What Bin Laden learned (and didn’t learn) from Brookings

On May 20, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” a limited collection of documents seized by Navy Seals during the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan in May 2011. Writings by three Brookings fellows—Michael O’Hanlon, William McCants, and Paul Pillar—are among the non-classified materials retrieved.

As Bruce Riedel explains, the list offers a helpful window to understand Bin Laden. And it is quite a reading list—and bears a shocking resemblance to many a bookshelf at Brookings. Clearly, Bin Laden in hiding had a lot of time on his hands and lacked a decent cable television package. But the other than passing the time, just what was Bin Laden trying to learn? 

Overall, these documents give a glimpse into what Bin Laden was attempting to understand about the world order, where Al Qaeda fit, and how he might make the terrorist network more dangerous and resilient. But just what was Bin Laden attempting to learn about his Western foes, the state of global jihad, or even about himself?

What did Bin Laden know and how did he know it

For context, in early 2011 the revolutions shaking the Middle East and North Africa demonstrated just how much Al Qaeda’s influence in the Arab world was waning. As Bruce Riedel wrote just two months before the Abbottabad raid, “The revolutions in Arab states this winter have demonstrated that the epicenter of al Qaeda’s global jihad has long moved away from the Arabs to Pakistan and South Asia. Aside from its branches in Iraq and Yemen it has been marginalized…” This followed years of slow decay of the Al Qaeda core and its influence over the global extremist network, beginning with the invasion of Afghanistan, which forced Bin Laden and his senior deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri into hiding.

What becomes clear after examining the four documents—“Counterterrorism after Al Qaeda,” “Stealing Al-Qai’ida’s Playbook,” “Militant Ideology Atlas,” and “Unfinished Business: U.S. Overseas Military Presence in the 21st Century”—is that Bin Laden is aware that America believes Al Qaeda core is diminished and that his Western enemies are developing messages (and messengers) intended to divide the broader extremist movement. Whether he chooses to believe his own power is fading and if American efforts are working, however, is another matter altogether.

Decentralization, a key theme in the documents, is at the core of Bin Laden’s organizational problems but ironically also the bane of America’s fight against terrorism at large. Pillar writes that more dispersed networks composed of looser operational connections and nameless leaders will make counterterrorism efforts more difficult. McCants and his co-author explain that jihadis no longer need attend central training camps; instead, the Internet is sufficient in many cases to inspire and instruct.

O’Hanlon speculates that when it comes to his work, Bin Laden wanted to understand where U.S. troops would be stationed in the future. And in looking at how to best organize and station American troops in the future to counter terrorist threats, O’Hanlon cites the need for flexibility, particularly by maintaining bases in partner nations, thus indicating the need for a more dispersed, cooperative approach.

In perhaps the most poignant finding from “Stealing Al-Qai’ida’s Playbook,” the authors conclude that “Jihadi ideologues closely follow Western thought and U.S. strategic planning for insights that can be used against the United States and its allies.” Bin Laden’s bookshelf proves this point, but it also illustrates just what a difficult task it is to “follow” Western thought, despite the vast array of sources available in Pakistani boltholes. Lacking the context of direct contact with the West, Bin Laden could only have been confused and even misdirected by the vast array of conflicting opinion and facts that his bookshelf presents.  There is little evidence that Bin Laden’s impressive reading list gave him deeper insight into the West or helped him operationally. So take note, it is not enough to do the reading, you also have come to Brookings events and follow the discussion on the website, which our records indicate Bin Laden did not do.

Indeed, neither Al Qaeda nor the United States fully heeded the trend towards decentralization or fully understood its implications. Bin Laden’s successor, Zawahiri, now theoretically oversees a number of operationally independent affiliates in places like Yemen, Syria, and India, while in fact he has almost no control at all. Meanwhile, ISIS has stolen Al Qa’eda’s thunder with the Sunni extremist movement. The United States, in oddly parallel fashion, has found its options limited by regional allies, particularly Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other Persian Gulf partners who have their own ideas on how best to counter Islamic extremism, not to mention Iraq’s near collapse.

Regardless, Brookings efforts to understand Sunni extremism and terrorism continue apace. We fully expect that the work of these three authors  will continue to influence a new generation of senior leaders, both at home and abroad.