The Bin Laden Papers, by Nelly Lahoud

The documents retrieved by the US Navy SEALs provided a treasure-trove for intelligence analysts.
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The Bin Laden Papers, by Nelly Lahoud

Some years ago a wise Saudi friend implored me to read Amin Malouf’s brilliant The Crusades Through Arab Eyes. Malouf’s use of primary Arab sources cast a corrective and insightful gaze on the Arab defenders, a classic piece of revisionist history.

Now we have a unique opportunity to gaze upon the inner workings of Al Qaeda thanks to Nelly Lahoud’s analysis of the files seized in the ‘shit ton of computers’ grabbed by US Navy SEALs when they raided Bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound and assassinated him in 2011. A tactical decision was made during the raid, adding a risky eighteen minutes to the operation, to grab a stash of hard disks. Astonishingly the disks contained thousands of MS Word and .jpeg files, used by Bin Laden to record his inner thoughts, strategy, and communications, via courier, with operatives around the world.

Lahoud weaves the files into a narrative that illuminates Bin Laden’s character and style, a pernickety old man, micromanaging tiny details, not afraid to chastise operatives for deviating from Islamic law, with a penchant for Homeric analogies. Articulating a change of strategy to his followers he suggests that the conflict between Muslims and Americans is like a large river dam that floods; rather than help individuals displaced by the floods, the faithful should strive to stop the overflow in the first place.

There’s plenty of corrective revisionism here, as you’d expect from such a unique trove of source material. It turns out that 9/11 was not inspired by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as the official 9/11 Commission Report concludes. Bin Laden himself describes how, learning of the crash of Egypt Air 990 by its Egyptian pilot, he concluded that the destructive power of passenger jets could be utilised for his jihad.

Some writers have suggested that the big story to emerge from the Bin Laden Papers was the plan being developed in 2010, shortly before his assassination, to launch a new wave of maritime assaults designed to sink oil supertankers and cripple the US economy. This makes good headlines but really the most dramatic conclusion from the papers is the insight into the operational impotence of Al Qaeda in the year’s following 9/11.

Scattered to the four winds after the US invasion of Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom, Bin Laden, his Arab associates and family, find themselves in hiding and on the back foot.  Many are imprisoned in Shia Iran, incommunicado and badly treated.  The jihadis who find themselves in Pakistan’s Waziristan end up betrayed by local spies in the pay of the CIA, and repeatedly whacked by Predator drones. The papers reveal Bin Laden’s frustrations at the basic operational security failures of his followers for whom the strategy of necessary self-concealment (kumun) runs counter to the jihadi urge to go out and fight in God’s name.

If, as the papers suggest, we grossly overestimated Al Qaeda’s relevance in the decade post 9/11, as we have with Russia over the past generation, this will have led to all sorts of skewed policy based on false assumption.  The corrective insights contained in this excellent readable book merit careful attention by scholars, policy makers, soldiers, and our political leadership.

Justin Doherty is a classicist, former army officer and advisor to governments on crises and complex situations.