Earlier today, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a set of files recovered from Osama bin Laden’s compound. The public release of the files is step towards transparency. However, the files released today are a tiny fraction of the total cache recovered in Abbottabad. As The Long War Journal has reported previously, more than one million total files are in the US government’s possession. In addition, some of the most important revelations discovered in bin Laden’s files remain hidden from public view.
Since May 2012, The Long War Journal has consistently advocated for the release of additional documents and files. Our hope is that the valuable primary source letters and memos can help better inform the public discourse. The 9/11 wars have been incredibly controversial, to say the least.
This is no small matter. The contents of Osama bin Laden’s files are invaluable for understanding our jihadist enemies. Consider that prior to the Abbottabad raid, the CIA believed bin Laden had given up day to day operational control of al Qaeda. The agency believed that Ayman al Zawahiri had assumed total managerial responsibility. Only after reviewing bin Laden’s files did the CIA realize that this assumption was false. Bin Laden was still very much in charge. US intelligence officials have publicly confirmed that they misjudged bin Laden’s role.
Still, the depth and complexity of al Qaeda and related jihadist groups is not well understood. This is because, in part, al Qaeda tries to hide its hand in jihadist groups around the globe. For example, on Aug. 15, 2010, The Long War Journal reported that bin Laden had instructed Shabaab in Somalia to keep its al Qaeda ties secret. In fact, some assumed at the time that Shabaab was not part of al Qaeda’s international network. As it turned out, two declassified letters written by Osama bin Laden on Aug. 7, 2010 revealed that the al Qaeda master considered Shabaab to already be part of his organization. He simply did not want to advertise the relationship for a variety of tactical reasons.
Previously declassified files led to a number of new revelations. For instance, the Pakistani government knew how to contact al Qaeda’s senior leadership and wanted to negotiate a truce with bin Laden’s organization in 2010. Al Qaeda was engaged in “very strong military activity” in Afghanistan prior to bin Laden’s death. While the files confirm that the CIA-led drone campaign has taken out numerous senior jihadists, they also show how al Qaeda made plans to survive the air strikes and even expanded its geographical footprint at the height of drone effort. Al Qaeda moved senior personnel out of the drones’ kill box in northern Pakistan, reintegrated veterans who returned to the battle after being placed under house arrest in Iran, and began grooming a new generation of leaders to replace the lost operatives. Previously released files also show how al Qaeda’s management team is structured.
This is just some of what we have learned from the files available to us. The files released today likely contain new nuggets of information, but are also not the most important bin Laden letters and memos in the US government’s possession.
Given the complexity of the post-9/11 wars, and the debates swirling around them, we can think of no better source to inform the public than bin Laden’s files. And so, The Long War Journal’s position is the same as it has been since 2012. We welcome today’s release. But it is not enough.
Nearly all of the Abbottabad documents and files should be released to the public.