Intel shows bin Laden played active role in al Qaeda

With the raid on a large compound in Abbottabad, the myth that al Qaeda emir Osama bin Laden lived moving from cave to cave in the Pakistani frontier was laid to rest. And as US intelligence analysts comb through the data seized at the compound, another myth, that bin Laden played merely an inspirational role in al Qaeda, has also died. From The New York Times:

After reviewing computer files and documents seized at the compound where Osama bin Laden was killed, American intelligence analysts have concluded that the chief of Al Qaeda played a direct role for years in plotting terror attacks from his hide-out in Abbottabad, Pakistan, United States officials said Thursday….

The documents taken at the Abbottabad compound, according to American officials, show that Bin Laden was in touch regularly with the terror network he created. With his whereabouts and activities a mystery in recent years, many intelligence analysts and terrorism experts had concluded that he had been relegated to an inspirational figure with little role in current and future Qaeda operations.

A rushed examination of the trove of materials from the compound in Pakistan prompted Obama administration officials on Thursday to issue a warning that Al Qaeda last year had considered attacks on American railroads.

The documents include a handwritten notebook from February 2010 that discusses tampering with tracks to derail a train on a bridge, possibly on Christmas, New Year’s Day, the day of the State of the Union address or the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, officials said. But they said there was no evidence of a specific plot.

An Obama administration official said that documents about attacking railroads were among the first to be translated from Arabic and analyzed. The materials, along with others reviewed in the intelligence cache, have given intelligence officials a much richer picture of the Qaeda founder’s leadership of the network as he tried to elude a global dragnet.

“He wasn’t just a figurehead,” said one American official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, who had been briefed on the documents. “He continued to plot and plan, to come up with ideas about targets and to communicate those ideas to other senior Qaeda leaders.”

Now, it should have been clear that bin Laden played an active role in the terror organization after it was disclosed he ordered Mumbai-like attacks in Europe last year.

What’s the next myth to be put to rest? Will the analysts who claim that al Qaeda and the Taliban don’t fight together be proven wrong?

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

Are you a dedicated reader of FDD's Long War Journal? Has our research benefitted you or your team over the years? Support our independent reporting and analysis today by considering a one-time or monthly donation. Thanks for reading! You can make a tax-deductible donation here.

Tags: ,


  • Charu says:

    It still surprises me that they would release intel from this trove this soon. Ordinarily one would have expected the seizure of this quantity of materials to be kept a secret until all of the information within could be acted upon. Here we have leaks stemming shortly after the operation was undertaken, allowing any potential HVT to scurry underground. Odd!

  • Charu says:

    It still surprises me that they would release intel from this trove this soon. Ordinarily one would have expected the seizure of this quantity of materials to be kept a secret until all of the information within could be acted upon. Here we have leaks stemming shortly after the operation was undertaken, allowing any potential HVT to scurry underground. Odd!

  • kp says:

    Not at all odd if they’ve determined that this was just brainstorming and never made into any form of operational plan.

    Another possibility is that they already knew about this plot from other intel and verified it’s not an actual attack so there is no one to mop up. I think they’ve perhaps also evaluated it’s chance of success as very low.

    The intel also gain the advantage of showing that intel gained is concrete and UBL was operational (so the raid and shooting him is full justified: useful when dealing with 3rd parties like Pakistan) not just a figurehead. To do that you have to reveal something.

    It even shows that value of a risky JSOC raid raid over a PGM bombing.

    A rail derailment is not a spectacular. Perhaps getting two express trains to crash into each other (RailTrack in the UK can do it) would be a bit more spectacular. Doing it on a bridge and on a special day might have a little more impact but it would not have the impact of explosive attack or an aircraft attack. They need multiple big crashes to make an impact.

    Even thinking (out of the box) about this sort of attack seems to indicate that they’re having problems doing real spectaculars in the USA: no complex Mumbai style attack (despite the easy availability of firearms); no car bombs; no chemical or biological attacks; no aircraft hijacking or crashing. They seem limited in what they can attempt because of their support in the USA is poor.

  • Mr T says:

    The next myth to be dispelled will be one of your favorites Bill.
    It will be revealed that there are many active Al Qaeda cells in Afghanistan that were receiving direct orders from bin Ladie himself.
    Who would have thought that?

  • Max says:

    You know there has to be evidence of collaboration between the Pak government and Osama/Al-Quaeda, and the computer disks seized by the Seals are no doubt loaded with this evidence.
    The question is: will the US Government use this information to finally force the Pakis to make a hard break from the past? Or, will the US cover it up and continue playing the old two-faced game of hypocrisy?
    I predict that nothing will change. I hope I’m wrong.

  • Dan says:

    Doesn’t mean much either way. It was always a propaganda piece anyway when we claimed based on no evidence whatsoever that he was out of touch. It was just the fantasies of analysts flying off into the echo chamber.
    The questions that keeps me up are these:
    How long has the ISI been keeping Bin Ladin ( Tora- Bora? Before?)
    How much operational control does the ISI exercise over Al- Qaeda? What sort of support are they providing?
    I mean- we have seen Taliban being resupplied by pakistani helicopters on the afghani border, and Mumbai was a ISI run operation (Headley acted under direction of his ISI handler, for christsakes, and the suicide team trained at pakistani bases). Would it be inconceivable that AQ is an ISI partner as well?
    I’d imagine low-level personnel movement between LeT, Taliban, and AQ is pretty fluid anyway- insofar as we can tell them apart, really.

  • Charu says:

    The Pakistanis, not surprising, are now claiming that bin Laden was out of the loop and nearly destitute. They never cease to astound in their capacity to dissemble.
    It’s been nearly a week since bin Laden was found to be sheltering in Pakistan’s Punjabi heartland, and if anything the Pakistanis are getting more brazen in their response each day. When do we send them the next billion dollar installment paid for with the blood of our young men in Afghanistan? Sacred duty……..

  • brithack1 says:

    Can all the other leading terrorists living in nice houses near a Pakistan military base now come out please?
    The nice compound Osama was located in reminds me of the rather nice compound I was held in by the Siraj haqqanni network in 2008. I was kidnapped in Bajaur but before being released I was moved to a house in a suburb of Peshawar, just a few minutes away from the main Pakistan military HQ in the NWFP. As I drove past the white-washed military compounds, with Pakistani soldiers standing vigilant outside, I asked my captors weren’t they afraid. “Of what?” they asked, as the soldiers at a checkpoint waved us through.
    Just wondering whether the Americans might now be able to put pressure on the Pakistan military/ISI to ask Mullah Omar, Gulbadin Hekmatyar Ayman al Zawahiri and all their other guests – sorry, wanted terrorists – to pack their bags and leave their nice compounds near other Pakistani military bases.


Islamic state



Al shabaab

Boko Haram