The belated release of some of the material captured by the SEALs in Osama Bin Laden’s Abbottabad hideout is a positive if long overdue action by the director of national intelligence. It was mandated by Congress, a rare act of good judgement from the Hill. But the amount of material released so far is small and too limited to make many broad assessments about Bin Laden or al-Qaida.
It’s more than four years since the administration reported the SEAL team had brought home a small college library of printed and digital material from Abbottabad. The commandos have written since that they only had time to grab less than half of what the al-Qaida emir had stashed away. Probably the most sensitive letters were hidden the most thoroughly, so only the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, now has access to those since they went through the hideout thoroughly before destroying it after the raid.
It’s hard to understand why it took four years to declassify the list of unclassified books Bin Laden had on his bookshelves. Obviously, some of his letters and other material are very sensitive and provide valuable insights into who knew how to communicate with Bin Laden in his lair. Some undoubtedly discussed plots then underway, or leads to finding other terrorists. But a list of what he read in English does not appear to warrant a four-year delay. What would be interesting would be any notes he made in the margins of the books by Bob Woodward and others.
The letters that have been declassified do portray a man still very active and engaged. He was not a recluse or under house arrest. He remain fixated on America and looking for its vulnerabilities. He understood the Arab Spring would inevitably benefit al-Qaida when many outsiders mistakenly thought other wise. He understood that the forces of reaction and counter revolution would stymie reform and create opportunities for al-Qaida. In this he was of course right. He chafed at the restrictions of security and the restraints inherent in running a clandestine terrorist organization hunted by most of the world’s security services.
Much more remains unclear. Who knew he was in Abbottabad? Hillary Clinton has rightly said some elements of the Pakistani military must have known, but which? And why did they allow him to stay hidden in a city that is the Pakistani equivalent of West Point? Pakistan’s own investigation came to the conclusion: Some one in the ISI must have known, but they carefully avoided saying exactly who that may have been.
Did Bin Laden venture out to see other jihadis in Pakistan? A new book just published in Pakistan says he met with one of the planners of the November 2008 Mumbai attack in India just months before the attack. According to this account, Bin Laden met with Ilyas Kashmiri, an ISI trained jihadist with close ties to Lashkar e Tayyiba, the perpetrators of the Mumbai massacre, and to al-Qaida, well before the attack to be briefed on the plot. This meeting allegedly took place outside of Abbottabad. Bin Laden was an enthusiastic supporter of the plan to strike Mumbai, hoping it would spark an Indo-Pakistani war. The released declassified documents confirm Bin Laden was in contact with Kashmiri. At one point he tasked Kashmiri to develop a plan to assassinate President Obama if he ever visited Pakistan. Other accounts have also suggested Bin Laden strayed outside his hideout occasionally to see prominent Pakistani and Afghan jihadis.
The release of parts of the Abbottabad hoard is a smart move to demystify both bin Laden the man and al-Qaida the organization. The more the world knows about these terrorists the better. The director of national intelligence is on the right track at last.