More than 16 years after the September 11, 2001, hijackings, America remains at war with jihadist groups around the globe. From South Asia through the heart of the Middle East and into West Africa, American forces are battling terrorist organizations that seek to control territory while threatening the West. How did we arrive at this point?
A complete history of the 9/11 wars won’t be written for decades. They haven’t been won or lost yet, so we don’t know how this story ends. But this past week, the CIA released an invaluable trove of information for understanding our enemies: a large tranche of Osama bin Laden’s files, retrieved during the May 2011 raid on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. There is perhaps no better source for understanding al Qaeda’s history and intentions than the formerly secret memos and musings of the master terrorist who launched the jihadists’ revolution.
In a newly released, 228-page handwritten journal, bin Laden reflected on his longstanding anti-Americanism. “When was your first dealing with the West? Meeting or statement?” the al Qaeda founder privately asked himself. Bin Laden answered his own question, saying that he remembered “giving a lecture in Jeddah,” Saudi Arabia, in 1986 or 1987 titled “Pains and Hopes.” “I talked about Palestine, Jews, and that we must/should hit America on its head and boycott even American apples,” bin Laden wrote.
The al Qaeda founder would later cite the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia during and after the first Gulf war as a justification for his terrorism. But privately, in his yellow-bound diary, bin Laden explained that he had wanted to strike America all along, well before the United States intervened to stop Saddam Hussein’s aggression in the region.
Bin Laden did not anticipate the ferocity of America’s response to the 9/11 attacks. His men were left to scramble for new redoubts as U.S. forces and operatives hunted them down. After the Taliban’s emirate crumbled in late 2001, the al Qaeda founder had to defend his decision to wake a sleeping giant. In one handwritten letter, presumably written by bin Laden, the author claims that Afghanistan would have been “targeted” and the Taliban “inevitably” overthrown even “without hitting the head of the infidel.” This is a dubious assertion, to say the least, as no one was talking about invading Afghanistan on September 10, 2001.
The al Qaeda leader went on to argue that the Afghan war was important for “dragging the adversary” into a conflict that would “drain it economically and break the fear of confronting the lady of the new world order,” meaning America. This contradicts bin Laden’s previous assertions about America’s alleged weakness. Bin Laden had cited the unceremonious U.S. withdrawals from Lebanon in the early 1980s and Somalia in the 1990s as evidence of the superpower’s supposed cowardice. But the al Qaeda master had a point—the U.S. government’s inconsistent approach to the Afghan conflict, which has cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars, means we are no closer to victory.
Yet the Abbottabad repository also demonstrates why it is still necessary to fight in Afghanistan, as the files document al Qaeda’s durable presence there. Bin Laden himself never lost focus on the war. One of his subordinates even translated portions of Bob Woodward’s 2010 book Obama’s Wars into Arabic so that he could understand the Obama administration’s thinking on the conflict. Regular status reports submitted up the chain of command highlight the scope of al Qaeda’s operations and enduring relationship with the Taliban.
Al Qaeda quickly exploited the 2003 war in Iraq as well. Bin Laden received numerous updates on the fighting, including audio reports from his loyalists.
In one such audio file, a jihadist known as Abu Muhammad offers a biography for Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist who publicly swore allegiance to bin Laden in 2004. Zarqawi fled Afghanistan through Iran and into Iraq. He arrived in Baghdad well before the war, according to Abu Muhammad’s summary, and from there built a network that extended into Jordan and Syria. As the Americans approached in March 2003, Zarqawi feared for his safety, so he left Iraq for Iran. The Iranians detained Zarqawi, but only temporarily. Iran told Zarqawi that he could choose from several destinations, including Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Turkey. Abu Muhammad elaborated: “Brother Abu Musab [al Zarqawi] refused these [countries] and asked them to send him to Iraq.” This supposedly “surprised the Iranians,” who wondered why Zarqawi wanted to enter the fray. But Zarqawi insisted on Iraq, and the Iranians let him have his way, according to Abu Muhammad’s telling. The rest is history.
Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who was killed in June 2006, built Al Qaeda in Iraq—the predecessor to the Islamic State, or ISIS. The newly available files are crucial for understanding the history of this group. In one audio report, for instance, an al Qaeda operative discusses the Saudi sheikhs who support the jihadists’ cause. While older Saudi clerics were less than helpful, others from the younger generation proved to be more amenable to al Qaeda’s cause. One such ideologue named in bin Laden’s files, Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Tarefe, is widely praised by the jihadists to this day.
Bin Laden remained an active manager of his far-flung network until his dying day, receiving updates from loyalists around the globe. Groups such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and al Shabaab in Somalia all sought and received his guidance. Bin Laden wanted these regional branches of al Qaeda to establish strong local support while also devoting resources to targeting Western forces. Each of those three al Qaeda groups continues to pose problems for American policymakers. The Trump administration has found it necessary to step up U.S. involvement in the countries they inhabit. Since the beginning of the year, President Trump has ramped up the air campaign in Yemen (where AQAP is headquartered), granted broader authority to U.S. forces in Somalia (where al Shabaab challenges the Western-backed government), and continued special forces operations in West Africa (where AQIM continues to thrive).
All of this is evidence that bin Laden’s anti-American jihad lives on today. It has evolved in ways he could not have anticipated, especially with the rise of ISIS, which was disowned by al Qaeda in early 2014. But there are still thousands of men willing to carry bin Laden’s torch.
The Abbottabad cache shows that al Qaeda groomed a “new generation” of leaders to replace those lost in the U.S. drone campaign. One of them is Osama’s genetic and ideological heir: Hamza bin Laden.
Since August 2015, al Qaeda has released a series of audio messages from Hamza. The group’s propagandists have been careful not to show the adult face of Osama’s son, likely fearing that it would increase the threats to his security. For instance, al Qaeda celebrated the most recent anniversary of the 9/11 attacks by superimposing a childhood photo of Hamza on one of the Twin Towers.
Thanks to one video released this week, however, we can finally see Hamza as a young adult. The video was recorded during his wedding in Iran approximately a decade ago, so it is not current. But it is much more recent than the images al Qaeda uses. Like other bin Laden family members, Hamza absconded for Iranian soil in late 2001. One 19-page file released this week notes that a senior al Qaeda ideologue known as Abu Hafs al-Mauritani negotiated with Iran to secure this post-9/11 safe haven. That same memo, likely written in 2007, indicates that Iran offered “Saudi brothers” in al Qaeda “everything they needed,” including “money, arms,” and “training in Hezbollah camps in Lebanon, in exchange for striking American interests in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.” Iran and al Qaeda had their differences, the author wrote, but their “interests intersect” when it comes to being an “enemy of America.” In a previously released memo, bin Laden had described Iran as al Qaeda’s “main artery for funds, personnel, and communication.”
Along with other bin Laden family members, Hamza was detained inside Iran at some point. The detentions became a major bone of contention between the two sides, and al Qaeda kidnapped an Iranian diplomat to force their release. There is no question that the two have been at odds at times. As additional files are translated and analyzed, we will likely learn more about Iran’s complex dealings with bin Laden’s subordinates.
Osama bin Laden has been dead for more than six years. But the jihadist revolution he launched continues. And bin Laden’s secrets—many of them now available to the public for the first time—go a long way toward explaining why.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal. Follow him on Twitter @thomasjoscelyn.
Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on twitter at @FDD.