The Lessons of the Bin Laden Documents

This week, CIA teams will arrive in Abbottabad, Pakistan, to scour Osama bin Laden’s hideout for materials that may have been hidden inside walls and under floors, as well as DNA samples and other forensic evidence that could tell us about which terrorist leaders and operatives had visited bin Laden. Pakistan also agreed to help the US analyze the millions of captured enemy documents Navy SEALs carried away from the raid—an intelligence haul that US officials describe as the largest ever recovered relating to a terrorist network.

It will take time to study these documents, but the details released so far have upturned many assumptions Americans held about the state of the al-Qaeda network. Until a few weeks ago, many analysts had concluded that bin Laden was hiding in the tribal regions of Pakistan, and was not directly involved in managing al-Qaeda’s terrorist operations. It was believed that al-Qaeda’s central leadership was having a difficult time putting together any kind of command and control, and was concentrating too much on survival to plot catastrophic attacks against the homeland. Instead, we were told, America was more likely to face only “small bore” attacks from al-Qaeda franchises—and that these groups were operating independently of bin Laden, who had become little more than an inspirational figurehead.

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Much of this, we now know, was wishful thinking. Bin Laden was hiding not in a distant cave, but in a major Pakistani city. He was not the isolated figurehead some imagined, but was in regular contact with al-Qaeda operatives across the world—delivering instructions and receiving updates on their progress. And while it is true that al-Qaeda franchises have taken on a more prominent role in recent years, according to the Associated Press the documents show that bin Laden “helped plan every recent major al-Qaida threat the U.S. is aware of” and “was communicating from his walled compound in Pakistan with al-Qaida’s offshoots, including the Yemen branch, which has emerged as the leading threat to the United States.” Indeed, the documents show that bin Laden personally approved all leadership changes for the group Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—even turning down a request by the American-born terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki to be installed as leader of the group. Moreover, we have learned that bin Laden was intensely—almost obsessively—focused on carrying out catastrophic attacks inside the United States. According to the same AP report, US officials say that in messages to his operatives bin Laden “concludes that the smaller, scattered attacks since the 9/11 attacks had not been enough. He tells his disciples that only a body count of thousands, something on the scale of 9/11, would shift U.S. policy.”

What does this teach us?

First, our complacency of recent years, though predictable, could have, if allowed to continue, led us to another calamity. It is understandable that after nearly a decade without another major attack on the homeland, Americans began to believe that the threat had receded. But we now know that, while al-Qaeda is not the organization it was in the late-1990s, it remains far more dangerous than many had come to believe. Instead of being assuaged by bin Laden’s demise, what we are learning should reignite our concern—and serve as a reminder that al-Qaeda is still working night and day to repeat the destruction of 9/11.

Second, we cannot stop al-Qaeda from carrying out that destruction with defensive measures alone. According to US officials cited in the AP report, the captured documents show that bin Laden “was well aware of U.S. counterterrorist defenses and schooled his followers how to work around them.” Case in point: the Washington Post reports that the documents reveal a “previously unknown plan to attack the U.S. commuter rail network … on this year’s 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.” This plan “was being actively considered as recently as February 2010.” In response to this revelation, some in Congress have recommended that we beef up rail security by adopting a “no ride” list for Amtrak similar to the “no fly” list the TSA employs for air travel. But the plot uncovered in bin Laden’s compound was specifically conceived to circumvent such rail security measures. Instead of using passengers as suicide bombers, the plot called for derailing a train by tampering with the rails so that it would fall off the track at either a valley or a bridge. A “no ride” list would have had no impact on the terrorist’s ability to carry out such a plot.

The documents highlight the fact that we still face a thinking enemy who is constantly adapting his tactics to overcome our defenses. And much as we wish it were otherwise, we cannot protect all places, at all times, against every possible technique. The best way to defend the homeland is to learn what the terrorists are planning ahead of time—so we can protect the right targets against the right plots, and disrupt the enemy’s plans.

This is why the manner in which President Obama carried out the bin Laden raid was so important. The safer option was clearly to send unmanned drones to destroy the compound from above. If the president had chosen that option, no one would have faulted him—but the result would have been the obliteration of bin Laden’s secret files. Instead, the president took the riskier option—putting boots on the ground to storm the compound, kill the al-Qaeda leader, and recover this treasure trove of intelligence. Thanks to the president’s courageous choice, we are now gaining unprecedented insights into al-Qaeda’s plans, structure, and operations. Had the operation gone wrong, it could have been Obama’s Desert One. Because it went right, we may uncover the intelligence to stop the next 9/11. That is the never-ending value of a balanced offense/defense game plan to secure our homeland.

James Loy, a retired Coast Guard admiral, is a senior counselor at the Cohen Group, a consultancy specializing in defense, foreign, and government affairs. He was administrator of the Transportation Security Administration from 2002 to 2003 and deputy secretary of Homeland Security from 2003 to 2005.

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