Soon after midnight on May 2, 2011, when the US Navy Seals took out Osama bin Laden, they also discovered a treasure trove of files on his hard drive. They requested permission to bring the files with them and were given 18 minutes to do so. The ultimate covert operation is dramatized in a spellbinding thriller.
The information on the files is much less dramatic but very revealing. Nelly Lahoud has read through nearly a hundred thousand files of these files over a three-year period. They document al-Qaeda’s internal communications between 2010 and 2011. In a new book, she provides the details. An article contains a summary.
The US attack caught Osama by surprise. He died without deleting his files. They reveal more about his mind then he would have ever wanted the world to know.
Even before Lahoud’s book came out, we knew that he had been really upset at the US for using Saudi Arabia in 1991 as a launching pad for invading Kuwait and evicting Saddam’s forces. Osama, who had been equally upset at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and had fought alongside the US in that war, had now turned on the US. The book reveals that he was really upset at how Israel was treating the Palestinians and more generally, at how the world was exploiting the Muslim countries.
He wanted to hit the US really hard where it mattered the most – in New York City and Washington, DC – so that it would get the message and pull its forces out of the Middle East, making it easier for his followers to take out the tyrannical Arab regimes.
The book tells us that he had begun considering a number of ways to hit the US. The epiphany came when a co-pilot of EgyptAir crashed Boeing 767ER in 1999 – which had taken off from New York City – into the sea off the coast of Massachusetts. Instead of crashing an airliner into the sea, he was going to crash several airliners into the World Trade Center and the Capitol.
On 9/11, he decimated the former but failed to hit the latter. Then he began issuing warnings to the US to pull out of the Middle East. He did not anticipate that the US would invade Afghanistan and depose the Taliban in a mere two months. He ended up fleeing for his life to the Tora Bora cave complex in the White Mountains. When the US special forces arrived, he crossed the border into Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Ultimately, he found refuge at a three-story house in Abbottabad, located just a mile away from the army academy. From there he hoped to direct the war against the US. To his horror, he saw his network of militants being decimated by US drones, calling it a “calamity.” Instead of pulling out from the Middle East, the US deepened its presence by invading Iraq in March 2003. Saddam’s forces surrendered in just three weeks. The Iraqi army vanished and the US broke up the Baath Party. Chaos gripped Iraq which ultimately led to the birth of ISIS, which did not take direction from al-Qaeda.
Osama was disillusioned by the mass killing of Muslims by Muslims that followed and equally frustrated at his inability to stop it. He lamented that the brothers had become a “liability” for the “jihad.” The 9/11 attacks had opened Pandora’s Box and was unable to put the creatures that had begun flying around back in the box. He was now just a spectator.
The Arab Spring of 2010 provided a ray of hope but Osama’s elation would prove to be short-lived. He wrote that the Arab Spring was being led by naïve reformers who, in their zeal, had ended up harming the Muslim cause. He was drafting a message for the world assisted surprisingly by his daughters when the Navy Seals knocked the door down.
Many people lived in the house with him, including his wife and daughters. Security continued to be his top priority but the long stay had worn out the two security guards. They would not let anyone in, including his former wife who had escaped from Iran. Osama had become a prisoner of his own actions.
The truly surprising insight of Lahoud’s book is that the courier whose movements led the US to Osama’s house was not one of the guards, as commonly believed, but a Pakistani businessman who was the unknowing middleman.
Osama succeeded tactically but failed strategically. He failed to eject the US from the region. The US presence unleashed a new wave of terror that killed more Muslims than Osama could have imagined. His 9/11 attacks had not improved the Palestinian situation.
The US also succeeded tactically and failed strategically. It deposed the Taliban who had refused to handover Osama bin Laden. Ten years later, it shot and killed Osama. President Obama’s elation would prove short lived. Osama had ceased to be the leader of the global terrorist movement. He had been marginalized and isolated.
The US drones did take out many terrorists but they also caused havoc among the civilian population. The ensuing devastation damaged the image of the US in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The invasion of Iraq did remove Saddam from power but the chaos it unleashed was enormous. Yes, the US destroyed Al-Qaeda and eventually ISIS but the threat of a terrorist attack lingers on.
I had a few issues while reading the book. It’s doubtful that everything had happened in Osama’s compound was written down in a file. The CIA has no declassified all the files. What was written in the classified files? Of the declassified files, the book seems to have used about a fifth of them. What was the effect of these omissions on the narrative in the book? In other words, how big is the “sample bias?” I suspect we will never know.
Next, how do we know the material declassified by the CIA is genuine and not tampered. Finally, did the Pakistani military know of Osama bin Laden’s presence? I put these two questions to Dr. Lahoud via email. On the first one, she responded: “I seriously doubt that the U.S. government tempered with the letters. If they did, I would have expected them to temper at least with those letters that show Bin Laden being concerned about civilian casualties as a result of jihadi attacks. Besides, the overall narrative that emerges is one that starkly differs from that with which intelligence reports (and media and policy analyses) reported over many years.” On the second one, she said that bin Laden and his team had taken extraordinary measures to conceal their presence from the Pakistanis.
I find myself accepting her first answer but remain skeptical about the second one. It would be virtually difficult for anyone, least of all the world’s most wanted man, to stay in hiding for so many years in the garrison town of Abbottabad, where neighbors know neighbors and which was just a mile from the army academy.
Additional doubts arise when one considers that the US Navy Seals flew 150 miles into Pakistani territory supposedly undetected. The only explanation for that was provided by the air chief who said that our radars were pointed east. How could that be the case? The radars were presumably the sophisticated ones the US had provided Pakistan during the Soviet-Afghan war, which are presumably 360 degrees. The helicopters were flying just a few hundred feet above the ground over villages at night. The disturbance would have been hard not to notice, even if it was not captured on radar.
Additionally, once one of the US helicopters crashed on the wall of the compound, the noise and the fire would have been impossible for the Pakistani army not to realize that mischief was afoot.
A few years ago, I asked a former director general of the ISI, retired general Asad Durrani, how is it that Osama was hiding in plain sight without being detected? He said that he had always felt that Pakistan had come to know about Osama bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan at some stage but did not want to take him out. Pakistan was more than happy to let the US to take him out. It feigned ignorance about Osama in Laden’s presence for political reasons. This confirmed what a military attaché in Riyadh had told me in 2005, that the terrorist was regarded as a hero by millions in Pakistan and the army would not be willing to take him out, even if they found him.
Apart from this one issue, the book is very compelling and eye-opening. It’s a must-read for anyone with a serious interest in how the mind of the world’s leading terrorists worked.