WHAT'S riveting about the documents taken from Osama bin Laden's compound, beyond the headline items about plots to kill American leaders, is the way they allow the reader to get inside the terrorist mastermind's head.
By David Ignatius
I've seen only a small sample of the thousands of items that were carried away on the night of May 2, 2011. But even those few documents shown to me by a senior Obama administration official give a sense of how Osama looked at the world in the years before his death.
This was the lion in winter: Osama was hidden in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, pacing in his courtyard, watching television, dictating messages to his wives. He was at once a worldly man, trying to run a global terror network, and an introspective Muslim scholar who argued his points by using sayings of the Prophet Muhammad or citing battles waged by the Prophet's associates.
A sense of bereavement hovers over these pages, not simply because of the loss of Osama's colleagues, whom he eulogised every few pages, but because Osama sensed that the movement itself had lost its momentum. He lived in a constricted world, in which he and his associates were hunted so relentlessly by United States forces that they had trouble sending the simplest communications.
Osama wanted to save what remained of his network by evacuating it from the free-fire zone of Pakistan's tribal areas. He noted 'the importance of the exit from Waziristan of the brother leaders. ... Choose distant locations to which to move them, away from aircraft photography and bombardment'.
This evacuation order comes in the most revealing document I was shown, which is a voluminous 48-page directive to Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, who served, in effect, as Osama's chief of staff. Throughout this document, Osama pondered the likelihood that Al-Qaeda had failed in its mission of jihad.
Osama began by recalling the glory days after the Sept 11, 2001, attacks when his Al-Qaeda mujahideen were 'the vanguard and standard-bearers of the Islamic community in fighting the Crusader-Zionist alliance'.
But the Al-Qaeda leader turned immediately to a bitter reflection on mistakes made by his followers - especially their killing of Muslims in Iraq and elsewhere. The result, he said, 'would lead us to winning several battles while losing the war at the end'. Osama ruminated on the 'extremely great damage' caused by these overzealous jihadists. Not only is the organisation's reputation being damaged, he noted, but also 'tens of thousands are being arrested' in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
The brooding Osama advised his followers to back off on these self-defeating attacks in Muslim nations and instead begin 'targeting American interests in non-Islamic countries first, such as South Korea'. At another point, he stressed: 'The focus must be on actions that contribute to the intent of bleeding the American enemy.'
With his followers hunted and on the run, Osama emphasised the tradecraft for avoiding detection. He warned subordinates against talking to journalists, for example, noting that 'a tracking chip could be put into some of their personal effects' and that they might be 'involuntarily monitored... either on ground or by satellite'.
The commander-in-hiding suggested surveillance-avoidance routines that involved switching cars in tunnels. And he warned cadres who travelled through Iran to jettison anything acquired there, because 'the Iranians are not to be trusted' and may plant 'eavesdropping chips... so small that they can even be put inside a medical syringe'.
The terrorist leader wanted a big punch - much like a boxer in the late rounds who knows he is losing but is still looking for the knockout blow. At one point, Osama advised Atiyah to pick 10 brothers to 'study aviation' and be ready 'to conduct suicide actions' and 'do daring, important and precise missions'.
He spoke of terrors 'outside the human will' and said it was necessary to apologise when these mistakes happened in wartime. Towards the end of his long message to Atiyah, Osama spoke of his son Hamzah and his desire that the young man be educated as a religious scholar in Qatar so that he can 'refute the wrong and the suspicions raised around jihad'. The tone is almost that of a man who senses the end may be near, who hopes that his son will clear his name.
'We are approaching a stage where narrow-mindedness is a killer,' says Osama on the penultimate page.