Government officials refer to it blandly as the “SSE,” or Sensitive Site Exploitation. That’s their oblique term for the extraordinary cache of evidence that was carried away from Osama bin Laden’s compound the night the al-Qaida leader was killed.
With the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks a few weeks away, it’s possible to use this evidence to sketch a vivid portrait of al-Qaida, drawing on material contained in more than 100 computer storage devices, including thumb drives, DVDs and CDs, and more than a dozen computers or hard drives — all collected during the May 2 raid.
U.S. officials say three strong themes emerge from their reading of the files, most of which were communications between bin Laden and his top deputy Atiyah Abd al-Rahman. Indeed, because the Libyan-born Atiyah (who’s known to analysts by his first name) was the boss’s key link with the outside, officials see him as more important than bin Laden’s nominal successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Here are the highlights:
• Bin Laden retained until his death a passion to launch a significant attack against the U.S., ideally linked to the 10th anniversary of 9/11. He and Atiyah communicated often about who might carry out such a strike, with Atiyah proposing names and bin Laden rejecting them. Bin Laden was still looking for a history-changing attack on big, economically important targets. Zawahiri, by contrast, favored an opportunistic strategy of smaller strikes.
• Bin Laden was a hands-on chief executive officer, with a role in operations planning and personnel decisions, rather than the detached senior leader that U.S. analysts had hypothesized. Zawahiri, whom the analysts had imagined as the day-to-day leader, was actually quite isolated — and remains so, despite a dozen communications this year. Zawahiri suffers from mistrust between his Egyptian faction of al-Qaida and other operatives, such as Atiyah.
• Bin Laden was suffering badly from drone attacks on al-Qaida’s base in the tribal areas of Pakistan. He called this the “intelligence war,” and said it was “the only weapon that’s hurting us.” His cadres complained that they couldn’t train in the tribal areas, couldn’t communicate, couldn’t travel easily and couldn’t draw new recruits to what amounted to a free-fire zone. Bin Laden discussed moving al-Qaida’s base to another location, but he never took action.
Analysts did not find in the material any smoking gun to suggest Pakistani government complicity in bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad. And it’s clear he was paranoid about being found and killed: He ordered his subordinates to restrict movements to help preserve what remained of al-Qaida in Pakistan. Fear of being discovered was a subject of regular conversation between Bin Laden, Atiyah, Zawahiri and others.
Bin Laden also worried that al-Qaida’s status among Muslims was dwindling, and that the West had at least partially succeeded in distancing al-Qaida’s message from core Islamic values. Concerned about this eroding base, bin Laden counseled affiliates in North Africa and Yemen to hold back on their efforts to develop a local Islamic extremist state in favor of attacking the U.S. and its interests.
The al-Qaida that emerges from these documents is a badly battered and disoriented group. When top U.S. officials summarize their view of al-Qaida now, in the run-up to the 9/11 anniversary, they describe an organization that is down, but certainly not out.