Analysis: The significance of Osama bin Laden’s bookshelf release
May 22, 2015 4 Comments
The release this week of material from Osama bin Laden’s personal stack of books and documents, which were confiscated from his Abbottabad compound, is timely as it is important. The decision by the United States Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) to declassify the documents was almost certainly in response to recent claims that bin Laden was being kept under house arrest by the Pakistani intelligence services at the time of his assassination. American journalist Seymour Hersh, who made the allegations in the London Review of Books earlier this month, said that the Pakistanis were forced to give Washington permission to kill bin Laden once the CIA was able to confirm his presence in Pakistan.
By releasing the documents, the ODNI hopes to show that the al-Qaeda founder could not possibly have been under house arrest and still have been able to communicate with his al-Qaeda lieutenants. But there is a counterargument too, which rests on the view that al-Qaeda has been integrated into the command structure of the Pakistani intelligence services ever since the days of the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s. According to this view, it would not have been especially difficult for bin Laden’s captors to permit him to maintain carefully supervised communications with his organization. This would have given the Pakistanis the benefit of monitoring the operational thinking of al-Qaeda, while at the same time dispelling any speculation about his rumored death, which was widespread in the decade prior to his actual demise. Additionally, the feeling one gets from reading Hersh’s article is that the Pakistanis’ arrangement with bin Laden was a cross between internment and protection, with the emphasis shifting from one to the other depending on the changing needs of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate.
The documents themselves are also revealing. They show that, almost to the end of his life, bin Laden continued to regard the United States as the foremost target of militant Islam. To that extent, it is interesting that the ODNI’s release includes almost no documents about Israel, Russia, India, or China. This points to a tactical prioritization of America as a target, and perhaps also a sense of vendetta that bin Laden himself held against his former allies in the Soviet-Afghan war of the 1980s. Moreover, the documents show that bin Laden continued to favor attacks designed to cause mass casualties, in the style of 9/11. Knowing that, and considering that no such attack took place against the United States after 9/11, one might logically conclude that al-Qaeda has been willing but unable to carry one out.
We already know from documents released in 2012 that bin Laden was deeply concerned about the high numbers of Muslims killed by al-Qaeda and its affiliates. His argument was that such tactics were hurting the public image of the organization among its Muslim target-audience. The documents released this week confirm his deep concern about this issue. It is interesting to note that he directed repeated warnings and instructions to al-Qaeda’s affiliates in North Africa and in Yemen not to turn their attacks against local targets, but to concentrate instead on America and Americans. However, given the record of attacks by these groups in the last five years, it appears that the al-Qaeda founder’s warnings were either never received or outright dismissed by al-Qaeda’s affiliates. This could provide insights into the limited influence bin Laden had as an al-Qaeda commander toward the end of his life. Among his instructions was for militant Muslims to stop “insisting on forming an Islamic state”, because such a strategy was premature. It is therefore interesting to contrast his instructions with the spectacular emergence of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, which appears to operate in direct opposition to bin Laden’s directives.
One peculiar aspect of bin Laden’s library is the relatively large section of books and documents on France. The al-Qaeda leader did not speak French, so the French-related material is in the English language. It includes studies of French economics, military procurement and nuclear arms policy, among other subjects. Much of the material is academic in nature, such as for example a specialized book on the socioeconomic conditions in France in the 18th century. But there is also a clear economic theme among the books and documents, which has prompted some to speculate that bin Laden was contemplating launching a financial attack against France, possibly using the stock market, which he may have hoped would spread globally. We know from other sources that bin Laden was a student of finance capitalism and that he was a highly successful entrepreneur in the lead-up to 9/11. It is certainly not illogical to assume that he was interested in using the uncontrollable and highly volatile nature of international capitalism to destabilize Western financial systems, though this is not to say that such a goal could be feasible.
Ultimately, the ODNI document release, though selective and limited, is very important in understanding al-Qaeda’s ultimate strategy, as well as its immediate tactics. Al-Qaeda is different to most other Islamist organizations, in that it has a worldwide following and global aspirations. Bin Laden’s bookshelf shows that he was still looking at ‘the big picture’ at the time of his death. There are books in there about global economics, foreign policy, climate change, food security, the Arab Spring, and many other broad topics that have worldwide ramifications. The documents are also important because they show that al-Qaeda’s leader was obsessed about how his organization was perceived in the West. He collected publicly available studies of him and of al-Qaeda by Western scholars. From its very inception, al-Qaeda has viewed public perception as the main front in the fight against the West, and these documents confirm that view.
The recent declassification is the latest in a series of similar moves by the United States government. An initial batch of documents was released in May 2012, on the first anniversary of bin Laden’s death. Al-Qaeda observers can rest assured that more such releases will occur in the coming years.
Note: A shorter version of this analysis was published in an interview format in the Russian edition of Luxemburg-based newspaper Metro News. It can be found here.