May 21, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: What Bin Ladin Read and Why

• The released reading materials seized during the May 2011 raid that killed al-Qaeda leader Usama bin Ladin suggest the somewhat isolated leader was still consistently trying to understand how his enemies assessed him and his group, and how to exploit those assessments

• Among his readings were 75 U.S. government documents ranging from the 9/11 Commission to congressional studies on al-Qaeda’s threat to the homeland; bin Ladin in effect studied how he had forced his opponent to reactively reorganize itself after 2001 and he was looking for ways to do it again

• As part of his study, he had over 33 journals and papers from think tanks on possible threats by his group and how to counter them, knowing that their analyses of his group would help shape official U.S. policy and the public arguments to support them

• Until the end, bin Ladin was looking for ways to keep the fight focused on the West through attacks and not battles, damaging the psyche and the economies of his enemies while avoiding infighting.


Usama bin Ladin apparently had little time for fiction. The release of some of the reading material found in his Abbottabad, Pakistan compound shows the leader of al-Qaeda focused on books and papers that examined both his group and also how the U.S. reacted to it. Based on an examination of the released material, it appears bin Ladin remained focused up until his death on knowing more about his enemy, the United States, and what it thought it knew about him and his group.

This suggests that bin Ladin learned a painful lesson from the days following 9/11, when he badly misjudged the U.S. reaction and capability, at least in the short term. To remedy that misjudgment, even if he couldn’t remedy his living arrangement and relative removal from the group he founded, bin Ladin took to heart Sun Tzu’s maxim that “If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat” which is a perfect description of what happened to his group after the victory of 9/11. Therefore the larger theme of his readings was learning about his enemy.

While it might be interesting that he would read conspiracy books about, among other things, the 9/11 attacks that he himself orchestrated, it is more interesting that he read so many U.S. government studies and documents. He certainly was intrigued as to how massive events like 9/11 were shaped and misshaped in the American psyche, since manipulating that psyche was always a goal. Conspiracies create a wedge between people and their government, something bin Ladin was keen to do in the United States. But he was also very interested in how the U.S. assessed its own counterterrorism performances, capabilities, and reactions, reading reports such as the 9/11 Commission Report, Congressional Research Service reports on the cost and conduct of the war on terror, the Iraq Study Group findings, and the Marine Corps' “The Guerrilla and How to Fight Him."

He also read the U.S. Justice Department criminal complaints against six terrorists, some associated with al-Qaeda and others with groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, perhaps looking for patterns that led to arrest or what specific charges were the most effective legal tools against his members. He had seven documents on U.S. passports or visas: how to obtain one for a minor, obtain one reported lost or stolen, applying by mail, and how to re-apply. Bin Ladin was apparently still driven to get operatives into the U.S. for the long-promised-but never-delivered second wave of spectacular attacks, which became much harder after the 9/11 attacks, given the expanded watch lists and scrutiny.

Unfortunately, while bin Ladin was somewhat contained in Abbottabad, despite his readings, the ideology he spawned—bin Ladinism—was spreading like pollen over fields of conflict from Afghanistan to Syria, Iraq, and far beyond. Bin Ladin knew that if the conditions on the ground across the region continued on their negative trend lines, his group’s ideology would survive even as its leadership was being picked off by drone strikes. He read nine reports by the U.S. Institute for Peace, ranging from natural resources to American foreign policy and Islamic renewal, trying to learn how the U.S. was trying but still failing to engage with root problems his group encouraged and exploited.

Bin Ladin appears, out of necessity, to have become an open source junkie as to how his brand of al-Qaeda was being assessed by non-government groups, reading 33 journals and reports by think tanks and academics. Bin Ladin was interested in seeing how Western experts viewed himself and his group. Through reading the reports, he could see how beliefs and assessments of al-Qaeda were debated, discarded, modified, or codified. This was rather smart as the trends and possible threats or opportunities discussed in these journals and papers would help shape national discussions on counter-terrorism and the resulting policies and programs.

One can learn a lot from a person’s reading habits, and bin Ladin is no exception. Everything he appears to have read was in furtherance of al-Qaeda and bin Ladinism. Superficially it might appear—from papers on Iranian nuclear sites to French economic statistics—that bin Ladin was grasping at straws, and in a way he was, given how desperate he was to get back in the win column. But to the end, he remained single-mindedly focused on learning the best avenues to inflict the most pain on the West, and his death has done little to change the damaging trends of his ideology.


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