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Bin Laden papers seized in SEALS raid include notes to deputies, terrorist application

The documents were seized during a raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in 2011.
The documents were seized during a raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in 2011.
Published May 21, 2015

WASHINGTON — In his final years, Osama bin Laden spent his days sending missives to his subordinates, seeking to direct a terror network that appeared to have grown far beyond his control, and working his way through a pile of books that ranged from sober works of history and current affairs to wild conspiracy theories spun by infamous anti-Semites.

The latest insight into bin Laden's life in hiding comes from dozens of documents that American officials say were taken during the raid on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011 and were declassified on Wednesday.

The material included nearly 80 documents — most of them letters between bin Laden and his lieutenants — but the initial buzz generated by the release came largely from the list of books found in bin Laden's compound. That appeared to be by design: The Office of the Director of National Intelligence seized on bin Laden's reading list to promote the release, titling the Web page listing all the now-public material "Bin Laden's Bookshelf."

Some of the books taken from his compound would be a familiar sight on the bookshelf of anyone interested in global affairs, such as Obama's Wars by Bob Woodward, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy and Imperial Hubris by Michael Scheuer, the former official who once ran the CIA's bin Laden desk.

Others reveal a more conspiratorial side of bin Laden, who was believed to have read them in English. He apparently worked his way through conspiracy theory classics such as Bloodlines of the Illuminati by Fritz Springmeier and Secrets of the Federal Reserve by Eustace Mullins, a Holocaust denier.

Wednesday's release comes after years of pressure on the Obama administration to declassify material seized from bin Laden's compound. Last year, Congress directed the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to review the material and make public as much as possible.

The review, which began in May 2014, is expected to continue through the summer and into the fall, said Jeffrey S. Anchukaitis, a spokesman for the intelligence office. But the White House asked that office and the CIA to begin releasing material immediately because of "the increasing public demand to review those documents," he said.

The timing of the release also gave the administration a chance to indirectly push back on a controversial article about bin Laden's death by Seymour M. Hersh in the London Review of Books. The article, which was published this month, said that the Obama administration had lied about the raid and claimed that it was staged in cooperation with Pakistan, which had been holding bin Laden prisoner in his compound.

Administration officials have dismissed the article, contesting almost every new detail in it, including Hersh's assertion that the material taken from bin Laden's compound was actually provided to U.S. intelligence officials by their Pakistani counterparts in the years leading up the al-Qaida chief's death.

Much of what came out of the compound remains classified. The latest release brings to 103 the total number of documents from the raid that are now publicly available, plus other tidbits, such as the reading list. Twenty-seven documents had previously been made public, including 10 that were submitted as evidence at a federal trial in New York earlier this year.

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Most of the documents appear to be letters and notes between bin Laden and his top deputies. There is talk of training new recruits, and how to select the most talented to carry out major attacks in the West. There are discussions of who should be promoted, and the perceived strengths and weaknesses of those seeking to move up al-Qaida's chain of command.

There are also long discussions between bin Laden and his chief lieutenants about the strategy and the general direction of the terror network.

But experts have cautioned against drawing broad conclusions about the state of al-Qaida and bin Laden's role in the organization from the limited selection of documents, saying the sample size is simply too small relative to the cache of material that remains classified.