On May 2, 2011, U.S. Navy SEALs raided Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan killing the terrorist leader in a shootout. As the American public celebrated one of the few dramatic victories in a long, desultory conflict with al-Qaeda, many experts wondered how bin Laden’s death would affect the group’s ability to carry out future attacks. Satisfying as bringing the terrorist leader to justice may have been, the raid’s real value lay in the intelligence bonanza it yielded. The SEALs brought back thousands of documents and other material that contained valuable information on al-Qaeda and its most notorious member. In accordance with the 2014 Intelligence Authorization Act, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has reviewed – and subsequently released parts of – this material over the past few years. The CIA made public the first batch of files in May 2015, the second in March 2016, the third in January 2017, and the fourth on November 1, 2017.
The latest batch contains almost 470,000 files, including 18,000 documents (notably bin Laden’s personal diary), 79,000 image and audio files, and 10,000 video files. The agency has no doubt translated and reviewed this material before releasing it, but fully analyzing all of it may take years. From an operational perspective, much of the captured material has become obsolete in the years since the raid; any value it had in identifying members of al-Qaeda has probably long since been exploited and, in any event, the torch of Islamist radicalism has been passed to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Intelligence that only sheds light on the past is of little value to policymakers. Fortunately, the Abbottabad files made public over the past three years offer broad insight into bin Laden’s life and the future of his organization.
To begin, the files indicate that, contrary to the conclusions of some analysts, bin Laden was not a figurehead but rather an active leader closely involved in managing a global network of cells and affiliate organizations far more cohesive than many analysts had believed. Bin Laden also seemed very concerned about the way in which he was viewed in the West. The files contain copies of three documentaries about him and a copy of Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars, parts of which he had translated into Arabic. The cache of files also includes material on bin Laden’s family life including a wedding video of his son Hamza, the only known video of the man some consider a potential future al-Qaeda leader.
Additionally, the files reveal a great deal about al-Qaeda as an adaptive organization that, although down, cannot be counted out. Despite persistent U.S. efforts to destroy it, the organization and its global network have proven remarkably resilient. The documents indicate that the organization has been rebuilding itself with help from a very unlikely source, the Islamic Republic of Iran. At one time, cooperation between the Shi’a state and the Sunni terrorist organization that condemned Shi’a Islam as heresy would have been unthinkable. With al-Qaeda under relentless pressure from the U.S. on both borders of Iran (in Iraq and Afghanistan), the two parties decided that pragmatism trumped ideology.
The Quds Force, an elite unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, offered sanctuary to al-Qaeda leaders, including Hamza bin Laden, after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001. From the security of Iranian soil, the al-Qaeda military council planned the 2003 attack on the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, which killed 35 people (including 9 U.S. military personnel). Following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the Quds forces supplied Ayman al-Zarqawi and his followers with funding and weapons before transporting them to Iraq to attack American soldiers. These men formed “al-Qaeda in the land of the two rivers” (commonly known as “al-Qaeda in Iraq”), which later evolved into ISIS.
However, as ISIS wanes in strength, al-Qaeda may re-emerge as the leader of the Islamist terror campaign against the West. It could operate alongside, or merge with, the remnants of the ISIS network and, as the Iran connection illustrates, the United States cannot afford to underestimate the organization’s pragmatism and flexibility.
The strength of the linkages between al-Qaeda and its affiliates revealed in the files attests to the power of a common ideology and the reach of modern communication technologies, especially the internet. Analysts had assumed that local grievances primarily motivated groups like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, El Shabab (Somalia), al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (northwest Africa), and Boko Haram (Nigeria), all of which affiliated with bin Laden’s al-Qaeda for the allure of its brand name. The Abbottabad files suggest that links between these groups and their parent organization, as well as among each other, may be stronger than previously thought. If nothing else, information from the treasure trove of material captured during the bin Laden raid underscores the need to constantly reevaluate even the most basic assumptions about the nature of terrorist organizations and their networks.
The bin Laden files help us to explain the past, understand the present, and prepare for the future. They suggest that far from merely fighting an extremist organization, we are combatting a sophisticated ideology that will manifest itself as a specific threat at various times and places. Another group will succeed ISIS as surely as ISIS succeeded al-Qaeda. Countering the ideology and dissuading people from believing it will be the real challenge.
Thomas R. Mockaitis, Ph.D. is a Professor of History at DePaul University. He has consulted for the Department of Defense Counterterrorism Fellowship Program at venues around the world. He has written numerous books and articles on counterinsurgency, terrorism, and military history, including The New Terrorism: Myths and Reality (2007) and Conventional and Unconventional War: A History of Modern Conflict (2017). Professor Mockaitis has given lectures at the National Intelligence University, the Austrian National Defense Academy, the Canadian Command and Staff College, the USMC Command and Staff College, NATO School, and the Marshall Center. A frequent media commentator, he has appeared on all major networks in Chicago and several international broadcasts.