Files afford a rare look at inner workings of al-Qaida

August 27, 2011


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.

David Ignatius is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. His email address is davidignatius@washpost.com


Richard Heckler 6 years, 10 months ago

What I have never understood is why the Taliban and Al Qaeda do not go after USA corporate strongholds aka USA corporate special interests abroad?

Such as oil giants, Nike,Wal- Mart,PEPSICO,Coca Cola and mining interests etc etc etc.

Instead of killing their own innocent people and killing our innocent soldiers. USA soldiers would rather not be engaged in the bogus wars and certainly don't enjoy killing innocent men,women and children anywhere.

It is USA corporate interests abroad driving the wars so why not shut them down? USA citizens do not support the raping of another countries natural resources.

Stop killing innocent Americans,innocent USA soldiers and innocent men,women and children abroad! AND how does killing your own make anything better?

Crazy_Larry 6 years, 9 months ago

War is a Racket! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F3_EXq...


Once upon a time, there was tinfoil hat wearing conspiracy theorist from Kansas who said:

"In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the militaryindustrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."

"We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together."

Flap Doodle 6 years, 10 months ago

merrill, it sounds as if you would encourage AQ to attack American businesses. In other AQ news: http://mypetjawa.mu.nu/archives/209122.php

Crazy_Larry 6 years, 9 months ago

David Ignatius is in the CIA's pocket--period, end of story. This is nothing but propaganda from the military-industrial-congressional complex. Question: Just who all has access to the information contained within these "100 computer storage devices?" Is there anyway what-so-ever to confirm the story being fed to us? FOIA that up for me, won't you? I'm it was mostly porn movies. Anyway, now the MICC has a 'cache of information' they can use to justify the continued expansion of budgets; and aggression against any 'rouge' country they see fit. How convenient is that!?!

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