Bin Laden documents reveal strain on al-Qaida

WASHINGTON — Toward the end of his decade in hiding, Osama bin Laden was spending as much time exchanging messages about al-Qaida's struggles as he was plotting ways for the terrorist network to reassert its strength.

Over the past year, al-Qaida's founder fielded e-mails from followers lamenting the toll being taken by CIA drone "explosions" as well as the network's financial plight, the Washington Post reported Friday, citing unnamed U.S. officials who have completed an exhaustive review of the trove of bin Laden files collected at his compound after the May 2 U.S. raid that killed him.

Bin Laden approved the creation of a counterintelligence unit to root out traitors and spies, only to receive a complaint in mid 2010 from the unit's leader that it was losing the espionage war and couldn't function on its paltry budget.

Just months before the Arab Spring took hold, bin Laden warned affiliates in Yemen and elsewhere that it was too soon to create an Islamic state because there wasn't enough steel in al-Qaida's regional support structures to warrant steps toward reestablishing the caliphate.

Analysts at the CIA and other agencies are likely to continue poring over the files for years since the multiagency task force that was set up to review what officials have described as the largest cache of terrorism records recovered to date finished its job and was disbanded last month.

The group produced more than 400 intelligence reports in a span of six weeks and prompted public warnings of al-Qaida plots against trains and other targets. U.S. officials said the findings also triggered a small number of operations overseas, including arrests of suspects who are named or described in e-mails that bin Laden received. The task force was based at a CIA facility in Northern Virginia.

The Post reported that U.S. officials believe that the main value of the data is in enabling analysts to construct a more comprehensive portrait of al-Qaida, and that many of the most recent files found on bin Laden's computers depict an organization beset by mounting problems even as its leader remained singularly focused on delivering a followup to the Sept. 11, 2001, strikes.

The Post said several officials agreed to discuss the conclusions of the bin Laden task force — and provide new details on specific messages sent and received by al-Qaida's leader — on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the subject.

One of bin Laden's principal correspondents was Atiyah abd al-Rahman, who served as No. 3 in al-Qaida before bin Laden's death. A 2010 message from Rahman expressed frustration with the CIA drone campaign, a source of particular concern because many of his predecessors in the third-ranking slot had been killed in drone strikes.

At least two messages came from the head of al-Qaida's security unit, which had been established to protect against penetrations by informants who might provide targeting tips to the CIA. The unit is thought to be behind executions of dozens of suspected informants.

Other messages make frequent mention of the organization's financial hardships. One bin Laden message sent in spring 2010 instructed a deputy to form a group that would get money through kidnapping and ransom of diplomats, the Post reported.

Several messages contain mentions of militants seen as suitable candidates for al-Qaida operations, information that has led to an undisclosed number of arrests by governments overseas.

The cache contains correspondence between bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri, who succeeded bin Laden as al-Qaida's leader. U.S. officials said the messages don't indicate that either knew where the other was hiding.

Bin Laden documents reveal strain on al-Qaida 07/02/11 [Last modified: Saturday, July 2, 2011 8:14pm]

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