In the early-morning hours of May 2, 2011, a small team of American military and intelligence professionals landed inside the high white walls of a mysterious compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The team’s mission, code-named Operation Neptune Spear, had two primary objectives: capture or kill Osama bin Laden and gather as much intelligence as possible about the al Qaeda leader and his network. A bullet to bin Laden’s head accomplished the first; the quick work of the Sensitive Site Exploitation team accomplished the second.
It was quite a haul: 10 hard drives, nearly 100 thumb drives and a dozen cellphones. There were DVDs, audio and video tapes, data cards, reams of handwritten materials, newspapers and magazines. At a Pentagon briefing days after the raid, a senior military intelligence official described it as “the single largest collection of senior terrorist materials ever.”
The United States had gotten its hands on al Qaeda’s playbook—its recent history, its current operations, its future plans. An interagency team led by the Central Intelligence Agency got the first look at the cache. They performed a hasty scrub—a “triage”—on a small sliver of the document collection, looking for actionable intelligence. According to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, the team produced more than 400 separate reports based on information in the documents.
But it is what happened next that is truly stunning: nothing. The analysis of the materials—the “document exploitation,” in the parlance of intelligence professionals—came to an abrupt stop. According to five senior U.S. intelligence officials, the documents sat largely untouched for months—perhaps as long as a year.
In spring 2012, a year after the raid that killed bin Laden and six months before the 2012 presidential election, the Obama administration launched a concerted campaign to persuade the American people that the long war with al Qaeda was ending. In a speech commemorating the anniversary of the raid, John Brennan , Mr. Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser and later his CIA director, predicted the imminent demise of al Qaeda. The next day, on May 1, 2012, Mr. Obama made a bold claim: “The goal that I set—to defeat al Qaeda and deny it a chance to rebuild—is now within our reach.”
The White House provided 17 handpicked documents to the Combatting Terror Center at the West Point military academy, where a team of analysts reached the conclusion the Obama administration wanted. Bin Laden, they found, had been isolated and relatively powerless, a sad and lonely man sitting atop a crumbling terror network.
The site, later razed, in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden was killed.PHOTO:AFP/GETTY IMAGES
It was a reassuring portrayal. It was also wrong. And those responsible for winning the war—as opposed to an election—couldn’t afford to engage in such dangerous self-delusion.
“The leadership down at Central Command wanted to know what were we learning from these documents,” says Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, according to the transcript of an interview with Fox News anchor Bret Baier for a coming Fox News Reporting special. “We were still facing a growing al Qaeda threat. And it was not just Pakistan and Afghanistan and Iraq. But we saw it growing in Yemen. We clearly saw it growing still in East Africa.” The threat “wasn’t going away,” he adds, “and we wanted to know: What can we learn from these documents?”
After a pitched bureaucratic battle, a small team of analysts from the Defense Intelligence Agency and Centcom was given time-limited, read-only access to the documents. The DIA team began producing analyses reflecting what they were seeing in the documents.
At precisely the time Mr. Obama was campaigning on the imminent death of al Qaeda, those with access to the bin Laden documents were seeing, in bin Laden’s own words, that the opposite was true. Says Lt. Gen. Flynn: “By that time, they probably had grown by about—I’d say close to doubling by that time. And we knew that.”
This wasn’t what the Obama White House wanted to hear. So the administration cut off DIA access to the documents and instructed DIA officials to stop producing analyses based on them.
Even this limited glimpse into the broader set of documents revealed the problems with the administration’s claims about al Qaeda. Bin Laden had clear control of al Qaeda and was intimately involved in day-to-day management. More important, given the dramatic growth of the terror threat in the years since, the documents showed that bin Laden had expansion plans. Lt. Gen. Flynn says bin Laden was giving direction to “members of the wider al Qaeda leadership team, if you will, that went all the way to places like West Africa where we see a problem today with Boko Haram and [al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb], all the way back into the things that were going on in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Bin Laden advised them on everything from specific operations in Europe to the types of crops his minions should plant in East Africa.
