WASHINGTON — U.S. drones were decimating the upper ranks of al-Qaeda, his men were killing suspected spies, and Osama bin Laden wondered: Could an Iranian dentist have planted a tracking device in his wife’s tooth?
“The size of the chip is about the length of a grain of wheat and the width of a fine piece of vermicelli,” he wrote, using the nom de guerre Abu Abdallah.
The letter was among thousands of pages of documents and other materials seized by Navy SEALs during the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011, and it was declassified Tuesday along with 112 other pieces of writings and letters found in the al-Qaeda leader’s hide-out.
Among the newly released documents was what appeared to be a will written by bin Laden, in which he said he had about $29 million in Sudan. If he were killed, it said, he hoped his family would “obey my will and to spend all the money that I have left in Sudan on jihad.”
The documents provide a glimpse of bin Laden’s thinking during his final years and at the struggle to keep al-Qaeda’s main branch and its offshoots in line and focused as U.S. drone strikes killed the group’s senior leaders and demoralized its foot soldiers.
U.S. officials have said that the intelligence seized by the SEALs during the raid included letters, spreadsheets, books and pornography. Yet only a fraction of the materials have been declassified and released, and experts have cautioned against drawing broad conclusions until there is more.
But in what has been released so far, the fear of being tracked is a theme that resurfaces again and again. In one letter, bin Laden warns that a suitcase used to deliver a ransom could contain a tracking device.
In another letter, whose author is not clear, there is talk of men coming from Qatar with GPS devices and a map of Afghanistan. They were accompanied by a Qatari diplomat, who left three days later, saying he had diabetes and needed medication, according to the letter writer. The departure appears to have made the al-Qaeda members suspicious, and one militant identified by the pseudonym Abu Umamah “smashed it with a hammer,” the letter writer said.
The latest documents also include new details on bin Laden’s apparent struggle to impose bureaucratic uniformity across his terrorist network.
There is a document outlining the structure of a “chief of staff committee,” which it explains is “the group of officers and personnel qualified to work with a military commander.”
There is also what appears to be a course syllabus for new fighters. Titled a “Course of Islamic Study for Soldiers and Members,” it includes a list of subjects and skills to be taught (No. 1: reading and writing), a lengthy reading list that is to be taught in three sections (mostly books about Islam), and a list of lectures to be given throughout the course (subjects range from history of jihad in the Horn of Africa to “a brief word on raising children”).
In 2014, Congress directed the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to review the material and make public as much as possible. But it has been a slow process — the review began in May 2014, and it took a full year for the first set of declassified materials to be released.
The first release, in May 2015, included nearly 80 documents, books, news media clippings and other materials.
Most of the documents were notes from bin Laden and his top deputies, and they suggested that the al-Qaeda leader spent his final years seeking to direct a terrorist network that appeared to have grown far beyond his control. There was talk of training recruits, and of how to select the most talented to carry out major attacks in the West. There were discussions of whom to promote and how to deal with the group’s franchises in the Middle East and North Africa.
There were letters to loved ones, including a note to one of his wives in which bin Laden said that if he were killed, she could remarry. But he included a caveat, “I really want for you to be my wife in paradise, and the woman, if she marries two men, is given a choice on Judgment Day to be with one of them.”
The intelligence director’s office also made public a list of books found in the compound. There were sober works of history and current affairs, such as Obama’s Wars, by Bob Woodward, and wild conspiracy theories, like The Secrets of the Federal Reserve, by Eustace Mullins, a Holocaust denier.
Then there was the application for new al-Qaeda recruits, which was perhaps the oddest find in the first set of declassified materials. The application blended the mundanely bureaucratic with the frighteningly absurd, asking questions like “Do you wish to execute a suicide operation?” and “Who should we contact in case you become a martyr?”
Whether it was ever used is a question that U.S. officials have not answered.