WASHINGTON — Al Qaeda’s leaders were increasingly worried about spies in their midst, drones in the air and secret tracking devices reporting their movements, documents seized in the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani hideout reveal.
Translated and declassified by U.S. intelligence agencies, the cache of 113 documents are mostly dated between 2009 and 2011, intelligence officials told Reuters.
The documents — the second tranche from the raid to have been declassified since May 2015 — depict an al Qaeda that was unwavering in its commitment to global jihad, but with its core leadership in Pakistan and Afghanistan under pressure on multiple fronts.
President Barack Obama has said drone strikes and other counter-terrorism operations depleted al Qaeda’s original leadership, culminating in bin Laden’s killing by U.S. Navy SEALs on May 2, 2011. In the years since, the organization has proved resilient from Afghanistan to North Africa, and ideological rival ISIS has grown and spread.
In one document, bin Laden issues instructions to al Qaeda members holding an Afghan hostage to be wary of possible tracking technology attached to the ransom payment.
“It is important to get rid of the suitcase in which the funds are delivered, due to the possibility of it having a tracking chip in it,” bin Laden states in a letter to an aide identified only as “Shaykh Mahmud.”
In an apparent reference to armed U.S. drones patrolling the skies, bin Laden says his negotiators should not leave their rented house in the Pakistani city of Peshawar “except on a cloudy overcast day.”
While the document is undated, Afghan diplomat Abdul Khaliq Farahi was held hostage from September 2008 to late 2010.
In another, bin Laden expresses alarm over his wife’s visit to a dentist while in Iran, worrying that a tracking chip could have been implanted with her dental filling.
“The size of the chip is about the length of a grain of wheat and the width of a fine piece of vermicelli,” he wrote using the pseudonym Abu Abdallah.
The letter ended with this instruction: “Please destroy this letter after reading it.”
In a May 11, 2010 letter to his then second-in-command, Atiyah Abd al Rahman, bin Laden urged caution in arranging an interview with al Jazeera journalist Ahmad Zaidan, asserting that the United States could be tracking his movements through devices implanted in his equipment, or by satellite.
“You must keep in mind the possibility, however, slight, that journalists can be under surveillance that neither we nor they can perceive, either on the ground or via satellite,” he wrote.
Even as al Qaeda came under growing pressure, bin Laden and his aides planned a media campaign to mark the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, the documents show. They plotted diplomatic strategy and opined on climate change and the U.S. financial collapse.
In a undated letter “To the American people,” the al Qaeda chief chides Obama for failing to end the war in Afghanistan; and accurately predicts that the U.S. president’s plan for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will fail.
On April 28, 2011, just four days before his death, bin Laden was editing a document he had written on the Arab Spring revolutions.
Al Qaeda’s leaders also urged further attacks on the United States. “We need to extend and develop our operations in America and not keep it limited to blowing up airplanes,” says a letter, apparently written by bin Laden, to Nasir al-Wuhayshi, head of al Qaeda’s Yemen branch.