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The US just released a trove of bin Laden’s books and papers. Here’s what’s in them.

Osama bin Laden
Osama bin Laden
CNN via Getty Images)
  • The US Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) on Tuesday declassified and released more than 100 documents that were recovered from Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011.
  • The documents reveal information about al-Qaeda's inner workings and strategy, as well as bin Laden's private correspondence with his family members.
  • The release also includes a list of books found on the compound, including works by Noam Chomsky and Bob Woodward, as well as a number of conspiracy-theory texts including Bloodlines of the Illuminati and books arguing that 9/11 was an inside job.

A "trove" of documents about al-Qaeda


Javier Zarracina/Vox

On May 20, 2015, the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence released what it refers to as a "trove" of documents that were recovered from the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011. According to the ODNI, the documents were released following a review required by the 2014 Intelligence Authorization Act, and their publication is intended to align with the president’s call for increased governmental transparency.

The newly released documents offer insights into bin Laden's strategic goals for al-Qaeda, as well as his management of the terrorist organization.

The release includes 103 declassified al-Qaeda documents, as well as lists of nonclassified materials that were found in the compound, including books, think tank reports, and US government documents. (There were also a number of software manuals: apparently al-Qaeda used a lot of Adobe products.)

Most of the documents discovered in Abbottabad are still classified, and thus have not been released. The ODNI says "hundreds more" are being reviewed now, and may be declassified and released in the future.

The documents offer new insights into al-Qaeda's inner workings

Many of the newly declassified documents offer revealing insights into the inner workings of al-Qaeda as an organization. For instance, correspondence between bin Laden and Atiyah abd al-Rahman, a senior al-Qaeda official who served as a conduit between bin Laden and the rest of the top al-Qaeda leadership until he was killed by a CIA drone strike in 2011, reveals that bin Laden insisted the group's objective should be to destroy the United States, and that it would be futile to set up an Islamic state in the Middle East until that had been accomplished. That may have been a strategic error for al-Qaeda, which has recently seen its popularity eclipsed by ISIS, which promises a more immediate path to a caliphate.

Other documents reveal information about al-Qaeda's recruitment methods (an al-Qaeda job application asks would-be jihadists, "What objectives would you would like to accomplish on your jihad path?"), its case-study approach to management ("lessons learned" from the fall of the Islamic emirate), and its media strategy (bin Laden believed attacks on outlets that published cartoons of Mohammed would create fear that would encourage friendlier media coverage).

Osama bin Laden, 9/11 truther?

Perhaps the most surprising revelation in the document release is that Osama bin Laden, the leader of the organization that perpetrated the 9/11 attacks, apparently owned more than one book alleging that 9/11 was an inside job. It's impossible to know whether he actually read the books, or even if they belonged to him as opposed to another occupant of the compound, but the list was still surprising.

The book America's "War on Terrorism" is on the list of English-language texts found in the Abbottabad compound. Its main argument is that 9/11 was a US government conspiracy designed to trigger the Iraq War, and it claims that "Bin Laden's Al Qaeda network is what the CIA calls 'an intelligence asset.'" Another book, Crossing the Rubicon: The Decline of the American Empire at the End of the Age of Oil claims that then–Vice President Dick Cheney orchestrated the 9/11 attacks with the help of the Secret Service.

Yet another, New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions about the Bush Administration and 9/11, claims the Bush administration had prior knowledge of the attacks and allowed them to happen anyway, and that the twin towers were destroyed by explosives, not plane crashes.

Bin Laden — or someone he lived with — appears to have been a fan of conspiracy theories more generally, however. Other books from the compound claimed that the Illuminati invented and control Israel, and that the US Federal Reserve is the secret tool of a few powerful families who control the US economy.

The compound also contained more mainstream texts, including Bob Woodward's Obama's Wars and Charles Townshend's Oxford History of Modern War.

The entire set of released documents can be found here.