U.S. Releases Documents From 2011 Osama Bin Laden Raid
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
They are calling it bin Laden's bookshelf. U.S. intelligence officials made public today hundreds of documents - letters, lists of books and articles - that had all been in the possession of Osama bin Laden. U.S. special operations forces seized these digital records during the raid on bin Laden's compound in Pakistan four years ago. NPR national security correspondent David Welna joins me now to talk about some of what the al-Qaida leader was reading and writing before he died. And David, first, though, why don't you talk about how much of what was seized during that raid in 2011 was released today?
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Well, Melissa, intelligence officials are calling this a sizable tranche of the entire trove of documents recovered during that raid. Some of it consists of now declassified personal communications, though. Much more of it is published material that's already available to any of us. What's interesting about those documents is that they happen to be on bin Laden's reading list. This isn't the first time documents from that raid have been released, and intelligence officials say they'll be reviewing hundreds more documents, as they put it, in the near future for possible declassification and release.
BLOCK: And what about the letters from Osama bin Laden? What was he writing about?
WELNA: Well, most of these letters were to bin Laden's field lieutenants, and a lot dealt with how al-Qaida should respond to upheaval stemming from the Arab Spring. One thing that really jumps out is how adamant bin Laden was about holding off on trying to form what he referred to as an Islamic state. He wrote one lieutenant that they should concentrate instead on attacking American embassies and oil companies in places like Sierra Leone and Togo. This was, of course, before the Islamic State actually emerged, and that group is now seen as a breakaway from al-Qaida.
Bin Laden also seemed obsessed with the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, which came four months after his death. He had hoped to pull off another spectacular attack in the U.S. before that anniversary, but it's not clear from these letters just what he had in mind.
BLOCK: Yeah. And are there specific operational details in any of these letters, David?
WELNA: Well, not operational details. He just talks about some people he thinks are not quite up to the task, whatever that task was. But he doesn't say what they had in mind.
BLOCK: We mentioned his reading list. It's called bin Laden's bookshelf, and it's a pretty fascinating collection of articles and books - quite broad.
WELNA: Yes. I think that you - looking at what he was reading, you get more of a portrait of who this person was. The bin Laden who emerges from these communications is an obsessive micromanager. He dispenses advice to his lieutenants on everything from how to end the never ending upheaval in Yemen to how best to store grain - he says in barrels not previously used for chemicals and with airtight rubber tops to keep out the bugs.
And there's even an application form presumably vetted, if not written by, bin Laden for joining al-Qaida. It has questions like, what are your hobbies or pastimes, and what is your favorite material - science or literature? And it also asks if the applicant would like to carry out a suicide attack and who should we contact in case you became a martyr? Bin Laden also writes to one of his four wives. He assures her that she's the most precious thing he has in this world and that if he gets killed, she can marry again even though he is counting on her being his wife in paradise.
BLOCK: Yeah. And lots of books and articles in this list - everything from Bob Woodward's "Obama's Wars" to a couple of books by Noam Chomsky. David, why are these documents being made public now? What's - what about the timing here?
WELNA: Well, as I mentioned, some documents had been released before, but last year Congress passed a law ordering the intelligence community to review the documents for release to the public. And officials say they'd been working on that for the last six months. But there's also the fact that these documents are coming out the week after investigative reporter Seymour Hersh published a story alleging that the U.S. fabricated the documents it claims to have seized during the raid. U.S. officials say today's release had nothing to do with trying to knock down that story, which the White House says was riddled with inaccuracies.
BLOCK: OK. So they're saying the timing completely coincidental on that.
WELNA: That's what they're saying.
BLOCK: OK. NPR's David Welna - we were talking about new documents released today seized during the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound four years ago. David, thanks so much.
WELNA: You're welcome.
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