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A Look At Bin Laden's Letters To Confidants


Newly released documents are giving us a glimpse of the final years and days of Osama bin Laden. Today, counterterrorism researchers at West Point are making public correspondence between bin Laden and other terrorist leaders. It's a sampling of thousands of pages found at the compound in Pakistan where al-Qaida's leader was killed a year ago this week. NPR's Larry Abramson has begun to dig into these documents. And Larry, what are you finding?

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Well, first of all, just - let's talk about what we're looking at. We're looking at about 17 documents that are quite long, hundreds of pages. And they cover the period between 2006 and 2011. So, Osama bin Laden has been on the run for a while. He's living in Pakistan, in hiding. And we don't always know - sometimes we know the letters are from him or to him. Sometimes it's unclear who the author is. So we're getting a very small glimpse of what people believe are thousands of pages of documents that Navy SEALs found in that compound when they killed Osama bin Laden.

They've been released today. We don't know exactly why. Of course, this is the one-year anniversary. The researchers didn't give any particular reason. This is when the government chose to allow these things to be made public.

GREENE: And just to be clear, I know the dates you're talking about. We're talking about well after 911, as you said. I guess I'm wondering: Do the documents depict a man who is in charge of a powerful organization? Or what kind of Osama bin Laden comes across?

ABRAMSON: Osama bin Laden looks somewhat marginalized, and maybe a little bit frustrated. His organization has sort of splintered out from the center in Pakistan, and he is somewhat restricted - very restricted in his movements because U.S. intelligence is looking for him in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region.

He's trying to control all these splinter groups in Africa, on the Arabian Peninsula, in Iraq that are affiliating themselves with al-Qaida, but aren't firmly linked to them. And he's trying to get them to tow the line, to follow his philosophy, and he has a really difficult time doing that. There are a lot of debates about whether or not terror attacks against these other countries - in Iraq, in Yemen, for example - should be launched, or whether the focus should be on the United States.

And there is one thread that goes through this, which is that he wants to strike another blow at the U.S., and he wants to bring down a plane carrying President Obama or General David Petraeus, who was the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan at that time.

GREENE: Wow. That's quite stunning. You know, one question that was - has always been on the mind of U.S. officials is whether bin Laden was getting the support, or any support from Pakistan. I mean, is there any clue to that so far in what you're reading?

ABRAMSON: In this sliver of documents that we're getting, there is no evidence that he was getting direct support from Pakistan. He does appear to have pretty strong links to the Pakistani Taliban. He doesn't appear to have much control over them, but he does have correspondence with them. But there's no indication that Pakistani intelligence or the government was actively sheltering him in this document. Of course, a lot of people think that they must have been, because he was there for many, many years.

GREENE: And what about tactics? I mean, was there wide disagreement within bin Laden's organization about how to carry forth, or were there some disagreements about tactics that come through?

ABRAMSON: There were a lot of disagreements. And, you know, Osama bin Laden comes across as a terrorist with standards, almost, somebody who really thought that these large-scale attacks were the way to go. The smaller attacks that these splinter groups were launching were going to bring the movement backwards.

And there's also a lot of debate about certain fine points, like whether or not it was OK for Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square bomber, to lie about whether - on his citizenship application. So it's pretty interesting to see al-Qaida parsing these fine points when they're also killing hundreds of people.

GREENE: Larry, thanks very much.

ABRAMSON: Thank you.

GREENE: That's NPR's Larry Abramson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Larry Abramson
Larry Abramson is NPR's National Security Correspondent. He covers the Pentagon, as well as issues relating to the thousands of vets returning home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.