Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Laden’s Bleak Final Days

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The latest batch of Osama bin Laden documents shows what you’d expect from a one-time terror mastermind whose best years were behind him. He’d spent six years confined to a house with several of his wives, and where the only way he could get outside was to walk inside the walled compound, or atop the walled rooftop.

Nearly 200 pages of his missives to fellow al Qaeda member released Thursday by the U.S. military consist mostly of his typically flowery and faux-pious prose shadowed by delusion. Like a North Korean rocket scientist watching his missile peter out and then explode, it’s plain his post-9/11 adrenalin high had been crushed by the U.S. invasion of his sanctuary in Afghanistan. He fretted that his network was crumbling, and that Muslims were more inclined to embrace a peaceful Arab spring than a scorching summer of jihad.

He was particularly angry with al Qaeda affiliates whose promiscuous violence killed fellow Muslims, and suggested attacks in non-Muslim nations with strong U.S. ties – he mentioned South Korea by name – might make more sense. And he made clear he wanted his minions to kill President Obama or Army General David Petraeus, and not waste time on lesser U.S. leaders like Vice President Joe Biden, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, or then-Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“I plan to release a statement that we are starting a new phase to correct (the mistakes) we made,” bin Laden wrote in 2010. “In doing so, we shall reclaim, God willing, the trust of a large segment of those who lost their trust in the jihadis.” Navy SEALs seized the documents a year ago Wednesday when they raided Osama’s compound deep inside Pakistan and killed the al Qaeda leader.

Indeed, even as the U.S. military was tracking down and killing his lieutenants one by one, bin Laden dreamed of a second big attack: shooting planes carrying Obama or Petraeus out of the sky.

He ordered his fighters

to prepare two groups – one in Pakistan and the other in the Bagram area of Afghanistan – with the mission of anticipating and spotting the visits of Obama or Petraeus to Afghanistan or Pakistan to target the aircraft of either one of them. They are not to target visits by US Vice President Biden, Secretary of Defense Gates, Joint Chiefs of Staff (Chairman) Mullen, or the Special Envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan Holbrook. The groups will remain on the lookout for Obama or Petraeus. The reason for concentrating on them is that Obama is the head of infidelity and killing him automatically will make Biden take over the presidency for the remainder of the term, as it is the norm over there. Biden is totally unprepared for that post, which will lead the US into a crisis. As for Petraeus, he is the man of the hour in this last year of the war, and killing him would alter the war’s path.

Yet his justifiable fear for his personal safety made it difficult for bin Laden to exert influence on his dwindling band of al Qaeda fighters, the U.S. Army’s Combating Terrorism Center said in an analysis of the documents. “Bin Laden enjoyed little control,” they said, “over either groups affiliated with al Qaida in name or so-called fellow travelers.”

He was micromanaging to an amazing degree, debating with others what U.S. cable-news channel should be favored when it came time to celebrate the 10th anniversary of 9/11:

As far as the American channel that could be used to deliver our messages, whether on the tenth anniversary or before or after, in my personal opinion there are no distinct differences between the channels from the standpoint of professionalism and neutrality…From the professional point of view, they are all on one level except (Fox News) channel which falls into the abyss as you know, and lacks neutrality too.

The center released 17 documents totaling 197 pages of written exchanges in English (175 in the original Arabic) among al Qaeda leaders from 2006 to 2011. Most of the estimated 6,000 pages of documents, largely downloaded from computers and thumb drives harvested by the SEALs during last May’s mission, remains classified and unreleased.

Too often, the documents suggest the al Qaeda “franchises” that U.S. officials have long feared, were akin to McDonald’s franchises who just couldn’t get that “special sauce” right for their Big Macs. “Bin Ladin’s frustration with regional jihadi groups and his seeming inability to exercise control over their actions and public statements is the most compelling story,” the analysts conclude.

Terrorism expert William McCants concurs on the Foreign Affairs website. Al Qaeda, he says in a Thursday post, can no longer carry out 9/11-like attacks. Instead, its remnants are reduced to summoning so-called “lone wolves” to terror, and finding few willing to answer the call. “The people of the Arab Spring, when allowed to choose their own destiny, have voted against the despotic political vision of al-Qaeda,” McCants says. “For the organization’s leadership, which spent a generation sowing the seeds of its vision in the region, this is a bitter fruit to reap.”