To date, the public has seen only two dozen of the 1.5 million documents captured in Abbottabad. “It’s a thimble-full,” says Derek Harvey, a senior intelligence official who helped lead the DIA analysis of the bin Laden collection.
And while it is impossible to paint a complete picture of al Qaeda based on the small set of documents available to the public, documents we are able to read, including those released last week in a Brooklyn terror trial, reveal stunning new details.
According to one letter, dated July 2010, the brother of Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s current prime minister, sought to strike a peace deal with the jihadists. Bin Laden was informed that Shahbaz Sharif, who was then the chief minister of Punjab, wanted to cut a deal with the Pakistani Taliban, whose leadership was close to bin Laden. The government “was ready to reestablish normal relations as long as [the Pakistani Taliban] do not conduct operations in Punjab,” according to the letter from Atiyah Abd al Rahman, one of bin Laden’s top deputies. Attacks elsewhere in Pakistan were apparently acceptable under the terms of the alleged proposal. Al Qaeda intended to guide the Pakistani Taliban throughout the negotiations. The same letter reveals how al Qaeda and its allies used the threat of terrorist attacks as a negotiating tactic in its talks with the Pakistani military.
The letter also shows that Pakistani intelligence was willing to negotiate with al Qaeda. Al Qaeda “leaked” word to the press that “big, earth shaking operations” were planned in Pakistan, the letter says, but bin Laden’s men and their allies would back off if the Pakistani army eased up on its offensive against the jihadists in the north: “In the aftermath” of the al Qaeda leak, “the intelligence people . . . started reaching out to us through some of the Pakistani ‘jihadist’ groups, the ones they approve of.” One of the Pakistani intelligence service’s emissaries was Fazl-ur-Rahman Khalil, a longtime bin Laden ally who leads the Harakat-ul-Mujahideen. Khalil was an early booster of bin Laden’s war against the West, having signed the al Qaeda master’s infamous 1998 fatwa declaring jihad “against the Jews and the Crusaders.” Another government intermediary was Hamid Gul, the one-time head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
Al Qaeda’s network in Iran is also described in bin Laden’s letters. The Iranian regime held some senior al Qaeda leaders, eventually releasing them. This led to disagreements between the two sides. But the mullahs have also allowed al Qaeda to use Iranian soil as a key transit hub, shuttling fighters and cash to and from South Asia. One letter recounts a plan, devised by Yunis al Mauritani, one of bin Laden’s senior lieutenants, to relocate to Iran. Once there, Mauritani would dispatch terrorists to take part in operations around the world.
Mauritani was tasked by bin Laden with planning Mumbai-style shootings in Europe in 2010. The plot was fortunately thwarted. But all of the terrorists selected to take part transited Iran, according to court proceedings in Germany, taking advantage of the Iranian regime’s agreement with al Qaeda.
During the Arab uprisings in 2011, Obama administration officials argued that al Qaeda had been “sidelined” by the peaceful protests. Just weeks before he was killed, however, bin Laden’s men dispatched operatives to Libya and elsewhere to take advantage of the upheaval. “There has been an active Jihadist Islamic renaissance under way in Eastern Libya (Benghazi, Derna, Bayda and that area) for some time, just waiting for this kind of opportunity,” Atiyah Abd al Rahman wrote in early April 2011. Rahman thought there was much “good” in the so-called Arab Spring. And bin Laden believed that the upheaval presented al Qaeda with “unprecedented opportunities” to spread its radical ideology.
The fight over the bin Laden documents continues. Mr. Harvey, the senior DIA official, believes that the documents should be declassified and released to the public as soon as possible, after taking precautions to avoid compromising sources or methods. Rep. Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, inserted language in the 2014 intelligence authorization bill requiring just that.
Making the documents public is long overdue. The information in them is directly relevant to many of the challenges we face today—from a nuclear deal with an Iranian regime that supports al Qaeda to the rise of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria; from confidence-building measures meant to please the Afghan Taliban to the trustworthiness of senior Pakistani officials.
Choosing ignorance shouldn’t be an option.
Mr. Hayes is a senior writer for the Weekly Standard. Mr. Joscelyn is senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.