The Bureaucracy of Terror

New Secret Documents Reveal al Qaeda's Real Challenges

A combination of images shows various takes of Osama bin Laden from videos released by the Pentagon, May 7, 2011. Reuters

A new trove of documents that were among those seized in the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, were presented recently during the trial of Abid Naseer at the Brooklyn federal district court.

The documents—which consist of correspondence between Osama bin Laden and senior al Qaeda leaders—reveal the state of the global terror operation in the months leading up to bin Laden’s death. They paint a picture of an organization crippled by the U.S. drone campaign, blindsided by the Arab Spring, and struggling to maintain control over its affiliates—and yet still chillingly resolute in its mission to strike inside the United States.

The documents offer some insight into the effectiveness of U.S. counterterrorism efforts against al Qaeda. They also, believe it or not, provide a few laughs.


First, the documents support the argument that U.S. President Barack Obama and other proponents of the drone program have made that the strikes are effective and that the U.S. drone program is heavily constrained. 

The letters show that the tactic of targeting top al Qaeda leaders had profoundly crippled the organization. In one letter, Atiyya, a key Al Qaeda leader and strategist who was killed not long after these letters were written, laments to bin Laden, “The mid-level commands and the staff members are hurt by the killings. Compensating for the loss is going slowly, God grants aid, and the ongoing war of espionage does not give us much chance…Our current view of the situation: we need to reduce operations and activities, focus on ‘persevering and survival.’ We will focus on defensive security (counterespionage) by focusing on striking the spy plane bases using special operations, and on patience, persistence, hiding as well as decreasing our presence at least this year because it is an important year.”

The documents also provide some support for Obama’s argument that the United States does not undertake drone strikes casually but rather only

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