitewash the role of U.S. allies in 9/11.”
This is presumably a slam at Saudi Arabia, but the material released by the CIA includes information about al-Qaeda’s relationship with “various Saudi sheikhs, some of whom supported the jihadis’ efforts in Iraq,” as The Long War Journal puts it. It is not much of a whitewash if the CIA is putting out damning material on al-Qaeda’s Saudi patrons. (Perhaps even more delicate will be the material released on bin Laden’s relationship with Pakistan, which does not seem to be addressed in the first of the files released to the LWJ, although they expect documents about Pakistan and its al-Qaeda-friendly factions will eventually come to light.)
Osama bin Laden’s personal journal includes a discussion of the Muslim Brotherhood, which he described as a formative influence.
“From a religious [or theological] aspect, I was committed within the Muslim Brotherhood. Their curriculum was limited. I read the Sira [Prophet Muhammad’s biography, a reference to old books relating the beginnings of Islam and the Prophet’s life with typical focus on wars]. Once a week, the meetings. The number of pages was limited. The extent of influence by them was not much from a religious aspect,” reads a passage quoted and expanded upon at The National.
This passage appears as part of an interview in which bin Laden discussed his inspirations. In another exchange, he said he was “looked after” in terms of religious education by his family, “but no side was guiding me in the way the Brotherhood do.”
He implied the Muslim Brotherhood financed his first jihad expedition to Turkey in 1976 and faults their competence as a travel agency. “The Brotherhood, they had poor knowledge about things. If they knew, I would not have had to travel through Syria to Antakya 12 hours by bus to reach Istanbul. It was easier from Jeddah to Istanbul by plane. Three hours by plane,” bin Laden complained.
The National adds another interesting observation from the Osama bin Laden journal: “More astonishingly, he reveals an unexpected and hitherto unknown source of inspiration: Necmettin Erbakan, the former prime minister of Turkey who could be regarded as the father of modern Turkish Islamism.”